Families found roots of Jewish connections in 20-year chavurah

None of the 10 couples was acquainted until 1977, when Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth introduced them. From Eastern roots and Conservative observance to high-tech professional ties, they had much in common.

Yet outside their circle, "We were strangers in a strange land," recalled member Morey Schapira. "If you look at the bonds that have linked Jewish communities together for years, you have the family and the synagogue. We didn't have immediate family so we treated each other as such."

The group declared itself a chavurah. They began to meet occasionally for an oceanside service or holiday potluck. The unmarried couples married. Several moved into the same apartment building.

That was 20 years ago. During their annual Pesach seder this year, members broke homemade matzah, toasted their anniversary and noted how numerous they had become. Sipping kosher grape juice at card tables across the room sat their 24 children aged 4 to 18.

"Tube steaks, anyone? Get your hot tube steaks, here," called out Barbara Schapira with a plate full of hot dogs. Kids' hands shot into the air. Clearly, imaginary bites from a giant horseradish root, passed like a rubber chicken from table to table, had not satiated the youngsters.

Through Shabbat dinners, b'nai mitzvah, births and deaths, the members say their chavurah filled the void of kinship and provided a network of support while raising children. It has shown their kids the importance of Jewish community in the face of assimilation.

The latter point was not lost on the parents that night. The seder would be the last one at home for four of the oldest kids who will go to college in the fall.

"I think our children will be assimilated by Eastern Jewry," joked one father about some of their East Coast destinations. Everyone laughed, but the unpopular topic came up again during casual conversation and in the seder questions — "How will you keep from assimilating?" "How will you handle sexual liberation?" "Will you seek Jewish community on campus?"

The youths reassured their parents that they would seek out Jewish life on campus. Most were eager to form chavurot of their own.

"It's like having 20 cousins," said Debbie Schapira, Morey and Barbara's 18-year-old daughter. "We all have fun. And there's always someone there."

That support has helped chavurah members through some of life's grittier passages. Certainly, none was unscathed by the premature death of member Dale Pierson, who six years ago succumbed to terminal cancer.

His wife, now Suzie Pierson Kashinsky, and their two young children were devastated when he died only a few months after the diagnosis. Chavurah members sat shiva when he passed. Prayers were said and promises made. They set up a college trust for Jennie, now 16, and little Zachary, who was only 3 but old enough to fear his father's deathbed.

Kashinsky recalls the ordeal, not without tears: "The chavurah was my rock, more so than my [extended] family."

In the ensuing five years, the chavurah fathers became surrogate dads for Zach, now 9. Kashinsky continued to frequent the group's activities solo. She was never a third wheel to the others. And when she remarried, there was no happier family than they.

Whether scattering dirt on a grave or picking up kids from school, chavurah members relied on one another more with every passing year.

They consulted over fussy babies, Israel trips and summer camps, and recruited a Hillel counselor to advise their eldest about campus life.

Morey Schapira and Andy Newman continue to plan kid-oriented text readings for holidays and other rituals. Kashinsky bakes the challot. Barbara Schapira has been the group financial adviser. And the Abramowitzes bought a bigger house to hold the chavurah's growing brood on Passover.

The kids have their responsibilities, too. With their improvised holiday plays and raucous Jewpardy matches, they've been the entertainment.

"We're all mensches," Barbara Schapira said. "If you were in a bind, you had no qualms about calling someone at 2:30 a.m. and saying, `Help.' "

Adds husband Morey, "Life is so busy, we take for granted our support systems will be there, and they often aren't.

"We just had another bat mitzvah and everybody was there. The parents are watching the kids and how they are interacting with each other. They're good buddies, and it's quite nice to see."

Like parents when their children leave the nest, members will undoubtedly re-examine their chavurah after the last of the kids flies the coop.

"Then," Morey Schapira said, "will come the final part of the lifecycle."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.