Weekend retreat on chavurah Judaism to begin Dec. 22

The social upheavals of the late '60s and early '70s spawned the chavurah movement, which took a fresh look at Judaism through small, self-directed prayer and study groups.

Once an earmark of alternative Judaism, chavurot have proliferated, finding a home in mainstream synagogues as well as in beanbag-strewn Berkeley living rooms.

The National Havurah Committee, which has been hosting weeklong summer study and celebration events for the past 22 years, will hold a regional West Coast retreat from Friday, Dec. 22 to Sunday, Dec. 24 at UAHC Camp Newman in Santa Rosa. The regional retreat at the Reform movement camp follows a similar event in Southern California last year at Camp Ramah in Ojai.

"The idea is to provide a variety of things for a variety of tastes," said organizing committee member and Northern California point-person Max Weinryb. "It's a chance for people to try things they may or may not have thought about beforehand. They get to dip their toe in and think about things."

According to Weinryb, the keywords for the weekend are "eclectic, eclectic, eclectic." While it may not be possible to simultaneously engage "black hats and militant secularists," Weinryb and the retreat's organizers have culled the nation for instructors of a wide variety of conventional and unconventional Jewish teachings.

Learning sessions scheduled for next weekend's retreat include "The Kabbalah of Aikido" led by Rabbi (and black belt) Daniel Kohn of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon and "Making Bedtime Jewish" with educator Nina Gelman-Gans of Santa Barbara.

Other local instructors include Weinryb, a Berkeley resident, who will lead a study of classic Jewish texts; Carol Delton of Oakland, who will explore gender and metaphor in Jewish liturgy; Tsvi Bar-David of San Francisco, who will focus on psalms for personal healing; and Dvora Yanow of Menlo Park, who will be looking at Genesis and Numbers.

"One of the things chavurah people do is blend Jewishness with other parts of their lives that people might not think go together. But Jewishness informs everything about life, so it makes sense to do these comparative works," said organizing committee member Amy Shevitz.

"What makes [retreats] distinctive is what could be called a 'chavurah-style' of learning," said Yanow, a Cal State Hayward professor of public administration and also the department chair. "Note, I didn't say 'teaching' — because chavurah style casts what in other contexts would be called the teacher or professor in the role of learner as well."

Yanow, a founding co-director of Cal State Hayward's center for Jewish studies, will be teaching — and learning — in a course entitled "Counting Heads, Counting Tribes: Reading Numbers to Re-Read Genesis."

Within the course, she examines the correlation between God's command to Abraham (formerly Avram) in Genesis to "get yourself out of your land, your birthplace and your father's house," and a similar three-part command in Numbers in which Moses is ordered to take a census of the people.

"Rabbis have asked why [the command to Abraham is split] into three, and in that particular order. It's a descending order in terms of largest division to smallest division, broadest to narrowest," said Yanow. "But those who take a psychological approach see it as going from the easiest to leave to the most difficult to leave — presumably it's easier to leave one's land than one's parents' home."

Pondering this three-part division, Yanow was struck by the eerily similar divisions of Moses' census — the people on the whole, the tribes and, finally, individual households.

"In my mind, as we look at both of these verses, it's a way of talking about our identity as Jews," Yanow explained. "What's the source of our belonging? I think comparing the census passages with the Genesis verse really allows us to explore what is this attachment to the Land of Israel."

And considering the wide variety of people who figure to attend the retreat, Yanow and the other instructors probably have some interesting discussions in their near futures.

"The emphasis is on creating an atmosphere in which people feel empowered to take responsibility for their own Jewish lives," said Shevitz. "We want people to say, 'Gee whiz, I can do this.'"

All meals at Camp Newman will be kosher dairy, with vegetarian options available. A variety of accommodations are available. Fees are $180 to $285 for adults, $125 for teens, $90 for children 3 to 12 and $55 for children under 3.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.