Highbrow chavurah

With visiting professors and rabbis speaking on such topics as Jews in California and women in biblical literature, one East Bay chavurah moves far beyond the typical Shabbat shmooze.

For the last 15 years, the Federation Havurah has dedicated itself to advancing Jewish scholarship.

Typically, a chavurah is a social gathering of congregants from one particular synagogue. But in this East Bay chavurah, the leaders of the Jewish community gather monthly to eat, study and discuss current events.

It’s been bringing together lay leaders of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay. The main purpose behind the group is to give leaders a shared background of knowledge they can draw on while making decisions that their positions require.

“For most of us, our Jewish education ended with a bar or bat mitzvah,” said Ilene Weinreb, a founding member of the Federation Havurah.

“The chavurah has deepened my knowledge of Judaism, the intellectual side. We’ve got excellent speakers and teachers.”

At each session, the chavurah gathers in a member’s house for a vegetarian dinner. Afterward, they listen to speakers and discuss the month’s topic. Members receive a course reader at the beginning of the year, and all are expected to complete the assigned reading for each event. The chavurah meets once a month, January through June, and then has an off-season until the following year. While some members meet informally during that period, there are no official group events.

Jo-Ann Jacobson, who has chaired the group for 13 years, says that by studying together, federation leaders can learn to apply Jewish values to their decisions.

“When we give out grants, we look at which needs of the community are we serving,” asks Jacobson. “One of the things we’ve funded recently is a mourning group, and our tradition teaches us to take care of the widow and the orphan.”

Since the federation also has to make decisions about funding various groups in Israel, events like last year’s talk on education in Israel by Professor Hanan Alexander are invaluable to members, says Rabbi Glenn Karonsky, who heads the federation’s Center for Jewish Living and Learning and plans the group’s curriculum.

“When you have an event like that, and the federation is called on to make decisions about supporting different causes in Israel, leaders can [draw on information from] that session,” says Karonsky.

Jacobson says the group is open to new members, and is not exclusive. But, since the group meets in members’ homes, the current membership of about 40 is all they can allow. Turnover is low — only two new members joined this year, and many of the members have been around since the group’s founding.

While Jacobson stresses the group is meant for leaders in the Jewish community, she hastens to add that they’ve never

turned anyone away. Although the majority of membership is federation-affiliated, the group also includes leaders from other organizations, like Hillel presidents, or congregational leaders.

When it started, the chavurah was part of a program called CLAL, to educate leaders in the Jewish community. At that time, the group brought out experts from the East Coast to speak and study Torah with the group. Now, there’s more reliance on homegrown talent.

Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, Rabbi Emeritus Shelley Waldenberg of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, and Fred Rosenbaum, a historian and founder of Lehrhaus Judaica, are some of the local teachers the group relies on to return year after year.

While Jacobson and Karonsky can’t be sure, they have a feeling that the Federation Havurah is unique in both its educational depth and its inclusiveness.

“This federation has a commitment to Jewish learning that is unique,” says Karonsky. “This community is very intimate — all denominational affiliations feel welcome at the chavurah.”

Marjorie Wolf, a former East Bay federation president and longtime chavurah member, says the group is “pretty bonded,” owing to the fact that members eat and socialize together as well as study.

“It’s not just learning, it’s socializing too,” says member Ilene Weinreb.

Because the group brings in speakers and involves study materials, participants pay tuition for the season. One of the events the group is involved in, the Marvin and Ilene Weinreb annual tribute program, is endowed by the federation’s Jewish Community Foundation.

With so many federation movers and shakers at the dinner table, members say it can be hard to avoid discussing federation business over the meal.

“We try not to,” says Wolf. “It’s to learn and be together — that’s the purpose.”