Joys of chavurah &mdash aka the Jewish party thing

There were many meaningful Shabbats for me in 2005. One, however, stood out from the rest. I was at Alameda’s non-kosher beach, Crab Cove, at an outdoor concert. The chavurah to which I belong was meeting there because the concert fell on the second Friday of the month — our regular get-together night.

A bouquet of purple balloons marked our spot on the wide expanse of lawn amidst an enormous crowd of people. Our meeting’s host had thought ahead so I didn’t have to wander around, calling out, “Jews of Alameda!” or stop to ask someone, “Excuse me, but have you seen the Jewish people?”

The food spread was impressive, and sure, it’s one of the reasons I keep going. That night we had fresh Vietnamese shrimp rolls, (unintentionally keeping with the Crab Cove non-kosher theme), my husband, the cook in our family, roasted a chicken, there were heirloom tomato salads, kid-friendly pizza and chocolate desserts were plentiful. But it wasn’t only the food that brought me there. It was the sense of connection, of affiliation, the tangible reminder that there are many different ways to be Jewish in the Bay Area.

My daughter, more interested in the beach than the blues band, waded into the shallow water and called for me to come help her search for crabs. We jumped in the little waves; the bright green moss wrapped around our feet like wet socks. We didn’t light candles that night — it was too windy, but I like that we spent Shabbat outside in nature and with the company of friends — a few whom I’ve known a long time, others brand new.

Chavurah was not yet a word that was part of my daughter’s vocabulary. Instead she referred to the monthly gatherings as “the Jewish party thing.” (Recently, while attempting to differentiate between all the boys named Evan that she knows, she described one as “the Evan from that Jewish party thing we go to.”)

I like that to her a chavurah is a party. I can see her point. There’s the food, drinks in ice coolers, children she gets to run around with, and there are even balloons when we’re at the non-kosher beach. What makes it Jewish is that we light the candles, say a blessing or two and eat challah. She no doubt overhears grownups talking about the bar or bat mitzvah they did or didn’t have, and she may catch snippets of conversations about how someone celebrates or doesn’t celebrate an upcoming Jewish holiday. Not every parent at the chavurah is Jewish. Many of us are interfaith. And that night at Crab Cove was the first meeting my husband was able to attend.

The group, which began earlier in the year, is still in its infancy — and so are many of its constituents. It currently consists of a dozen families, mostly from Alameda. Group founder Tracy Becker, the non-Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage and a mother of two small boys, says she was seeking more info about Judaism.

She discovered that most interfaith families didn’t know how to move forward religiously — but that no way was right or wrong. That it varied couple to couple and family to family, and sometimes even year to year.

Between Chanukah and Christmas 2004, she called Dawn Kepler of Building Jewish Bridges, an interfaith outreach program. “I found myself balling my head off, not knowing where I fit in,” Becker explained. Kepler hooked her up with “A Taste of Judaism” mini-course in Alameda, which inspired Becker to put together a group of Jewish friends. Through word of mouth, the chavurah began.

On the way home from the Crab Cove concert that night, my daughter hummed “Sholem Aleichem” from her booster seat, my husband told me he met someone at the gathering who’s led a parallel life — born in New Jersey, grew up in Los Angeles, came north to go to Cal and stayed in the East Bay. They also discovered that they are both non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages. It’s not something they discussed much, perhaps that will come later.

But, I was just happy that he wanted to come back with me to this Jewish party thing, where he feels a sense of connection, too.

Joanne Catz Hartman, who lives in Oakland, can be reached at [email protected].