The Key to Engaging Young Adults is…

Havurah is a roving young adult outreach program run by Masorti Judaism in the London area. Led by Rabbi Oliver Joseph, who serves as its Rabbi and an organizer, Havurah has seen incredible growth over the past five years and currently runs two separate steams of young adult programming each month.

Rabbi Oliver Joseph is a product of the Masorti movement through and through. Having grown up in the NOAM youth movement, he trained for five years at the Conservative Yeshiva and Hartman Institute in Jerusalem before finishing his rabbinical studies at the Ziegler school in Los Angeles. Since his ordination, he has worked full time for Masorti Judaism – with focus in the communities of Elstree and Borehamwood Masorti Community, the Havruah, Leeds Masorti, NOAM and Marom.

Havurah, which Rabbi Oliver translates from Hebrew roughly as “friendship group” was formed five years by a group of former NOAM members, ages 25-35. What was significant was that although all of these people had grown up in the NOAM youth movement and had been leaders themselves, they were not affiliated with Masorti at the time, nor had they joined synagogues. Like many successful initiatives for Jewish young adults, the group has always focused on its activities as opposed to defining itself. Rabbi Joseph laughs and says that if you want to form a successful community for young adults, you need to “get programming on the calendar and shape your ideology later”.

Havurah started as a group revolving around learning and teaching, gathering only for Holiday celebrations and the occasional Friday night dinner. Over time, the group evolved to include more cultural and religious celebrations, and they have increased the regularity of their meetings to the point where they now run monthly Shabbatot. In addition to the monthly meetings, there is also programming for Sukkot, Pesach and Hanukkah. This past year they added a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and for the first time, they are now planning to hold High Holy Day services on Rosh Hashanah.

In time, Havurah outgrew its initial format. With more members getting married and having children, they felt the need to hold two separate groups—Havurah Classic which retains the young adult focus and Havurah Families for young families. Monthly events for both groups are hosted in members’ homes, and are held all across London. While participation in Havurah events is somewhat limited by the sizes of the homes where services are held, both groups can attract up to 50 people per event.

Study sessions (which along with prayer form the two pillars of Havurah) aim to make Judaism relevant to their audience. Study sessions at Havurah Classic focus on themes such as charity, the environment, asylum seekers, Brexit and future of UK-Israel relations—issues that are relevant to members’ lives, but approached at Havurah from a Jewish perspective. Rabbi Joesph always tries to throw in a mix of God and religion and a bit of theology too. He wants people who attend these sessions to form their own understanding of how we think as Jews and their own individual Jewish journeys.

When asked about what a typical month with Havurah looks like, Rabbi Joseph assured me that there is no such thing as “typical”. However, he says that there is usually a Friday night dinner with Havurah Classic held at the home of a first-time host followed by a pot luck dinner. He will lead the Kabbalat Shabbat service himself, which is followed by dinner, a 40-60-minute learning session on a preselected topic, and then Birkat HaMazon before people head homes. A good month may also feature a mid-week learning session.

Havurah Families is understandably more chaotic, but the overall structure is similar. The group sometimes meets for a Havdalah service or sometimes meet on Sunday mornings, with a typical session having around 15 adults and 25-35 children. One key difference between Havurah Families and Havurah Classic is that both the prayers and the learning at the family version is almost all lay-led. A recent learning session focused on Tikkun Olam and children made meals of sandwiches and boiled eggs which they dropped off the refugee drop-in center—a safe haven where asylum seekers in need of food and services can go.

The main challenge of Havurah Families is differentiating the content, with the realization that the group contains children ages 2-12. A central focus for all ages in this group is to align weekly activities with the Jewish calendar. Since not all children in the group are enrolled in Jewish school, it is crucial that they get the sense of the Jewish year and the cycle of holidays from Havurah.

Another unique thing about Havurah is that its publicity is nearly all by word of mouth. They have eschewed social media in favor of this tried and true method, and despite this, they continue to fill up their services with young adults. Rabbi Joseph believes that young people are excited to try new things, and it doesn’t take much to bring people to an event—so long as it is the right event. He gauges Havurah’s success by its ability to break out of the circle of NOAM alumni and reach the wider audience in the London area. “We never intended for Havurah to be a NOAM reunion group” says Rabbi Joseph. And reunion group it is not. These days, 70% of the participants are not NOAM alumni, and it draws young Londoners and families of all stripes, denominations and nationalities—Brits and American and Israeli expats alike.

One interesting aspect of Havurah is that while it seeks to form communities, its greater goal is to form mini-communities within the existing larger communities. The organization is supported by Masorti Judaism—the Conservative Movement in Britain—and is not intended to be a separate synagogue or providing competition with the existing communities. “We have no desire to reinvent the wheel in every generation” says Rabbi Joseph. The goal of Havurah is outreach and involving young, serious Jews who have yet to discover an attractive framework in which they feel comfortable embracing their Jewishness. “Havurah is based around the question of how to build community outside the walls of the synagogue. Its aim is to bring community into people’s homes in a much more substantial way, including Shabbat meals and Jewish learning. It helps people to bring their Judaism home and making it a part of their everyday lives.”

For more information on Havurah, or for information on upcoming services, write to Rabbi Oliver Joseph: oliver@masorti.org.uk