What holds them together is a mystery; the Union County-based circle of friends who simply call themselves “the havura” live in different towns and belong to different congregations and denominations. But whatever their secret, the six couples have been going strong for 26 years and appear closer than ever.
Asked if the key is leadership, the members look at one another and laugh; the consensus answer: “We really don’t have a leader.”
If there is one binding factor, they agreed, it is simply this: Pleasure, mixed with just the right amount of disagreement. “We just really enjoy getting together,” said Ruth Margolin, an education administrator from Westfield.
And while no one is in charge, they all attribute that notion that Judaism should be enjoyable to the man who brought them together, Rabbi Samuel Rosenberg. It was his easy-going, inclusive approach that drew them to the discussion group he initiated back in 1987.
“The way of the Torah should be pleasurable,” he said, paraphrasing Psalms, and added, “If people don’t enjoy the practice of religion, they turn away from it.”
Now retired from the pulpit and working part-time as a psychotherapist, Rosenberg started the group when he was leader of the Elmora Hebrew Center in Elizabeth. “We had many young couples, and I wanted to find a way to get them more involved,” he said, relaxing on the couch in the Cranford home of Julie and Allen Barkin, hosts for that evening.
The members invited in friends from other congregations. Two couples left, and everyone else stayed, even as they got dispersed in other ways. Laurie and Peter Gruber, who live in Hillside, belong to the JEC’s Congregation Adath Israel in Elizabeth; the Barkins, couples David Levenberg and Linda Ershow Levenberg and Donald Shapiro and Nancy Lubarsky belong to Temple Beth-El Mekor Chayim in Cranford, and Margolin and her husband Michael attend Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains. The diversity, they said, is part of the attraction.
Though initially Rosenberg suggested texts to discuss and provided some talmudic guidance, he insisted on simply being one of the group. The others call him Shmuel. When he arrived late at the Barkins, after seeing a patient, there was an exclamation of “Speak of the devil…,” met with a big grin from him.
The Margolins, then recently settled in New Jersey and members of a Reform congregation, were among the last to join. Ruth got talking to Julie on the train into Manhattan. “I knew right away that this was just the kind of Jewish connection we wanted,” she said.
Julie recalled, “I came home and told Allen I’d met this woman who wanted to exchange phone numbers. I said, ‘What if she’s weird?’ He said, ‘Maybe she was just being friendly.’”
The Elmora center closed in 2010, and Rosenberg and his second wife, Eve Hecht, became members of the Jewish Educational Center’s Elmore Avenue Synagogue, and stayed just as involved with the havura. Unusually, for a dozen people, there have been no major changes other than theirs: no divorces or deaths or moves out of the area.
They all take the monthly meeting dates seriously — either Sunday brunch or an evening get-together. Only a sick child or unavoidable work commitment keeps them away. On this occasion Paul Gruber was absent but his wife Laurie was in attendance.
“Sometimes, I’ve felt lazy about going – but I’m always glad I did,” Julie said. They take turns at hosting, and though not everyone keeps kosher, they provide only kosher food.
Argument is the norm, but within bounds. Allen and David clashed briefly, which drew a wave of laughter. “They always disagree,” Ruth said, “but it never gets too heated.”
“Having different views is what makes it interesting,” David said.
Even when asked about their political affiliations, things stayed cool — though evidently there were some slivers of conflict. “Remember how that one guy used to argue?” Donald said. His wife, Nancy, added, “He contradicted everything to the point where we’d just end up saying, ‘Well, there’s no point in discussing that any further.” He was one of those who left.
Basically, they said, they explore “intentionality” and how to apply Halacha — Jewish law — to daily life. Topics have ranged from the subprime mortgage crisis, to the kosher slaughterhouse scandals, and gun control. A discussion about lashon hara, or gossip, they say, permanently put a damper on shmoozing about other people.
However, an exception was made when Eve Hecht mentioned that her daughter had met a very nice guy. A general “Oooh,” went up, and “Tell us more!” as if they were all adoring relatives.
In the beginning, a few of the couples had babies; others hadn’t yet started their families. When asked how many kids they have in total, they had to pause and count: 17 in all, with five grandchildren. Though they’ve shared in one another’s b’nei mitzvas, graduations, and weddings, as Julie said, “It hasn’t been about the kids, but we’ve always been aware and concerned about each other’s kids.”
“They grew up knowing about the havura and seeing the people come to our houses for meetings, and we’re very glad they’ve seen this model of Jewish engagement,” Ruth said. She, like the others, has been delighted to find the next generation getting involved in Jewish activities, in ways of their own. Many have been summer camp counselors at the Union Y, and went on to join Hillels at college.
Rosenberg said he is satisfied that his initial goal has been fulfilled. Unlike some havurot, formed as an alternative to attending regular services, the members have become more frequent attendees at their respective synagogues, and generally more observant. They have also taken on leadership roles with their congregations and community organizations.
For example, three members of the group are on the board of Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, and the Levenbergs have both served as president of the YM-YWHA of Union County; Allen Barkin has been president of the JCC of Central NJ, and Ruth Margolin was sisterhood president at Beth Israel.
“The children have seen their parents learning, and they’ve seen them taking on a greater involvement with the community,” Rosenberg said, beaming at his friends. And they have enjoyed sharing the path so much, when asked how long they plan to continue the group, the answer was a clear chorus: “As long as we can.”