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The Do-It-Yourself congregation – Stamford chavurah turns 25

By Cindy Mindell

circle of friendsSTAMFORD – The story of Chavurat Am Echad starts during the baby bust of the early ‘80s, when a group of young Jewish families in Stamford was looking for a comfortable place to pray.

“There was a definite lack at that time of children’s services in any synagogue in Stamford,” recalls Meryl Gordon, who had moved to the area with her husband David in 1980. “We all had young kids and we had all gotten thrown out of synagogues because of our kids. When we started agitating for services for our kids, nobody wanted to do it.”

Public schools were closing due to dwindling student numbers; Congregation Agudath Sholom had let its last youth director go in 1980.

“We all belonged to one synagogue or another, and some of us would be asked by other parents not to show up [with our toddlers and babies] on a specific Shabbat because of their kid’s bar mitzvah,” says Rhonna Rogol, who was raising three children with husband Brian.

The Gordons and Rogols, whose kids all attended Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, were craving a traditional egalitarian Shabbat-morning service, something they had known at Camp Ramah and in New York City minyanim, but was missing from the Stamford Jewish scene at the time.

The deciding moment unfolded on the Gordons’ porch, in a conversation between the two couples. “Rhonna said, ‘We can’t change the world but we can change this,’” Meryl Gordon recalls.

The four set up a steering committee and the resulting group of affiliated and unaffiliated Jews debated a name for the new chavurah. At first, they tried to cobble together an aggregate that represented the various Stamford congregations.

“We were trying to bridge barriers and give a sense of unity and openness and ‘all together’ from different denominations and backgrounds,” recalls Rogol.

But the group met with resistance from the established synagogues, whose leadership was reluctant to publicize the new congregation.

The group would meet monthly in one another’s homes, for Shabbat morning services and children’s services, holiday gatherings, and lifecycle celebrations. Their first Torah scroll and siddurim came from Temple Beth Israel in Derby when that synagogue merged with Congregation Or Shalom in Orange. In 1998, the Gordons purchased a refurbished Torah scroll for the chavurah and built an Ark to house it. Members still recall the Simchat Torah celebration a few years ago that packed the Rogols’ Stamford home so full that the dancing spilled out onto the street.

This year marks the chavurah’s 25th anniversary. There’s been a lot of schlepping, Meryl Gordon says, to get the Torah and prayer books from one host’s home to another. There have also been a lot of changes in local Jewish life – most notably for this group, a plethora of traditional egalitarian services and family-friendly programming.

For example, when Rabbi Joshua Hammerman took over as senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in the early ‘90s, he revamped Shabbat morning services into a more traditional, participatory model and also invited the chavurah to hold its own monthly Shabbat services there. Between the two services, family involvement increased at the synagogue, with some Am Echad participants becoming active members of Beth El.

The chavurah waned for a few years and picked up again in the late ‘90s, growing by word of mouth and drawing members of varying Jewish backgrounds from Stamford and Greenwich, as well as Norwalk, Trumbull, and as far away as Southbury. Many are also congregants of area synagogues.

Now that the founders’ kids are grown and younger families can choose from a range of services, what keeps Chavurat Am Echad going?

“To me, these services have been as much about the social interaction as the religious experience,” says founding member Paul Bashan. “It feels hamish – in many ways, it’s probably more similar to the way the shtiebel [small prayer-house] used to be in the ‘Old Country.’ And it’s still more participatory than a lot of synagogue services, because it’s a people’s service led by laypeople, with Torah-reading and drash by the members. Everybody knows everybody and knows what’s going on in each other’s family. We fill a certain need or void for people who want to feel that they’re not just participating, but influencing.”

The intimate, interactive forum is a place where people feel comfortable, says Bashan, who grew up in a secular Socialist-Zionist home in Israel. “No one is judging or scrutinizing them: are they saying the right words? Are they standing up at the right times? It’s not about ‘I can read faster’ or ‘I know better than you.’ People come from knowing very little to being very knowledgeable. When you sit in a semicircle in somebody’s house, it’s easier to discuss the drash; anyone can ask what they might think is a stupid question and nobody minds.”

The chavurah’s upcoming monthly meetings, open to the community, include:

Shabbat, Oct. 11, 9:30 a.m.: Traditional egalitarian service and potluck lunch

Shabbat, Nov. 8, 3 p.m.: Discussion and Seudah Shlishit

Shabbat, Dec. 13, 9:30 a.m.: Traditional egalitarian service and potluck lunch​

 

Info/RSVP: Rhonna Rogol, rhonna.w.rogol@gmail.com.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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