Chavurah’s diversity keeps it going strong at 43
Los Angeles Jews are often viewed by outsiders as a rootless people, constantly on the move, caged in their cars and with relationships that are both ephemeral and superficial.
Whether or not one buys this thumbnail evaluation, there is at least one exception to the stereotype. It is a chavurah that this year marks its 43rd anniversary with no loosening of the bonds of friendship, long strengthened by joint intellectual explorations.
Even after the passage of more than four decades, the 24 members — eight of whom are from the original 1970 group — show no signs of mental slowdown, though physically the passage of time has left its inevitable marks.
Recently, the chavurah met for its annual weekend retreat, and after a welcoming Kabbalat Shabbat and dinner, the group dug into the meaty topic of “Joseph Soloveitchik and David Hartman: Two Unorthodox Orthodox Jewish Philosophers.”
From Friday afternoon through Sunday morning, participants engaged in five study sessions, led by Bernard Steinberg, vice president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, who also assigned copious reading material.
The Sunday closing session opened with an (unscheduled) poem by Rochelle Ginsburg, which concluded with, “As we deepen our knowledge it’s abundantly clear/ That we’ve just scratched the surface in 43 years/ Our teachers have brought us a long way, we know/ Yet there is no doubt we have a long way to go.”
Lively discussions ensued over whether the injunction to take “an eye for an eye” is to be taken literally or figuratively, as well as the difference between positive and negative freedom, and the weekend concluded with a full-throated sing-out of “Shalom Chaverim.”
The Hebrew word “chavurah” (also spelled havurah) is generally translated as “fellowship” and stands for a small group of like-minded people who come together periodically for joint study of their heritage and for social interaction.
Chavurot, in their present form and purpose, were first established by Rabbi Harold Schulweis at Valley Beth Shalom. They usually evolve among congregants at a specific synagogue, seeking within a congregation a more intimate and focused grouping for religious and social expression.
This chavurah, founded by eight couples in 1970, is different, and not only because of its odd name: The West Los Angeles Profits. That moniker goes back to the group’s early days, when it scheduled a retreat with the study focus on the Jewish Prophets.
“For the weekend, we booked the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, where the management didn’t know from ‘prophets’ and seemed worried that we were some weird religious cult,” said Rochelle Ginsburg, who, with her husband, Eli Ginsburg, was among the founding pioneers.
“So, in a play of words, we changed ‘prophets’ to ‘profits,’ and the name stuck,” she explained.
“What makes our group unique, besides its longevity, is that we’re not affiliated with any specific institution and our members are secular, Reform and Conservative Jews,” observed Ginsburg, formerly principal of the Stephen S. Wise Elementary School and assistant principal of Hawthorne School in Beverly Hills
“I don’t know of any other such group, self-financed and dedicated solely to study. Of course we socialize, but we’re not a social club, and although we eat, we’re not an eating club.”
The basic annual schedule has not changed since the group’s formation, with six biweekly sessions between the High Holy Days and Chanukah, six more sessions in the spring, followed by the three-day retreat in May or June.
Chavurah members are mainly active or retired professionals, including academicians, community leaders and lay officers from such prominent, and generally liberal, congregations as the Wilshire Boulevard, Sinai and Emanuel temples and Valley Beth Shalom. The bulk of the membership is from West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, but a few come from Manhattan Beach and Studio City.
Members contribute to cover the chavurah’s expenses, including substantial fees for the speakers and such retreat venues as Breuer Conference Center at Camp Hess Kramer.
The list of some 60 session leaders and speakers since 1970 reads like a who’s who of the region’s rabbis and scholars, with the standard set by the late Harold Friedman, former executive director of Temple Emanuel, a scholar, historian and the go-to session leader during the chavurah’s first two decades.
At the conclusion of the recent retreat, nine of the most veteran and active members met with a Journal reporter to explore the chavurah’s secret of longevity and its prospects for the future.
Sitting in an informal semicircle in the living room of a Beverly Hills home, the participants included both Ginsburgs — Eli Ginsberg is an endocrinologist; veteran community leaders and philanthropists Abner and Roslyn Goldstine; and Gerald (Jerry) Bubis, an elder statesman of Jewish communal service and of the Israel peace camp, along with his wife, Ruby.
Also present was Sally Shafton, the group’s chief organizer, who, with her husband, attorney Bob Shafton, was among the group’s early prime movers; community leader Rhea Coskey; and Kurt Smalberg, past president of Sinai Temple and one of the group’s more recent members.
Some of the founding members reminisced about the changes in the chavurah and in their own lives over 43 years. At the first meetings, all were young couples building their careers and families, while now their ages range from the early 70s to the late 80s.
By virtue of the chavurah’s long history and its members’ standing in the community, the group does not lack for potential new members or speakers, who are selected mainly through personal recommendations.
In that sense, “We’re a kind of ‘secret’ society,” Sally Shafton said. “I’ve dropped out of other Jewish groups because of the pettiness and infighting. Here we have total respect for each other. We want to hear what the other person has to say.”
Among the veteran members, the incentives for joining and staying with the chavurah varied in emphasis but frequently hit the same general points in remarks occasionally paraphrased and shortened in this article.
Jerry Bubis argued that “there is nothing like it in this city. We’ve never settled for mediocrity in our speakers and discussions — we want them both to be provocative.”
Abner Goldstine noted that “we all lead busy lives, but the chavurah is one of our highest priorities.”
Guest scholar Bernard Steinberg saw the chavurah as an extraordinary and ideologically diverse group whose members want to get out of their comfort zones, which “is not very common in education.”
There was considerable discussion around the circle when asked what was the highlight in the chavurah’s long journey, but the popular choice was the group’s 25th anniversary trip to Israel in 1995, led by Jerry and Ruby Bubis.
“We really worked to expand our boundaries, to hear different political views and get out of the UJA [United Jewish Appeal] bubble,” Jerry Bubis said. “We met not only with a wide range of Israeli opinion makers, but also with those in the Palestinian territories and Jordan.”
Amid the chavurah’s activities, “Our constant focal point is to learn – all other aspects are fringe benefits,” Rochelle Ginsburg summarized, while for Eli Ginsburg it’s learning what it means to be Jewish.
Through their chavurah studies and experiences, many members feel that they have raised their children’s and grandchildren’s Jewish identification and outlook.
However, in contrast to the aims of most Jewish groups, the chavurah does not plan to perpetuate or replicate itself.
“We never really planned to create a permanent institution,” Rochelle Ginsburg said. “ But perhaps we can serve as a model for others in this or the next generation.”
In the meantime, the chavurah is focused on the immediate future. Arrangements are already in place for the first fall session, when David Myers, chair of UCLA’s history department, will return to launch the chavurah into its 44th year.