This article was published in the Fall 2017 Issue of Humanistic Judaism Magazine. It was written by the late Jeff Lipkes (z”l), a past SHJ board member and founder of the Humanistic Jews of Tampa Bay Havurah.
Humanistic Jews of Tampa Bay (HJTB) was launched last September and affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism in June. I’ve been asked to offer suggestions for starting a havurah in a place where there is no existing congregation. (Some havurot consist simply of congregation members who live close to each other and wish to meet more often.) A caveat: the Tampa Bay area, for better or worse, is not typical of the rest of the country, and what worked here may not be effective in other communities.
First of all, Rabbi Miriam Jerris, who provides organizational support for SHJ affiliates (among many other duties), was enormously helpful. I’m very grateful for her advice and encouragement. The SHJ website is itself an excellent resource. I was fortunate also that the first couple to join HJTB was SHJ Board member Faith Oremland and her husband Steve, who spend half the year in St. Petersburg. I benefitted from their long involvement with the movement, and their good humor.
I was given a list by Rabbi Jerris of forty individuals from the Tampa Bay area who had contacted SHJ in recent years (including at least one who’d applied for a position with the Society); unfortunately no one wound up coming to any meeting. I had better luck with the local Jewish newspaper and, especially, with Meetup.com.
Most cities have a paper covering Jewish news and activities, sometimes subsidized, as ours is, by the local Federation. The Jewish Press of Tampa/Pinellas is mailed free of charge, bi-weekly, to 11,200 households. The content is a mix of JTA wire stories and local and regional news. The editor has been very accommodating in publicizing our meetings. When SHJ Executive Director Paul Golin spoke in Tampa and St. Petersburg in March, we got a substantial article preceding the talks.
Still more members learned of the group on Meetup. The site, as one might expect, draws more singles than couples, and more women than men. And as one might also anticipate, only a small fraction of those who join actually show up for events. We have 119 members, but no more than 18 have come to any meeting. For many people, joining a group on Meetup is simply an affirmation of one’s own beliefs or interests. In some cases, judging by the accompanying photos, new members hope to be contacted privately by individuals browsing the site.
Although I’m a tech klutz, I have found Meetup to be user-friendly. It’s easy to post events and contact members For an organization with more than 50 members, the charge is $15 per month, and for HJTB, the investment has been worthwhile.
We have not done much with Facebook so far. Few members use the site. However, as we reach out to families and young adults, I expect we will be more active on Facebook. To appeal to families with young children, we also plan to start a Sunday school, but this is still in the planning stages.
The key to attracting members, naturally, is to schedule interesting events and activities. These have been of two types: Synagogues and other Jewish organizations sponsor a number of speakers, films, plays, etc. each year, in addition to Purim, Israeli Independence Day, and other celebrations. We’ve attended some of these as a group, as well as the Met Live in HD performance of Nabucco, and have met afterwards for dinner. One event was sponsored by the Humanist fellowship of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Clearwater, and we hope to attend other talks presented by the dozen or so secularist groups in the area.
Then there are the events we’ve organized ourselves. These include Paul’s talks, a dinner with Rabbi Jerris, and discussions led by individual members with particular interests or expertise. We are planning more of these for the coming year, though the subjects may have nothing to do with Jewish history and culture. We are fortunate in having members with interesting backgrounds: a professor of pharmacology; former professors of virology, psychology, and history; a child and adolescent psychologist; a neurologist, and a veterinarian, among others.
Organizing a havurah is not much like launching a tech startup, but they have one thing in common. It helps if you have a lot of enthusiasm for the product, to put it crassly. This is Humanistic Judaism, in our case, and it may be inspiring to read, or reread, Rabbi Sherwin Wine’s Judaism Beyond God (back in print and now an ebook as well) and Rabbi Daniel Friedman’s Jews Without Judaism, and to look at a few of the many videos of talks by Rabbi Wine available on the SHJ website and the Sherwin Wine Legacy Project. We’ve devoted a couple of meetings to discussions of Humanistic Judaism.
One should also be prepared to be flexible with group- sponsored activities. Some members are interested in social action, and we’re considering volunteer work which we can do as a community. There seems to be no interest, so far, in attending demonstrations. Most members see HJTB as primarily a social group, for discussions and attending cultural events, and for the celebration of holidays. It would be a mistake to assume there is any unanimity of political views, especially on Israel.
HJTB may be atypical in its political diversity. Less surprising are our divisions over the observance of Shabbat and holidays. A couple of members have been active in American Atheists, and others are suspicious of rabbis and allergic to ritual. (“Services are not my thing,” one member told me.) But most seem to be comfortable with blessings that thank those who actually provided the products we enjoy, and our Hanukkah and Passover celebrations were well attended.
I wish the best of luck to anyone thinking about forming a havurah, or already engaged in doing so. I’ll be more than happy to try to assist you. Please don’t hesitate to email or call. You can find my contact information on the “Find a Community” page of the SHJ website.