The families gather around the table to sample latkes and other holiday favorites.
On a warm May evening, long before Hanukkah -- which celebrates the miracle of Jewish survival -- 12 adults gather to plan events for the year. Hanukkah is always on the agenda because it is part of their religious lives, but agreeing on a date to celebrate the holiday is a miracle itself because it requires coordinating six families. "We won't plan an event unless everybody can make it," Howard Epstein says.
These families came together, mostly as strangers, in September 1997 to establish a closer connection with their synagogue, Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Illinois. Today, the friendship circle, also known as a havura, is a significant part of their lives. Named Havura Tessera, it is centered around Reform Jewish worship, study, and celebration; it provides not only religious grounding, but a framework for meaningful celebration.
"The feeling of extended family runs through everything we do," Seth Asofsky says. He and his family moved to Highland Park from New Jersey eight years ago, leaving extended family on the East Coast. "Holiday time can be very lonely if you don't have family nearby," he adds. "The havura has filled a void for us."
The shamash (the candle used to light other candles in the menorah) casts a warm glow.
Susan Altfeld appreciates the group for other reasons. "We wanted to start our own traditions and give our children their own memories during the holidays."
Hanukkah celebrates the Jews' victory over the Syrians in 165 B.C.E., as well as the Temple rededication, when sacred oil that was expected to burn for one day miraculously burned for eight days.
From diverse Jewish backgrounds, the adults in this havura lend their own interpretations of Hanukkah tradition. One adult leads Jewish prayers and songs, another coordinates the making of the latkes (potato pancakes), and a third does crafts with the children. Everyone plays a part in sending the message that Hanukkah is not about gifts, but rather about sharing Jewish experience.
"We share major life events. This is the exciting part of the havura," Howard Friedman says. For this group, survival assumes new meaning as they live the Jewish expression, "L'dor va-dor," from generation to generation.
Gay Sigel sums up the havura experience: "We didn't know each other; we made a commitment with our time, and with this, we created a family of friends."
Best defined as fellowship, havurot (plural of havura) refer to synagogue subgroups that gather to enrich spiritual and social connections. A successful havura is built on:
Everyone enjoys noodle kugel and latkes.
- Shared values. Beyond common synagogue affiliation, groups can form based on any criteria: life stage (empty nesters, families with children, singles), Jewish study, or social activities. Whatever the basis, all members should agree on the group's purpose and agenda.
- Commitment. Everyone should invest the same level of commitment to making the group work, be clear about each other's roles, and share responsibilities.
- Size. Depending on a group's goals, it must explore pros and cons of the number of people. Havura Tessera is a six-family unit, which keeps the group small enough to gather in homes, plan retreats, and appreciate the group's close-knit feeling.
Traditional latkes are fried in oil to recall the rededication of the Temple. Preparing a batch for 25 is easy with plenty of hands to help. See related links for latke and other Hanukkah recipes.