Rediscovering the Havurah through the Eyes of the Pandemic

Pandemic, Pods, and Havurot

Jonathan Rosen in The Talmud and the Internet (2000) explored the meandering, highly associational nature of Talmudic thought.  A word or phrase in one context is connected with lightning-like speed with the same word or phrase in a different passage, and a new meaning is often derived from the connection.

I had this quintessentially Talmudic experience over breakfast the other day. My wife, who shares the newspaper with me (how quaint, I know), passed on the article In Pod We Trust from the November 11 Minneapolis Star Tribune.  As I read of the four criteria for forming a good pod, my mind was cascading back to both my own experiences and the literature about Jewish Havurot (friendship circles).  Eventually, I hope to create a dialogue between the list of criteria for establishing pandemic pods from the Star Tribune article with a list of criteria for establishing Jewish Havurot.


Thoroughly assess potential pod mates;The four criteria offered for forming an effective pod during the pandemic were:

  1. Keep your pod small;
  2. Agree on clear rules for members to follow; and
  3. Be willing to change course quickly.

In a very real way, the desire to establish real time pods also reflects Zoom fatigue.  With all due appreciation for the essential zoom connections Zoom is providing the pandemic, people are now  resonating to the tropes heard from David Sax in The Revenge of Analogue (2016) and Nicholas Carr in The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brain (2011).  From the shadows of the surreal life we have been experiencing, people hunger for the real.  People are longing for intimacy that includes feeling and touching as well as seeing and hearing.  The guidelines in the Star Tribune article are largely about restoring this intimacy in ways that are both physically and emotionally safe.

Havurot: A Different Kind of Search for Intimacy and Contact

In 1961, Rabbi Jacob Neusner responded to a different kind of problem with not being seen or heard.  In his monograph on The Havurah Idea published by the Reconstructionist Press, Neusner outlined a program for establishing a new kind of pod, a group of like-minded Jews looking to study and celebrate Judaism together.  These were Jews who were lost in the largeness of mega-synagogues, hence neither seen nor heard in institutional Jewish life.  The pandemic of their time was of the neshama (soul) and lev (heart) and not the guf (body).

We might call this the formation of “spiritual and cultural pods”.  Neusner suggested that the formation of these pods would be marked by five guiding principles:

  1. The Havurah should take its particular character from the fundamental concerns of Jewish faith and tradition;
  2. The Havurah should seek fellowship rather than simply friendship;
  3. The Havurah should aim at the personal involvement of each member in the achievement of its purposes;
  4. The Havurah should set mundane, tentative, and austere goals  and
  5. The Havurah should be regarded under the aspect of time, as an institution that happens at the moment of its own re-creation.

Comparison and Contrast of Criteria for Pods and Havurot 

Comparing and contrasting the criteria for the formation of pods and Havurot leads to some insights and, ultimately, a proposal for when we return to the “new normal” in Jewish life.

When will that new normal emerge:  in 2021?  2022?  2023?  This very uncertainty points to the importance of adaptability embodied in both sets of criteria.  It also echoes the focus on goals that are “mundane, tentative, and austere”.  One might add “nimble” to that short list as well.  Expectations that are so ambitious as to be unrealizable in this pandemic era are not helpful.  Projecting a full Jewish life immediately for a Havurah that requires three to five years of nurturing (Rosen, 1995, Stroiman, 1984) is similarly unhelpful.

The imagery of a pod is also striking and applies to both types of communities.  The outer shell of strict rules and procedures for the living-together pod allows immune systems to adjust and keeps out intrusions of disease.  Jews joining a Havurah are often at a delicate stage of their own Jewish journey and need the protection of small size and intimacy to grow apart from other demanding exigencies of Jewish life.

An Ending Big Idea 

I end with a “big idea”.  I encourage our rabbis, professional educators, and volunteer leaders to think creatively about the “new normal” that will come to our congregations and other Jewish institutions (bimheirah b’yameinu, speedily in our time).  Let’s not be deceived by the rejoicing that will occur as we can move beyond pandemic-restricted groups of 25 or ten to a happy hamon (throng) of 100 or more Jews.  Let’s have in place for this return small-group and other community structures that can sustain the joy and intimacy in the long run.  This unique moment on the horizon is full of potential to address a long-standing issue in Jewish life.

Jeffrey Schein can be reached at