Narberth Havurah Continues on in its Essential Form – Jewish Exponent

If you click around on Narberth Havurah’s website, you will see a synagogue with an address, a dues structure, a Hebrew school and various activities for members. In other words, you will see a community with all the characteristics of a big, formal, suburban synagogue.
But if you look deeper, you will notice a shul with only about 45 households, no owned property and a lay-led approach to organizing events. In other words, you will see what the word havurah implies: a small, informal association of people who meet for discussion and prayer.
The Narberth Havurah is both, and that quality has helped it navigate turbulent times with relatively little drama. As many suburban synagogues lose members, consider downsizing and wonder aloud about how to attract new congregants, Narberth Havurah just keeps gathering for High Holiday services, Shabbat potlucks and other events. The community that gathers in a church on Woodbine Avenue has maintained a membership of about 45 households since its 2005 founding.
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“We do have many of the features of a larger synagogue. But the feel of our community is very much like a havurah,” Rabbi Simcha Zevit said.
Samantha Levy Green, the synagogue’s president, described Zevit as the heart of the community and its members as the soul. The rabbi makes herself available to congregants and brings Jewish knowledge and spirituality to services and holidays. Her goal, she explained, is to “help people feel what is meaningful to them about Jewish life.”
But then it’s the members, according to Green, who start the book clubs and the adult dining groups, as well as plan and execute holiday gatherings like Passover seders and meals inside a sukkah. The synagogue’s sanctuary is in the Holy Trinity Church, but it gathers in a variety of locations.
“I think what makes us sustainable…it’s the adaptability,” Levy Green said.
The havurah lives on a shoestring budget, so when COVID broke out in March 2020, it was not difficult to transition to online services. The community stayed together, too. After all, about 15 households have been involved since the founding almost 20 years ago.
Much of the rest of the congregation consists of younger families, with 16 kids in Narberth’s religious school, which runs from grades 2-6. A bar and bat mitzvah program follows that schooling.
“There’s a core of really committed people that have sustained the community,” Zevit said.
Levy Green is one of them. And even though she’s the president, she’s just a member taking on a slightly bigger role. The Narberth resident moved to the area in 2014 with her husband and young son, who was starting to ask questions about Judaism, so they wanted a way to educate him. But they did not want to do so in a “larger synagogue that comes with all the financial and social responsibilities,” the mother said.
So, they found Narberth Havurah and were drawn to it. One Hebrew school day a week plus deep connections to fellow members. It was all that they wanted.
“I was adamant about not just dropping my kid off,” Levy Green said.
Miriam Shakow, also a Narberth resident, joined the synagogue with her family after they moved to the area in 2010. Today, the mother of two helps to organize activities. For Tu B’Shevat this year, she brought acorns and pots with dirt from her backyard, so kids could plant acorns to see if they would sprout.
What Shakow loves most about the community is “how local it is,” she said. Her son has friends from his elementary school who also attend Hebrew school with him. Every Tuesday, they walk over together.
“It’s nice to have that overlap between the different kinds of things you do. It feels integrated and fun,” the mom said. “And also, because it’s local it’s just nice because you’re like, ‘Oh, this is part of my community.’”
The synagogue is not without its issues. As Levy Green explained, “We have some of the problems that larger institutions have.” Kids often do not want to stay beyond graduating from Hebrew school. Some members have had financial trouble.
“We’ve been able to weather some of that,” the president said.
They’ve been able to deal with it well enough to maintain the fundamental structure of the synagogue. Narberth Havurah is a havurah, yes, but it’s also a community institution. It’s a balance that has always existed, and it’s one that synagogue leaders have no plan to change.
“We need people to renew their memberships, and we need people to join us. Keep showing up,” Zevit said.
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