At the large suburban temple where I grew up in Detroit in the 1960's, they had three paid rabbis, two paid cantors, several full-time administrators, and a congregation that mostly showed up twice a year on High Holidays. Then in the 1970's a new variation arose within Judaism called "the Havurah movement" (where groups of 7-30 people get together weekly or monthly for member-led celebrations, prayer services, and discussions).

Now it's the 21st century and a wonderful hybrid version has blended the best features of a rabbi-led congregation with the best features of a congregant-led Judaism. It could be called "Grass Roots Judaism" or "More Participatory Judaism." Or it could be called "One People, One Torah, Many Teachers," which is the motto of Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, a growing community that was formed in 2002 with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell not only leading the congregation but also finding ways to encourage and empower each unique individual who wants to bring their gifts forward.

In June 2010 there will be two events where you can witness this new hybrid version of "More Participatory Judaism" with your own eyes and ears. The first event is this Saturday, June 19th at the inspiring Community Meeting after Shabbat services. Co-presidents Jean Katz and Ron Estroff will be describing the huge variety of activities that the congregation has cooked up from its own creativity and passions. Then there will be an election of new board members and a chance to talk about the upcoming year.

The second event is an all-are-invited Celebration on Saturday night June 26th that will have live musical performances, dancing with anyone or everyone (you don't need to be coupled-up to have a great time), a beautiful Havdalah service, and a special honoring of four individuals who have contributed their creativity and caring to Ahavat Torah in many ways: Sasha Borenstein, Russ Hannan, Arlene Rosenblatt, and Sid Rosenblatt. There are details in the weekly newsletter. To RSVP and attend, call Rena Jaffe at 310 450-5225.


At both the Community Meeting on Saturday afternoon June 19th and the Dinner Dance on Saturday night June 26th, you will notice that participatory/grass-roots Judaism is quite diverse and multi-faceted. For example, at Ahavat Torah Congregation the creativity and caring includes:

--Some members who have a strong sense of art, food, aesthetics and how to encourage each member to participate in creating a beautiful buffet lunch. At Ahavat Torah Congregation for many years, Beth Devermont has brought her interior design background and her organizing skills to the congregation as she took charge of making sure there was an abundant lunch buffet after services each week (and now her role is being given to volunteer coordinators Leslie Tuchman and Nadine Colla). For a not-so-large congregation, there is consistently and dependably each Shabbat a quite-large buffet of lox, bagels, dairy lunches, vegetarian delights, and salads brought by members. Plus on many weeks there is a nutritious and delicious soup cooked and contributed by Rabbi Miriam. Where else in the Jewish world do you get inspiring Torah teachings and exquisite vegetarian soups from the same rabbi, along with an abundant free buffet from all sorts of health-conscious friends?

--Some members who like to sing and who bring their music to Ahavat Torah events. Joel Warren sets up the sound system each week and accompanies the congregation on piano. On some weeks there is Kabbalistic drumming from Eli Lester and lots of shaking of davvening-enhancing instruments from Pattye Asarch, Marion Klein, Sherry Modell, and others. Plus the passionate participatory singing led by Gary Levine and Kimberly Haynes. Plus the Torah tropes by long-time members like Rena Jaffe, Sasha Borenstein, Jonathan Troper, and others, along with Torah tropes by new members like Janice Batzdorff. In addition, Vivian Gold and Phil Danufsky have started an occasional Saturday night kumsitz/sing-a-long/hootenanny that welcomes members, non-members, friends and family to join in lots of inspiring songs from musicals, beloved performers, and protest marches from the past several decades (Watch the newsletter for the next sing-a-long).

--Some members who like a great discussion group. At Ahavat Torah, Gloria Orenstein started a Salon that has speakers, artists, and discussions every few months. Jean Katz has put together some great discussions of various Jewish poets. Ellen Dubois has brought the congregation some fascinating speakers and discussions. Debra Estroff has organized a book group where all are invited. Aharon Nachshon has organized a movie-going group where all are invited. Please keep your eyes on the newsletter each week to see when the next chance to connect will arrive.

--Some members who like to repair the world. The social action committee currently led by Estelle Fisher and Sherry Modell has been coming up with a variety of ways to make a difference, and have helped many members of the congregation to overcome feelings of powerlessness when you see something that truly needs changing. In addition, our congregation has been helping the Sova food pantries for distressed families for many years and now more than ever they need our financial help and our weekly bottles of cooking oil, which are now transported each week by congregant Fred Summers.

--Some members who see a need and just get it done. Arlene Rosenblatt saw that at High Holiday services many people needed a transliteration of the prayers, so she sat down at her computer and created one. Sid Rosenblatt saw that we needed a website and so he helped to design one. Russ Hannan saw that the congregation needed a proper place to put the Torah so that it could be read easily each Saturday morning without making people strain their backs bending over. Then he applied his woodworking and boat-building skills to create the slightly-tilted, perfect-height Torah table that we use each Shabbat.

--Some members who keep their hearts open and love to reach out to others in the community. At Ahavat Torah there is a Bikkur Cholim committee and phone tree by which Blanche Moss and Rabbi Miriam make sure that those who are ill or in need of support get a boost of strength and assistance from a sizable number of members without having to beg for it. Shoshi Wilchfort and Estelle Markowitz make sure that each month on the second Shabbat there is a Simcha Shabbat celebration (with cake, flowers, and special blessings) for anyone who is celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, or some other big event. Numerous congregation members take turns volunteering to be the greeters at Shabbat services and to make new visitors and guests feel welcomed and included.

(I apologize for not listing more examples of how congregants come forward with their creative gifts. As Billy Crystal used to say, "Don't get me started...")


What has been truly remarkable about the first 8 years of Ahavat Torah is that Rabbi Miriam's role modeling has created an atmosphere in which lots of people tend to come forward with good ideas and creative additions without there being a lot of noodging and arm-twisting. Maybe it's because the rabbi is so generous and compassionate. Maybe it's because the congregation is filled with individuals who don't want to sit back and be "entertained" or "lectured at" in a large, impersonal synagogue. Maybe it's because one act of grass-roots creativity by one person tends to lead to another act of grass-roots creativity by another person.

Whatever is causing this continual flourishing of participation and mutual helpfulness, the Community Meeting on June 19th and the Celebration Dinner Dance on June 26th are intended to keep the flow going strong for years to come. So please make sure you will be at both of these inspiring events where you will experience "Grass Roots Judaism" directly and where you might get some ideas on how you want to offer your own gifts and wisdom to this growing community.

The Community Meeting will be held in the Social Hall after Shabbat services on Saturday, June 19th at around 1:30.

The Celebration Dinner Dance will be held at the Marina City Club in Marina Del Rey on Saturday night, June 26th. Please check the recent newsletters for details and how to RSVP.

For more information about the various programs and activities of Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, log onto or