Location: Annapolis, Maryland
In the logistical wizardry that defines our lives recently, I flew from Boston to Washington, DC yesterday and David and Darcy drove up from Charlotte (I got the better end of that deal!) and picked me up at National Airport (I refuse to call it Reagan airport.) We then headed to Maryland to visit David’s parents, Norman and Susanne Lieberman, for the Fourth of July weekend. We opted to pass on the tanks and politicized commandeering of the celebration in the nation’s capital yesterday, and instead joined David’s folks at a cookout in Annapolis. Maryland.
The cookout was a gathering of their friends who comprise a chavurah, which translates to fellowship in Hebrew. Norman and Susanne’s chavurah has been celebrating holidays together since 1984, when they first formed their group. Susanne was Temple Solel’s president at the time, and (then) Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt suggested she initiate chavurot (the plural – thank you internet!) among the congregation. “We were looking for ways to strengthen our Temple community,” Susanne says. “So that people could feel that they had a family within the Temple.” Susanne and her board visited a nearby temple who already had chavurot to ask for pointers, such as keeping each group to no more than 20 people and forming the groups around themes or things in common. They were able to form five Temple Solel chavurah groups, including their own. One was centered around folks who worked together at the Temple’s religious school. Another had traveled to Israel together. Their marching orders were simply to figure out together what they wanted each individual chavurah to do and be.
Norman and Susanne’s chavurah is the only one that is still together. They are three rabbis removed from the one who suggested forming the chavurot. That is probably due to the fact that many members of Norman and Susanne’s chavurah were already friends. The guys had a Tuesday night Poker game that continues to this day. (The women now play Mahjong on the same night.) When I first met David’s parents, I also got to meet the whole chavurah because David brought me to a Break the Fast after Yom Kippur services at one of their houses shortly after we started dating. We were at Georgetown Law School so popping over to Bowie, Maryland was no big deal. (Norman famously took David aside at the end of the evening and told him that he liked me and admonished him, “Don’t fuck this up.” Good thing David is an obedient son!) Every Jewish holiday, and most significant family events and celebrations, always includes the chavurah. I think of them as extended family, and I appreciate them – and the fellowship they provide for my in-laws – now more than ever given that we are no longer a short drive away.
The chavurah was initially centered around observing and celebrating Jewish holidays together, since most of the members in the group were from out of town and did not have family nearby. They have essentially become a family of sorts. They plan many other outings and social activities throughout the year as well, not just Jewish holidays, including trips to museums, visits to historical sites, shows, parties, you name it. One constant, Susanne says, is that “there is always food.” The chavurah has a planning meeting each year when suggestions are made for that year’s activities. (For instance, heading to New Jersey to see the Grounds for Sculpture and stopping at Harold’s Deli at Exit 10 on the Jersey Turnpike en route, where the portions are so huge that it is best to go with a big group.) The suggestions are voted on and those that are selected are coordinated by whoever suggested them. Certain staples, like the annual Seder and New Year’s Eve party, are non-negotiable.
Over the years, the chavurah has lost some members and the widows and widowers who are left behind appreciate the group’s fellowship all the more. As Norman puts it, “we are a group of people who really like each other and are there for each other.” Through deaths and illnesses, the chavurah is there. Meals are coordinated, rides are offered, and everyone looks out for each other. Susanne, who has had her share of health struggles in the last few years, appreciates how reliable the chavurah is. “You just know you can call them,” she says, “and they will come through.”
Many of us have chavurot in our lives, they just don’t have a formal title or weren’t formed with that intent. But the idea of having a group of friends who become your family is one I applaud, and one I have also enjoyed in my life. Often, when I am chatting with my in-laws, I will ask how the chavurah is doing. It is an easy collective way of referring to what is essentially the network of folks who have provided friendship, fellowship and rock solid support to Norman and Susanne ever since I have known them. Now that they are all in their seventies and eighties, the news is not always good. There are cancers and surgeries and there have been deaths. But there are also tales of memorable nights out, photographs of trips together and parties that are now legendary. And so many memories. They have seen each other’s children grow up and have children of their own. They have supported each other through the deaths of their parents and some of their spouses. And they get together, as they did last night, to eat and enjoy each other’s company and tell stories that often begin with, “Remember when…”As Susanne says, “It’s our local family.”