At Fabrangen, community is key. The Washington, D.C. havurah, which was founded over 50 years ago, is built on the leadership of its members rather than that of a rabbi or group of clergy. Havurah members conduct services, lead classes and engage in mutual aid to support people in need and social causes they believe in.
Founded in 1971 thanks to a grant from the United Jewish Appeal, Fabrangen’s roots are not as a havurah, but as a political action group. Initially known as “Fabrangen, the Jewish Free Culture Center in Washington,” Fabrangen got its start organizing protests against the Vietnam War, but evolved over the years to have more of a focus on holding services and offering educational opportunities.
“Fabrangen started with a lot of members in their twenties,” said Bracha Laster, who has been with the havurah since it was first founded. “Now, the ones who have stayed are in their seventies.”
From the beginning, Fabrangen was committed to being egalitarian, which was considered unusual at the time of its founding. Male and female members were always treated equally, and while the havurah has boasted a few rabbis among its ranks, none were designated leaders.
“We are committed to being egalitarian, but that was not that common at the time,” said Dale Lupu, who leads meditation classes at Fabrangen and has been a member since the 1980s. “But [egalitarianism] was definitely necessary for me to feel comfortable in the community, and it’s part of what initially appealed to me.”
Rather than having a rabbi, Fabrangen has different members hold services each week. These services are also unconventional in their discussion-based format — after the service leader gives a brief sermon about the week’s Torah portion, members will discuss it, often connecting it to their own lives or to current events. These discussions are often informal and conversational in nature.
“There’s a certain free-flowing atmosphere to Fabrangen,” said member Lucy Steinitz. “If one person wants to sit on the floor and meditate, and one person wants to do something else, it’s very accepting and inclusive in a way I haven’t seen in a lot of other places.”
Fabrangen’s roots in social justice and activism can still be seen in its programming today. They have a strong focus on supporting social causes — most notably, they held public Black Lives Matter vigils every Friday during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other causes they are dedicated to presently include abortion access, raising money for the homeless and aiding refugees, most recently a refugee family from Eritrea.
“We’ve been involved in a [tzedakah] project since 1988 called Project Hope, where we have supported families who need support with housing or food,” said Laster, who regularly participates in Project Hope. “We’ve helped homeless people move into their own apartments and attend college and graduate school. It’s a continuing project, and a way for us to really engage within our own community.”
Steinitz added that Fabrangen has made donations to a school in Zimbabwe that she helps fundraise for, something they have done for other, smaller causes that individual members are invested in.
Many of Fabrangen’s events are open to the public, whether they are members of the havurah or not — and as its membership base ages, they are hoping to welcome new participants to events like its weekly services and High Holidays slate of programming.
“We’ve been inviting the entire community to come for decades now, it’s very much part of our identity and something we’re committed to,” said member Eileen Ruben.
“We’re an aging group, but we always welcome new members of all ages and abilities. You’ll find a very welcoming community,” Steinitz added. “What I love about Fabrangen is that people really care about each other.”