In 1978, Jimmy Carter was president, Reese’s Pieces were created, and “Grease” was released. In the Washington area, six families created a chavurah, or fellowship, called Kehila Chadasha (New Congregation) which they wanted to be spiritual, and inclusive.
Forty years later, the community continues to meet in schools, homes, community centers and parks. Sunday school takes place in a Montgomery County school and kicks off every week with Rabbi David Shneyer playing the guitar.
With 100 families, the unaffiliated chavurah prides itself on being egalitarian, diverse, progressive and welcoming, according to Shneyer. They value Jewish education and social justice, and are LGBTQ- and intermarriage-friendly.
“More and more congregations have become welcoming, and we feel satisfaction that we were pioneers in inclusivity,” says Shneyer, who has been Kehila Chadasha’s rabbi and self-described “Judaist” since the beginning.
“We are not a dogmatic community,” he continues. “We don’t have a rigid set of beliefs and practices. We identify with a Judaism that is celebratory, relational, organic and responsive to both the needs of individuals in our community and the needs of the outside world.”
The environment is one of Kehila Chadasha’s causes. Its green committee recently co-sponsored a symposium on faith and advocacy while confronting climate change.
“Our community has always been liberal, and over time, it’s become more progressive,” Shneyer says. “After the 2016 election, we created a response committee to respond to [the election of President Donald] Trump.”
Members of the committee went to Pennsylvania, knocking on doors, “and meeting with people who are totally different than themselves,” the rabbi says.
In June, the chavurah celebrated its 40th anniversary at the Sanctuary Retreat Center, a spiritual retreat center in western Montgomery County operated by Am Kolel, another community that Shneyer founded.
Member Jason Hillman says his connection to the chavurah has grown over time.
“For me, it was originally about giving my children an experience that connects them to Judaism in a personal way,” he says. “I thought I would be one of those people who only goes to the High Holidays, but the community that exists in Kehila makes me want to participate. Most especially, the annual retreat at Sanctuary — spending time with others in a spiritual way over a day or two is a formative experience, for my kids and for me.”
Kehila Chadasha will celebrate the High Holidays with services that are open to the community, Shneyer says the celebration is filled with chasidic and contemporary music, learning and spirituality. The chavurah’s machzor is illustrated on recycled paper and contains poetic translations of Hebrew prayers. The High Holiday programs for children integrate worship, music and art.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 200 people enjoy the outdoors in Rock Creek Park, according to Shneyer.
Kehila Chadasha’s founders intended for the community to be limited in size. In the first three decades, only four or five new households were accepted every year for membership.
“It was integral to the culture of the community that people knew each other and that each family was involved in participating in the life and the direction of the community. It’s more like a cooperative; it’s not a top-down congregation,” says Shneyer.
Now, kids who grew up in the community are raising families of their own. Close relationships remain even after people move away.
It’s a different approach to Judaism than mainstream synagogues, and it doesn’t align with the large American Jewish denominations. But for the community members across 40 years, it has been profound way to interact with Judaism. It feels like home.
Kehila Chadasha’s High Holiday services will be held at Walter Johnson High School, 6400 Rock Spring Drive, Bethesda. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah (Sept. 11), services will be outdoors at the Meadowbrook Park and Recreation Center, 7901 Meadowbrook Lane, Chevy Chase. For information, go to e-kehila.org.
Anna Lippe is a Washington-area writer.