B’Chavana meets in members homes ‘with intention’

A group of people who are drawn to an inclusive brand of Judaism with more active participation have found a home — in everyone else’s home.

B’Chavana, a community of between 40 and 50 families that spans all branches of Judaism, meets in members’ homes in the north and northwest suburbs with a non-traditional approach to music and learning in a service.

Starting its fourth year under the tutelage of Rabbi Marc Belgrad, B’Chavana caters primarily to people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, according to congregation President Mark Rangell of Long Grove.

“We meet in homes from Northbrook to Arlington Heights to Highland Park to Lake Forest,” Rangell said.

He estimated that 10 to 15 people show up on an average Friday night, with more than 200 for the high holidays, which are held at the Mormon Church in Arlington heights.

“B’chavana” is a Hebrew word meaning “with intention,” according to Belgrad. In a word it defines the community he decided to create after 18 years as the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Am in Buffalo Grove and more recently as a teacher at Deerfield’s Chicagoland Jewish High School. He continues as an instructor there.

“You should be intentional in being a Jew, a human being and being one of the community,” Belgrad said. “We use this to reach people to be intentional about their lives.”

After he started teaching at the high school, Belgrad started thinking about other ways to serve as a rabbi. As he came up with the idea of a congregation which was more participatory that most, he began to reach out. He got in touch with Rangell, who had also left Beth Am.

“I got him together with some close friends,” Rangell said. “We had a lot of one on one meetings.” Eventually they had enough for services, formed B’Chavana and started to grow.

One of those people was Stewart Campbell of Buffalo Grove.

“I was looking for an experience with more music,” Campbell said. “This offered a Jewish experience for people who are beyond (child-rearing) years.”

Though the congregants are primarily middle-aged, there has been a bat mitzvah, according to Rangell.

Music and intellect are the combination Belgrad brings to services. Rather than delivering a traditional sermon giving congregants ways to apply the day’s reading to their lives, Belgrad assigns a verse or two to pairs of people, who take some time to discuss it and then return to the group to offer their thoughts. He calls it “partnered learning.”

“They help each other,” Belgrad said. “They go off with their partner to read and interpret the text. Then they help each other explain it to the group.”

One of the things that attracted Karen Heisler of Deerfield to B’Chavana is the intersection of a serious intellectual environment with joyful music. She described how Belgrad demonstrated both during a recent trip to Israel with members of the congregation.

“We had a serious discussion about Israel,” Heisler said. “One about how they (are) forced to do things that were less than humanitarian.”

In the evening they all sat around a campfire, and Belgrad took out his guitar.

“We would giggle and sing folk songs,” she recalled. “He gave us tambourines.”

Another thing that is intentional for B’Chavana is the way the group has not labeled itself as a particular type of congregation, like Reform or Orthodox.

“We’re non-denominational,” said Rangell, who was raised in the Conservative momvement. “We are a blend with our own unique experience.”

Though Belgrad admits the reason for meeting in private houses rather than finding a building for a permanent home is in part economic, there is more to it than that.

“We want to be able to marshal what we have for social justice,” he said.

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