It’s the reason I’m Jewish Fabrangen marks its 36th

It has no full-time rabbi, no president, no edifice complex (no permanent site at all, in fact) no High Holiday tickets (the seats are all freebies) and few of the other trappings normally associated with synagogues.

Which is perfectly appropriate, since it’s not a synagogue nor does it aspire to be one.

Its name is Fabrangen, an approximation of the Yiddish word meaning “a coming together.”

And since the early 1970s, it has lived up to its name by bringing together a diversity of Jews to form an inclusive community of learning, spirituality, experimentation and political progressivism.

“We find a place for everyone and everyone finds a place with us,” said Fran Goldman, 53, of the District, who has been a member for more than 20 years.

Simply put, Fabrangen is a chavurah, a group of like-minded people who gather informally to do Jewish. But chavurot come and go in part because they are proudly noninstitutional institutions and Fabrangen has endured, for 36 years to be exact.

The congregation is marking that double-chai anniversary this coming weekend with an array of activities, from potluck suppers to home-based Shabbat services to a Saturday-night gala to an outpouring of fond reminiscences and testimonials.

“It’s the reason I’m Jewish,” said District resident Bob Rovinsky, 61, who has been a member since the early 1980s.

“It’s just very friendly and warm and accepting,” said Goldman’s daughter, 14-year-old Hannah, who celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah about a year ago.

“It’s a solid community filled with totally amazing people,” said Alys Cohen, 41, of Takoma Park. “These are people whose entire lives are committed to egalitarianism and social justice. It’s an honor to be part of a community full of people like that.”

Accolades aside, the organization being celebrated eludes easy categorization, perhaps by design.

“Fabrangen hasn’t become some kind of well-defined, standard-issue, easily pigeonholed institution perhaps the only kind of entity its founding members did not aspire to create,” longtime member David Goldston, 51, of Arlington, wrote recently in commemoration of the anniversary.

Born during a politically tumultuous era, Fabrangen is an outgrowth of a leftist, anti-establishment organization known as Jews for Urban Justice. Fabrangen was conceived as an “alternative” Jewish center, and was jump-started with the help of seed money from the Greater Washington United Jewish Appeal (now the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington). In addition to religious activities, it offered drug, draft and abortion counseling in its early years.

Fabrangen officially opened on Feb. 14, 1971, with a musical performance by neo-chasidic troubadour Shlomo Carlebach. Its first wedding was held in 1972 (Diana Stark and Alan Oresky), Toba Spitzer was its first bat mitzvah in 1976 and its first Torah was acquired in 1982.

Throughout the years, Fabrangen has spun off several organizations that are now independent entities of note. They include Fabrangen Fiddlers (a Jewish folk band co-founded by Rabbi David Shneyer), Fabrangen Cheder (an alternative school co-founded by social activist Rabbi Arthur Waskow), the Jewish Folk Arts Festival (a showcase for local talent), the Fabrangen Tzedakah Collective (which has donated more than $1.5 million to charitable causes in the United States, Israel and elsewhere) and the Jewish Study Center (a nonprofit adult education institute whose president is Rovinsky).

The congregation has had several homes throughout the years, but its base since 2003 has been the Washington Ethical Society headquarters in the District, where it rents space. Fabrangen now has about 120 adult members from throughout the Washington area.

They include organic farmer and longtime political activist Mike Tabor, 65, who raises fruits and vegetables on 60 acres in southern Pennsylvania, but lives part of the year in Takoma Park. He supplies apples for the entire congregation following Ne’eilah services on Yom Kippur, and helped initiate a (still-operating) yoga service to help congregants relax and reflect during the mid-day Yom Kippur break.

Raised in a “Conservadox” household in New York City, Tabor was present at the creation of Fabrangen, which was the product of an intense quest for a creative, nonregimented, nonhierarchical and deeply spiritual approach to Judaism, he said. Fabrangen, he added, has held to its founding ideals “better than most.”

Rovinsky, the product of a secular upbringing in Philadelphia, found his way to Fabrangen via Jewish history and philosophy courses offered by the Jewish Study Center a few years after he followed a job to the Washington area in the mid-1970s.

He eventually found himself captivated by Fabrangen’s holistic approach to Judaism, its devotion to serious Jewish learning, and its willingness to experiment with alternative forms of Jewish expression, including dance and theater. He was also drawn to the congregation’s inclusive, egalitarian, highly participatory style, that makes “every voice, every thought, count. There is a mosaic, a rich tapestry of multiple voices that you can only find at Fabrangen.”

He added: “It has allowed me to struggle with all parts of Judaism in my life, and it has made me a part of a community.”

Fran Goldman, the product of a Conservative household in suburban Chicago, was first drawn to Fabrangen because some of her friends attended High Holiday services there and because the services were free. “And I liked the atmosphere and the nature of the service,” she added. “There was an emphasis on spirituality and not on dress and stature and the Kol Nidre appeal. And there was a strong diversity of voices and a strong presence of women.”

Like many Fabrangeners, Goldman lauded the congregation’s willingness to experiment liturgically and to wrestle with Jewish text in an attempt to extract meaning and to reconcile ancient words with contemporary mores.

That openness to new approaches also attracted Cohen, who had a traditional Conservative upbringing in New York’s Long Island. “Fabrangen,” she said, “has been responsible for supporting my spiritual development and allowing me to develop in traditional and nontraditional Jewish ways. And it’s a special community. We take care of each other in good times and bad.”


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