Faith, debate nourish long-established Jewish prayer group


Evelyn F. Kaitz, 94, of Rockville, Ralph Sanders, 85, of Rockville, and Elaine Parker, 70, of Rockville meet with other members of their long-running Jewish prayer group. (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The crowd around Elaine Parker’s Rockville dining room table is elderly, the coffeecake homemade, the conversation familiar. These are people who clearly have been hashing out their Judaism over such scenes for decades.

“Nelly, who was the British officer guy from Palestine we studied?” says Ruth Gruenberg, an 85-year-old widow with a Chicago accent.

A minute later, Ralph Sanders, an 85-year-old with a prosthetic leg, belts out: “Who was that woman who took over from her husband’s banking business in the Middle Ages?”

Having met monthly since the late 1960s, this Jewish study group understandably has a huge repertoire of memories, and some have faded.

Indeed, many things have changed. A community that was formed out of the D.C. Reform synagogue Temple Sinai with a few dozen young families is now down to seven people, mostly widows and one man. Sunday evening gatherings recently shifted to days to avoid night driving. A rotation of deeply researched presentations has been replaced with 30-minute video classes. Weekend retreats to places such as Harpers Ferry are out.

But some things haven’t changed — namely, the rules of the first study, or kallah, group at Sinai, named Kallah Aleph, for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Unlike many since-formed kallahs for young mothers or parents with rebellious children or other categories, this group is about serious study. Members must be open-minded and tolerant, even on explosive such subjects as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or whether such practices as human cloning are compatible with Jewish ethics. (The only serious disagreement the group can recall was triggered by someone years ago bringing a platter of shrimp, which is not kosher.)

But debate is encouraged, even essential.

“Two Jews, three opinions — that’s the expression,” said Rae Sanders, 83, who joined the group with her husband in 1972.

The durability of the group belies the somewhat unlikely nature of its members even coming together. Many say they weren’t spiritual or even observant to start with but were pulled in by a rabbi who sensed a need for support among various congregants.

The Sanders family was rocked by Ralph’s sarcoma at age 45, leaving him despondent and without a leg. At the time, the family had four children younger than 6.

“He just said: ‘You’re joining Kallah Aleph,’ ” Rae remembered Rabbi Eugene Lipman telling her, not asking. “It became like a family. We went for retreats, we cooked together, we prayed together, sang together, really supported one another.”

The times were also turbulent. Their first retreat happened to fall on the April 1968 weekend just after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a huge marker for the group.

Nelly Urbach remembers having “no particular interest in Judaism,” but when she joined in 1968, the mother of two young children had recently become a widow. The group provided community in the early years but became part of her development as a Jew as she became more religious.

To this day Urbach is considered the most “religious” of a group that feels more like a class than a worship place. When holidays are marked at her house, there’s praying; at someone else’s, “there’s just eating and lots of good wine,” Rae Sanders said.

One Sunday afternoon last month, after eating fruit and coffeecake, members of Kallah Aleph sat around a well-appointed townhouse living room to discuss modern Orthodox Judaism, part of a longer series on the intellectual history of the faith. The members are all staunch Reform, or modernist, Jews, but the lesson on Orthodoxy set off a debate about their own movement.

“Belief is one thing, behavior is another. I think there’s been too much focus on the individual and too much autonomy,” Urbach said.

“But we can’t go backwards,” said Parker, a retired history teacher.

“We have been going backwards,” Urbach said, before the conversation briefly — and atypically — shifted to the 2012 presidential race.

Deep into its fifth decade, Kallah Aleph is still evolving, even as about 40 members have come and then died. The group says it’s about to make a push for new members. They need it, they say, to nurture their evolving spiritual identities.

Rae Sanders, who wasn’t a practicing Jew before joining the group, said it helped her reach a “great relationship with God.”

“I can’t explain how it happened,” she said. “My kids say, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I do believe there is a higher power. I generally tell them, ‘I’m still working on it.’ ”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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