Congregation Hakafa began as a small chavurah, or self-led assembly, in the autumn of 1983. It met in participants’ homes, initially just for discussion, and then for Friday night services, borrowing prayer books from North Shore Congregation Israel. Like other chavurot that sprang up as alternatives to established religious institutions, this fellowship of families conducted its own Shabbat services, discussed the week's Torah portion, and examined current events through its independent Jewish lens.
By early December, over a dozen families had joined the circle, cramming into each other’s living rooms to welcome Shabbat every Friday evening. By the following March, the group had outgrown its provisional living-room sanctuaries and was ready to explore the possibility of starting a new congregation. The group rented a meeting room at a North Shore hotel, invited interested and interesting people, and unanimously voted to invite Robert Marx to be the rabbi of its new congregation.
As with every start-up enterprise, it also had to address a practical concern: how would the new congregation be funded? All who attended the meeting signed pledge cards indicating how much financial support they were willing to provide to the new venture, and three individuals promised to underwrite any operating deficit for the first two years. The group agreed that, if at the end of two years it could not make ends meet, then the effort to form a Congregation would be abandoned.
Rabbi Marx sought to create a home for himself and for those whose love of Judaism, justice, worship and study drew them to him. He suggested that the new congregation be called “Hakafa,” an encirclement of friends.
The first official meeting of Congregation Hakafa took place at the home of Richard and Jayne Jones in May of 1984, with standing room only for the fifty-some people in attendance. Recognizing that it would need a more appropriate facility for Shabbat services and education, the group rented space in the Glencoe Recreation Center. In 1986, the congregation moved its Friday night service to the Winnetka Community House, where it has remained to this day.
To design a congregation that was truly democratic, the founders created Hakafa without a board of directors, but with regular policy meetings, in which the whole congregation was encouraged to participate. They scheduled religious school to meet on three Sundays each month, deliberately and respectfully reserving the fourth as a family day. And, they developed a holiness curriculum that allowed the whole community to celebrate a specific theme of holy life each month, including worship, family, ethics, and nature. That sense of wholeness --reinforcing the theme of holiness -- is one of Hakafa’s distinguishing features.
An external distinction of Congregation Hakafa was and remains the absence of a permanent building. Just as our ancestors turned from ritual sacrifice to prayer and study after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Hakafa’s decision not to purchase or construct a synagogue was grounded in both idealistic and pragmatic principles. To build a community of faith and a circle of friends who would extend its reach to the wider circle of humanity required an investment in people, not in property. And, to build a program of study that centered on holiness required an emphasis on habits of mind – how can we be holy? – not on fixing leaky roofs and decorating a sanctuary. As Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai noted two thousand years ago, “ . . . even though the Temple is destroyed . . . we can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness” (Midrash Avot D'Rabbi Nathan 4:5). It is that principle of loving-kindness, which binds one human to another, that encircles the Hakafa family. More practically, using existing buildings seemed to be – and still is -- the most economical and ecologically sound option.
Jerry Friedman served as the first President of Congregation Hakafa, with Richard Jones as Vice President, Stan Rosenthal as Treasurer, and Mary Frank as Secretary. Harriet Rosenthal became the Director of the Religious School, which, for several years, was staffed exclusively by congregation volunteers. During an all-night marathon with his Apple Macintosh, Stan composed Hakafa’s first set of bylaws, which incorporated the idea of the "fair share" dues that have been a mainstay of Hakafa’s membership ever since.
In addition to helping its own members, Hakafa, in its early years, adopted a sanctuary family, joining with synagogues and churches nation-wide to provide refuge for families escaping persecution in their home countries. In the last twenty years, Hakafa’s social service program has branched out to address myriad needs – soup kitchens, women’s shelters, medical supplies, immigrant rights, and housing discrimination, among others– both locally and globally.
In 1999, the congregation hired Rabbi Bruce Elder as its part-time Assistant Rabbi. And, in 2002, when Rabbi Marx retired, Rabbi Elder became Hakafa's full-time Rabbi, the position in which he remains today.
Inspired by Rabbi Marx’s and Rabbi Elder’s words and deeds, Congregation Hakafa honors its original promise of encirclement, promoting in its members -- and everyone they touch -- an “I-Thou” relationship. As philosopher Martin Buber explains, when we treat another as a ”thou” rather than an “it,” we enhance the lives of other people while enlarging ourselves. It’s no wonder the circle has grown so wide over the past thirty years.