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A Beginner's Guide for the Chavurah Leader

Mazal tov! You’ve decided to start a chavurah! That’s great. This guide will provide the tools for creating your own chavurah. We will describe the leader’s role in the different stages and provide tips for the first meetings.

Chapter one: Introduction

The first Chavurah meetings are the foundation on which the whole chavurah develops. These meetings will shape the chavurah — the unique atmosphere, in-group language, and the participants’ ability to share and contain the sharing of others. During these first meetings, basic questions of the participants will get an answer: Is this a safe place to for them to express themselves, are they comfortable to build an inner process and can they feel comfortable to join intimate and intensive group work. That's why it may be helpful to take note of the tips presented below, prepare for the meetings as much as possible, and plan ahead.

Still, don't panic after reading this guide. Remember that even if something does not go as anticipated, it is often possible to change direction, rephrase a question, correct an error or mistaken impression and even start over. Don’t be afraid to say, “I made a mistake”, “Let’s try it another way” or even, “What do you suggest?”

You should also remember that many processes simply take time. And if something doesn’t take off right away, it is not because something negative has happened. Takes time for people to talk to each another, gain confidence, share feelings; it takes time for people to learn the in- group language and be comfortable studying together. Takes time for people to feel how significant the group is for them. Don't worry. slowly but surely, people become accustomed to the group. Until then – keep in mind that labor pains, And that’s OK. Something beautiful will come out of this eventually, and if you look closely, you can see that it's already beautiful.

Good to see the role of the leader in two dimensions. On one hand, the leader guides the processes, progress and building of the group from “above”. On the other hand, he/she is part of the group and experiences the processes just like everyone else. Good to pay attention to both dimensions. On one hand, not to totally adhere to the role of leader, and, as a result, become somewhat detached from the group. On the other hand, to remember the leader’s responsibility: to the extent that he merits it and Hashem grants it, group members open up, bare themselves and feel confident to reveal hidden places in their souls, sometimes never revealed before. Our role as leaders is to guide the chavurah sensitively and wisely so that this opening up brings with it building, repair, connection and revelation.

Chapter Two:  Important awareness points for the Chavurah Leader

Below we list some important roles of the chavurah leader. For some of you, these ideas may sound very difficult, or alternately, marginal and not overly important. Nonetheless, try to relate to them seriously. They are based on extensive experience and offer a practical, pragmatic response to the challenges that chavurah leaders have faced and coped with in the past.

Making space

When we are in a position of guidance or leadership, we naturally think that we must fill a space: speak more, take responsibility for what happens, and make sure that matters advance. But in truth, the more one gives space to the group and what happens in it, the more the group can open up and develop. Relax: you don’t have to make sure that people talk. Try, as much as possible, to refrain from expectations of what should happen in the chavurah and respectively, in the same vein, don’t be disappointed if things don’t go the way you hoped. It is  important to make sure that this situation does not pressure your to do things that are unhealthy for the group. Important not to feel responsible for the progress and happiness of the group members. The more we let go, the more we offer a good feeling of home and of freedom, the more the chavurah will flourish.

 

Belief in the power of the group and in the power of Hashem

A chavurah leader sees himself as someone who is leading but not creating what happens. The strength of the chavurah lies in the strength of each member. Therefore, keep in mind that everything that happens during the meeting is meant to happen. Challenges the chavurah faces are beneficial. Everything that happens between the members of group is part of the story. The same way you make space for the group members, make space for Hashem to be present in your gathering.

 

Mirroring and Gathering

One of the roles that the chavurah leader should take on is to 'gather' and 'mirror' what is said in the group.

Mirroring: People usually want to feel that they’ve been accurately heard, that their participation was significant, that their words found a place in the listeners’ hearts and that the self-exposure was “worth it”. The leader’s role is to validate these feelings in a way called 'mirroring': As leaders, repeat what each person says and clarify if that is what was meant. Ask if you understood correctly and give an opportunity for rephrasing. Other tips connected to mirroring will be given in the chapter on rounds of sharing.

In order to  mirror correctly, do not put words into the mouth of the person being mirrored, nor bring new content or express an opinion or slant on what has been said.  It is simply a reflective listening to what has been verbalized.

Gatheing: At the end of each round of sharing, after everyone who wanted to speak has spoken, gather all that came out from the group. Review shortly what each person said, and summarize the whole session. Give one and all the feeling of being heard and ready to move to the next stage.

Paying Attention

Chavurah is a sensitive space. Often, people who are given the opportunity, especially if the atmosphere lends itself, can share more intimate and revealing feelings than they are used to. When this happens, how they feel afterwards depends greatly on the group members’ response. We discuss this at length in the chapter on ’rounds of sharing'. The role of the leader here is to pay attention and check if anyone is upset or strained. Try to notice if a response is hurtful to another participant or if someone wants to express himself and hasn’t succeeded. The leader can do many things in the different situations, but it is important to keep in mind that each situation is unique. What is constant, however, is paying attention.

Time and Flexibility

Responsibility for time is very important in a group that is dealing with personal sharing. If the group becomes tired and doesn’t have the energy to listen to a person for whom it is important to speak, then a difficult situation can occur. If there is not enough time to close an issue that has been opened, the end of the meeting could be painful to individuals in the group. Therefore, it is worthwhile to decide beforehand how much time to devote to each part, and to reconsider, taking into account your experience from previous meetings. Responsibility for time also includes the ability to be flexible: to shorten or lengthen the timeframe as needed, to cancel a stage of the meeting due to lack of time or to make a session shorter.

Chapter Three: How to Begin a Chavurah Meeting?

You have gathered friends together for the chavurah and you have prepared the meeting. Now, how do you begin the session?

Ice-breaker: The chavurah structure is a helpful icebreaker. The Bracha Rishona (first blessing)  has the power to help people feel good together, even if they don’t know each other. You can look in the file "Ideas for introductory remarks" in the website, that offers a collection of ideas for first blessings. If jumping right into the water is uncomfortable, you can first do different ice-breaking exercises and then continue to the first blessing.

 

What is my passion for all of this? If you are the pushing and leading force for the creation of the chavurah, then you are its center. Explaining its importance for you may help in creating an enthusiastic first meeting.

Time schedule – what will be when? It is advantageous to explain the upcoming stages. Explaining the theory and the idea behind the different stages is unnecessary, but giving a general overview is constructive, and will give the participants a feeling of knowing what's ahead.

Chapter Four: Creating Cohesion and Connection in the Chavurah

In order for the chavurah to flourish, We need to create an atmosphere that makes it possible for people to share and expose themselves. Some even feel that the main benefit they get from the Chavurah is the special connection between the members, sometime a connection unlike any other connection they've had in their life. Chavurah leaders often feel like they need tips of how to make this happen. here are some guidlines:

 

Work according to the structure of the chavurah: The way that the chavurah is constructed provides the opportunity to share the personal and do inner work. The Bracha Rishona, the personal and inner connection in the immersive learning, the parnassut and the Bracha Ahrona – all these stages have two layers: the layer of content and the layer of chavurah. On the level of content, every stage is purposeful to the learning. On the chavurah level, each stage also makes a more connected conversation and enables an entry into the chavurah members’ inner world. In truth, these two layers serve one another and their articulation is the chavurah itself.

 

The open sharing of the chavurah leader: The more open the leader is, the more he speaks freely of his own life, debates and, prayers, the more the group will feel free to open up themselves. Important to remember that to be open does not mean to let go of our defenses. To be open does not mean to make ourselves the center of the meeting (as was stressed in "making space"). Finding the balance in sharing is essential.

Well-formulated guidelines for the sharing exercises: In the first blessing and in the immersive learning we aim to find an suitable guiding question both for the group and for the specific meeting. If our goal in the first meetings, among other things, is to create a connection between everyone, then it is beneficial to present guiding questions that are both open-ended, and invite personal sharing. In these two ways, we invite an inner discourse.

 

Gathering: The gathering mentioned in the first chapter is helpful in creating the connection among the group. When people feel seen and heard, and that what they said mattered to the rest of the group, they will be happy to share even more and to dive deeper into the inner work.

 

The Parnassut:Although the whole chavurah structure is valuable, the parnassut is the most significant tool for facilitating a profound connection among the members of the group.  We discuss this further in the chapter on parnassut.

Chapter Five: Instructions for Rounds of Sharing

Rounds of sharing are the heart of what happens in the chavurah. Below are tips for meaningful moderating and leading of these rounds. When we speak of sharing, we relate to all sharing – in the first blessing, in the immersive learning, in the parnassut and in the concluding blessing, the Bracha Ahrona

Formulate a guiding question: Formulate the guiding questions and write it down beforehand. Try to understand what is it that you want to bring out from the participants through your question, and make sure the question is fulfilling it's purpose. Try this on yourself: how would you answer this type of question? You may want even to voice the answer out loud. Soon you will discover that a question that sounded good in your head, sounds absolutely different out loud, and answering it could be very hard. Voicing your answer will help you rephrase the guiding question in a way that brings out the kinds of answers you are interested in.

Stay with simple questions

Write open-ended questions, which do not have a “yes” or “no” answer.

Formulate questions that enable personal and not ideological answers

Formulate question that lead towards the personal –where am I?

Define the framework of the response: All types of sharing can get lost when the length and precision of the response are not properly defined. When a person speaks for too long, even when one wants to let him speak without restriction, several problems can arise: First, the speaker goes out of focus which may lead to a situation where what is said does not contribute to what is being created in the chavurah; this can hurt both the speaker and the chavurah. Second, speaker may not be understood. Third, an overly lengthy speech can result in the group’s lack of concentration and listening and a certain disregard which can be hurtful to the speaker.

Therefore, maintaining the framework of the response, which initially may seem restrictive, is ultimately helpful to the group.

There are rounds of moderating which can be unrestricted and yet, the response should be limited: whether quantitatively – a specific number of sentences, or structurally a basic frame of language that has to be given to the answer. for example: “I think that… and that makes me…”, “Prayer for me is. …”, etc. In these instances, insist that everyone maintains the exact structure and phrasing that you instructed; ask everyone to fill in the blanks without breaking or adding to the structure.

There are rounds that can be defined: A one-sentence response, or a form structure that has only one sentence.

There are rounds that can be defined: A one-word response. This round is very powerful, despite the clear restriction. Sometimes a round can be a one-word response with an additional round in which everyone repeats their one word and explains in one sentence their choice of word. Often this second round is unnecessary.

Give an example as part of the instruction of the exercise: important that the leader include an example of how to respond, word for word. This is even more important when the instruction had a structural phenomenon, as we described above. In general, this advice can mitigate many difficulties described in the previous section.

How to do this? After completing the instructions for the exercise, give an example that takes into account all the details and is careful with formulation and structure. Stress that this is what you expect from the response of others in the group. It is crucial that your example be authentic and relevant for you, matching your expectations for authenticity and relevance from the group.

Not to speak “about” but “to”: Stress that answers are in first person and not meant to lead to discussion and debate. When a discussion does arise, perhaps ask those participating in it: “Where are you in this? “What do you feel?”  or “Can you repeat that in first person?”

Not to answer “you”: Many people, especially when discussing heartfelt matters, feel that they must answer and argue when they disagree. Chavurot do not function in this way. They are based on listening and on creating an atmosphere where one can speak freely. They know that the chavurah will be able to contain the individual’s feelings. Therefore, it is essential to separate each individual's words, without any response until you verify that the speaker is confident that he was heard and understood by everyone.  Even then, if anyone has a strong feeling that he/she just has to respond,  then he must speak about “himself/herself” and not about “what you said”. If something is said which disturbs me, I say what bothers me, and explain where these words made an impact in my world, and do not  attack you, the speaker, or even refer to you. One must be most careful; otherwise, this can cause hard feelings.

Not to give advice: If someone shared, don’t let others in the group advise him as to what to do. Sometimes all the person needs is to be listened to. If someone in the group feels he would like to give advice to the person who was sharing, he has to ask permission. only if the speaker agrees, can advice be offered.

However, there could be a situation where you, as the leader, feel that the speaker could use some advice, and actually, between the lines, that is what he is really asking for. In that case, you can offer the speaker the opportunity to ask for advice, and then allow others to offer their advice. Of course, make sure that the speaker agrees happily and doesn't feel pressured to agree.

The Popcorn style and the round style: There are rounds in which each person is required to speak and respond in turn. Each person speaks/answers after the person sitting next to him. There are other rounds in which it is not important that everyone speak and whoever wants to participate can do so. This is the 'popcorn' style of moderation – whoever pops up, speaks. Sometime the leader can use the popcorn style, and still instruct that everybody has to answer. The popcorn style can loosen up pressure to speak in turn, in cases that not everybody is fixed on what to say, or feel comfortable to talk right now. The leader decides according to the topic as to which approach is appropriate.

What if the sharing is stuck, or the chavurah group is not cooperating?

Don't be nervous if there is silence in the beginning. You should also mention to the group not to be nervous and that it is o.k. to have a time of quiet thinking as well as a time of silence that stems from embarrassment or confusion.

Be authentic. A leader who is more open and honest in sharing can possibly help others be open.

Trial and error. One can’t always know immediately what will open or close a group.  Don’t be taken aback. The next time around try another direction.

Change or rephrase the question, or decide to move on.

If there are several participants who are actually sharing, but their sharing is very minimal, ask questions. Express your natural curiosity regarding their responses:  “Why do you think that?” “How do you see that it matters?” “Can you tell us about a feeling this topic evokes?” “Is your opinion based on a personal experience?” Important not to pressure participants to say more than they have already said; everyone at their own pace and time.

If someone doesn’t follow rules: Better not to comment and accusing them of ignoring the rules. Do not stop them at once from talking. Be gentle. Ask and guide with guiding questions to an answer that is more in the approach and the spirit of the chavurah. Of course, pay attention if someone is hurt or shuts down. Sometimes, in these rare cases, a quick and incisive comment is necessary.

Mirroring: as described above, mirroring is a powerful tool in the sharing process. In order to mirror correctly, do not put words into the mouth of the person being mirrored, nor bring new content to his words or express an opinion or slant on what has been said. Mirroring is simply a repetition of what was said.

Valuable if the leader can mirror what each person said and clarify if everything was understood. Emotional mirroring can also be enriching, and can lead to making the speaker willing to share even more. An emotional mirroring could be: “I hear your pain”, or " Seems like you are not happy about something", or "Does this make you feel peaceful?" Sometimes there is not much to add to what has been said, For all sorts of reasons. Still, don't leave the speaker with no response at all. “Thanks for sharing” can be a meaningful response in these cases.

Chapter Six: Structure of the Chavurah

Anyone unfamiliar with the structure of the chavurah, should see the file "Suggested format for Chavurah learning" in the website. Below we highlight several aspects of the structure, and offer detaild tips for the leader's role in every stage of the Chavurah:

Bracha rishona/ the first blessing; ideas can be found in the fileIDEAS FOR INTRODUCTORY REMARKS \ on the website.

2.    Text learning

How to choose a text?

In the immersive learning, the text learning isn't a goal of itself, but rather a tool that serves the perpose of inner work through the text and sharing it with the chavurah. That is why it is helpful to choose a short text, which doesn’t take long to study.

Avoid obstacles. Limit potential obstacles to comprehension of the text. If the source is in Aramaic or Hebrew, best to translate it into English beforehand. If there are difficult words, bring a definition. If the text refers to other texts, check the references and see their significance to this study. If they are important, best to bring them or at least to provide a basic explanation.

Text that engages you. The leader is usually also the initiator of the chavurah. The more enthusiastic the leader, the more contagious the enthusiasm to everyone else. This is true for the general topic of the chavurah but is also true for each meeting; choose texts that excite you, speak to you, make you eager to come to every Chavurah meeting and discuss them. The focus need not be on order, consistency or constructing complicated lesson plans.

how to study a text?

Study that is not inquiry. We want to understand the text but not invest time in analysis and in the theoretical underpinnings. Understanding should focus on the pshat – the simple meaning.

Study of the text in the framework of the chavurah is listening to what the text is saying, or in other words, 'mirroring the text'. Mirroring the text is like mirroring the words of the group: trying to understand what is said in the text, without adding a personal response or personal angle. Feel free to study the text in depth and on several levels, reaching for the moest profound understanding. When the chavurah becomes more connected to the text and understands it in more depth, working on a personal level will be easier.

And yet, having said that, worthwhile to reach individual work relatively quickly. Better not be dragged into a too lengthy study, especially into discussions that do not serve your goals for studying the text. The tasks will help you understand what to focus on and how to direct the study. Best to end quickly yet gently any discussion that you had not planned to open.

3.    'Immersive learning' – Personal work stemming from the learning

Focus on clear guiding questions

Leader must bring the group to a personal place – Where am I in the text? The leader is meant to open the door to inner work and not to a theoretical discussion. There are different ways to do this, and it is up to each leader to find his own tools. A relatively simple strategy is asking the chavurah to consider three questions: 1. What does this text call me to do, to work or to think? 2. Where am I today in my own life? 3. What is required of me in order to make the transition?

La'asot mehatorot etzot (turn the ideas into advices) — a basic aspect of personal work is to take the inner kernel of the study and extract an advice, a recommendation, something practical that can be implemented. Best if that advice or recommendation can be practiced in the meeting itself.

If in the course of the moderation, theoretical or ideological discussions come up, cut them off short quickly and clearly. Remain in the strict framework. Perhaps this sounds rigid, but ultimately you will be happy, while otherwise you and the rest of the group will be frustrated. As mentioned, the cutting short need not be aggressive and can simply manifest in the question, “Can you repeat what you said, in first person?” or “Where do you feel this?’”

4.    Gathering.

It is important at the end of the immersive learning stage to organize the chavurah in a circle and gather something from the work. Very possibly, a question like “What did you talk about?” or “What conclusions did your reach?” will be too revealing and shouldn't be asked in this way, especially in the intimate situation created; Circle questions can be: “What happened to you in the course of the study/work?” “What new discovery about yourself did you make?” “Can you say, in one word, something that occurred in your study?" The rule: To ask about the process and not about the actual content.  Note: make sure not to pressure anyone to speak at this stage.

5.    Parnassut:

as mentioned earlier, parnassut are very important, even though at times this may seem secondary. The role of the parnassut is to bring something of the individual participant into focus, so that we know the person better. This brings the group members into a more genuine and deeper relationship.

Guidelines: One approach lets the Parnas bring himself in any way that he chooses. If you, or your group members, find that difficult and prefer clearer instruction, there are many other options. Here are two suggestions:

a spiritual biography: tell about your life but not via a curriculum vitae biography but rather a biography of your spiritual journey in life.

bring something personal to the group: a poem, a story, a talent, something you would like to study together, a work collaboration. present it and bring the group into your own world.

Echoing—after the Parnas finishes, important to give time for reactions of the group. The exercise here should be: everyone says how the words of the parnas touched him.

6.    Bracha ahrona – concluding closing blessing:

the last stage, in which the meeting is summarized, and the leader gives the feeling that one can gradually leave the intimate room and intense atmosphere and continue in their day. Several possibilities to the guiding question of the Bracha Ahrona:

One word I take with me from the meeting—and everyone repeats the word

an insight I take from the meeting

a quotation of a line we studied that touched me

a quotation that someone said in the chavurah that touched me

a movement that reflects my experience in the meeting—everyone repeats the movement

in one word, a feeling that accompanies me at the end of the meeting—everyone repeats the word

a melody that everyone sings together. Possibly with a musical instrument.

Chapter Seven: The Technical framework of the chavurah

The Technical framework of the chavurah contributes to the feeling of trust.

Times for each stage: these are recommended time allotments for each stage that are based on cumulative experience. Of course, each leader can independently determine what seems right – for the chavurah and for each meeting. Even if the allotted time changes, we recommend maintaining the same time ratio between each stage. The time is dependent on the number of participants. More time is needed when there are more participants so that everyone has a chance to speak.

Bracha rishona/introductory opening blessing– 10 minutes (longer is ok although it shouldn’t drag on too long.)

 Study of the text and mirroring of the text—30 minutes

Individual work–30 minutes

Gathering –10 minutes

Parnasut –30-45 minutes

Bracha Ahrona—10 minutes

2     Sitting and Speaking

Sitting— in a circle, without tables in the middle, with comfortable seats, important that everyone can see each other.

Speaking—speech follows listening. Important to note that there is no raising of hands nor does anyone announce whose turn it is to speak. In the beginning, there may be some difficulty listening — interruptions, confusion, lack of confidence to dare and speak without raising a hand; this all is quickly resolved

       Good luck!