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Riv-Ellen Prell Papers

Identifier: P-795

Scope and Content Note

The Papers of Riv-Ellen Prell contain research, fieldwork, and correspondence she conducted to fulfill her graduate work in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. The papers primarily encompass the field notes and interviews she engaged in while observing the Westwood Free Minyan in Los Angeles. The collection also includes correspondence with her faculty and colleagues concerning her work, research she compiled on the Westwood Minyan and on the havurah movement, a bibliography card file, her curriculum vitae, and catalogues of the contents of her field notes and interviews.

Prell’s detailed descriptions of the Westwood Minyan and her interviews with members are valuable to those scholars searching for firsthand accounts of havurot. Her work is appealing to researchers studying the Jewish student counterculture that flourished during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Jewish liberalism, feminism, and American Jewish identity. Of special interest is Prell’s compilation of articles on the havurah movement dating from 1970s to the 1990s and her collection of songs and prayers from the Westwood Minyan.

There is also a small amount of material likely compiled by Jay Greenspan, mostly from Havurah schools, New York Havurah, and the Beit Havurah, a bayit founded in 1975 in Norfolk, CT.


  • 1970-1990, 2003


Language of Materials

The collection is in English and Hebrew.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at

For reference questions, please email:

Historical Note

The Havurah Movement (1968- )

Incorporated historically from religious communes and small study and prayer groups, the emergence of contemporary havurot in the early 1960s was originally pioneered by the Reconstructionist Movement. These small communities prayed, studied and socialized together creating an organic Judaism advocated by Mordecai Kaplan. In the Fall of 1968 a religious community in Somerville, Massachusetts formed, specifically appealing to the growing Jewish counterculture and leading to a proliferation of contemporary havurot. These small informal communities engaged those searching for Jewish involvement that acknowledged their liberal, feminist, egalitarian, participatory and religiously creative viewpoints. Strongly attracting students and young married couples, these havurot began as reactions against the institutional alienation of the American synagogue; in the 1970s, the popularity of havurot resulted in synagogues including havurot as alternative minyans to their main services.

Havurot’s openness to individual self-expression reflected the social and political activism of the 60s and 70s generation of Americans while allowing young Jews to bond with religious tradition. In 1973, Riv-Ellen Prell, an anthropology graduate student in the University of Chicago, saw a unique opportunity to study the various forces affecting a havurah and based her dissertation on observing the Westwood Free Minyan at the University of California at Los Angeles. Prell studied religion as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California and was drawn to anthropological methods for her future work. As she writes:

  1. “...I was somewhat frustrated by the focus on theology and ideas about religion, rather than how people lived religious lives. It was in anthropology and the work of key anthropologists who were developing symbolic anthropology that I found an approach that I wanted to study. The work of Victor Turner who I would work with at the University of Chicago and his teacher Max Gluckman at Manchester University in England located religion within social life and politics...”

Prell participated and observed the Westwood Minyan for eighteen months from 1973 to 1975. Her fieldwork encompassed attending the group’s formal prayer services, weekend retreats, evaluation meetings, and social events. She also conducted formal interviews with founding and significant minyan members. After finishing her dissertation, Prell, now Associate Professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anthropology, revisited her research in the late 1980s. She states; “...I felt it was important to understand that research in the context of American Jewish History...My re-training in American Jewish history was crucial to my understanding that the havurah movement was consistent with virtually every generation of American Jews. Worship and synagogue was reconfigured by each generation in relationship to issues within the larger society...” She completed additional interviews with founders of the havurah movement in Boston and New York,6 and in 1989, published her work in a book titled Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism. Called “the first major study of the havurah movement by an anthropologist” and the recipient of the 1990 National Jewish Book Award in Contemporary Jewish Life, Prayer and Community examines how prayer reflects social forces and affects the worshiper’s experience and criticizes current secularization theories that tend to omit those seeking a significant religious experience. In her review of Prell’s book in the Anthropological Quarterly, Virginia R. Dominguez further explains:

  1. "This book...has much to say to those of us concerned with the search for meaning in experimental forms of organization, representation, and performance, the phenomenology of self as individualized and as collective, the relation between performance and text, the analysis of meaning in ritual forms, and the role of “traditionalism” in “modernity.” It is obviously about the myth of secularization, and the nature of religious experience, and the successes and failures of feminist inroads into established religious communities. And it is lastly about leftist politics in conjunction with, rather than in opposition to, religious experience...”

Prell’s later work, manifested in articles and chapters published for Jewish studies and anthropologist publications, draws upon her graduate work at the Westwood Minyan. Prell currently serves as Professor in American Studies and as Adjunct Professor in Jewish Studies and in Women’s Studies at the University of Minnesota. She co-edited with the Personal Narratives Group Interpreting Women’s Lives: Theories of Personal Narratives and has authored Fighting to Become American: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation. She has written numerous chapters and articles concerning American Jewish culture and its relationship with class, gender, ethnicity, and ritual. A complete list of her publications is available in her curriculum vitae within the collection.

The allure of the havurah movement was limited to its generation. By the late 1980s, most havurot were replaced by more traditional yet egalitarian minyanim, frequently held within synagogues. Many of the former havurah members channeled their religious questioning into professional careers in Jewish academia and communal work. Therein lies their legacy. As Prell writes in Prayer and Community: “Their vision will not soon be forgotten...With or without their particular communities, they have used these ideas to shape the American Judaism of the 1980s and 1990s..."


  1. Prell, Riv-Ellen. Written statement to archivist via email, January 13, 2004.
  2. Strassfeld, Michael. “Twenty Years of the Havurah Movement.” Sh’ma, 20/382, November 24, 1989, pg. 9-10.
  3. Prell, Riv-Ellen. Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism. Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1989, pgs. 15-17, 25-26, 317-318.
  4. Prell, Riv-Ellen. Written statement to archivist via email, September 4, 2003.
  5. Prell, Riv-Ellen. Written statement to archivist via email, January 8, 2004.
  6. Loeb, Laurence D. "Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism [Book Review]." American Jewish History, vol. 80, no. 2, winter 1990-1991, pg. 309.
  7. Dominguez, Virginia R. "Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (Book)." Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 63, Issue 4, October 1990, pg. 193.
  8. Curriculum Vitae, sent to archivist via email September 4, 2003.


1 Linear Feet (2 manuscript boxes)


The Papers of Riv-Ellen Prell contain research, fieldwork, and correspondence she conducted to fulfill her graduate work in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. Prell later expanded on this work with further research and wrote a book on the Havurah Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The papers primarily encompass the field notes and interviews she engaged in while observing the Westwood Free Minyan in Los Angeles.


The collection was arranged by Dr. Prell according to subject.

Arranged chronologically and alphabetically by name of interview subject.

Physical Location

Located in AJHS New York, NY

Acquisition Information

Donated by Riv-Ellen Prell in 2003. Materials in Box 1, Folders 6-11 was donated by Riv-Ellen Prell in 2013. The accession number associated with this accretion is 2013.021.

Processing Information

This collection was originally processed by Adina Anflick in 2003. In 2016, .5 linear feet of material (Box 1, Folders 6-11) was incorporated into the collection by Nicole Greenhouse.

Guide to the Riv-Ellen Prell Papers, 1970-1990, 2003 P-795
Processed by Adina Anflick. Additional processing by Nicole Greenhouse.
© 2016
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Revision Statements

  • December 2016: Processed 2013 accretion into the collection.
  • December 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup.

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States