By Stacey Dresner
HARTFORD – Since it was launched in 2009, Chai Mitzvah, an innovative Jewish-engagement program piloted in the Greater Hartford community, has grown to include 1,500 participants in four countries.
And Chai Mitzvah just keeps growing.
With the birth of Ignite Hartford, a pilot initiative that began in the summer of 2016, 200 new members have joined Chai Mitzvah’s ranks.
Over the past year, Ignite Hartford, made possible with the help of a two-year grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, and in partnership with the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, the Mandell JCC, and area synagogues, enlisted 20 new greater Hartford-area groups that started the program in the fall of 2016.
Ignite Hartford takes a community-wide approach to Chai Mitzvah, says Audrey Lichter, the Hartford-based Jewish educator who put together the national program and who serves as its executive director.
“We wanted to bring Chai Mitzvah on steroids into Hartford,” Lichter explained. “So instead of just a few groups, we made a commitment to get 20 groups. And we did.”
The new groups included a number organized through synagogues; three groups at independent living facilities – SummerWood, Hamilton Heights, and Duncaster; “friendship” groups, like one consisting of residents of the Steeplechase condominiums in West Hartford; a JTConnect group for teens; a JCC seniors group; a downtown Hartford attorneys’ group; even a group of mikveh volunteers. The beauty of Chai Mitzvah is that while it can be held in temple settings, it can also be run like informal, book club-style groups.
“So it was a bunch of different funky groups,” Lichter said. “Some were held in congregations; and some outside. What we wanted to do was do the Chai Mitzvah program and see what it would look like when there were hundreds of people in a community involved.”
For Ignite Hartford, Chai Mitzvah provided “value-added” components such as a special discount at the Judaica Store in West Hartford and meet-ups throughout the year.
In the end, Ignite Hartford inspired 200 people in the greater Hartford community to participate in Chai Mitzvah.
One was Lucretia Klieback, a resident of Steeplechase in West Hartford who saw an ad for Ignite Hartford in the Jewish Ledger.
“I wanted more of a connection with a group of women and it seemed interesting in terms of the Jewish theme, because we are kind of secular in our family,” she said. “I was really looking for something to do with a group of women that wasn’t exclusively recreational, but more intellectual, and to learn more about the Torah and how it relates in everyday life.”
Over the nine-month curriculum, each Chai Mitzvah participant, like Klieback, attends a monthly 60-90-minute group study session. Each group is supplied with a text- and discussion-based sourcebook, containing topics of interest such as one’s relationship to family and community, money and tzedakah, cultivating gratitude, living with mindfulness, Israel, Judaism and the environment, and Jewish rites of passage. A fee of $36 covers the source materials.
While some groups choose to have a member of the clergy or other Jewish professional as a facilitator, the Chai Mitzvah curriculum is designed to be self-led.
All groups follow the same curriculum simultaneously – in October, the groups talk about Jewish rites of passage, and in November they’re discussing tzedakah and philanthropy – but each group may be doing so from a specific perspective, or a “lens,” as Lichter refers to it.
In addition, the participants are asked what is on their Jewish ‘bucket list.’ This could be a Jewish study of a subject they are interested in, a Jewish ritual they want to begin to observe or a social action or volunteer project they want to participate in – just some kind of Jewish personal goal they want to accomplish.
At the end of the nine sessions, each Chai Mitzvah participant is acknowledged at a “graduation” ceremony with a certificate of completion and a Jewish National Fund tree certificate.
Klieback, 61, who is a “graduate” of the program, is a perfect example of how Chai Mitzvah can make a difference in one’s life and Jewish involvement.
Growing up in Hartford’s north end, she and her two siblings were raised as Reform Jews and her family attended Congregation Beth Israel. Her mother was Catholic, but she eventually converted to Judaism more than 25 years after marrying Kliebak’s father.
For years, Klieback and her husband Douglas Lavine belonged to Kehilat Chaverim where their daughter was bat mitzvah. Like many, she says, they became less involved there after that, but still observe the Jewish holidays.
A year ago in December, she and her husband went to Israel because he was teaching a class there. They stayed in an Airbnb near Tel Aviv.
“The night we got there it was Chanukah and Shabbat,” Klieback recalled. “We went out for a walk to see the lay of the land and we saw this woman standing outside a small shul with her dog…She asked what we were doing for Shabbat. We said nothing and she said, ‘You must come to my house.’ This woman took us in. She had her whole family there, and they were lovely. We spent time with them while we were there and now we are friends. It was just a really nice connection and I think that is what kind of what sparked my interest in wanting to be a little more connected. But we are not good at making a commitment to be a part of a real organized temple at this point.”
Klieback said that Chai Mitzvah’s laid back, flexible approach was just what she was looking for.
“At first I was a little intimidated because a lot of the women in my group are very observant and keep kosher,” she said. “But I did not feel pressured at all.”
She says she enjoyed the curriculum, noting the “relatable topics” like philanthropy and spirituality.
“There was always a discussion about how it relates to your life now,” she said.
On Klieback’s Jewish ‘bucket list’ was the goal to try to observe Shabbat at least once a month.
“We do Shabbat dinner. I invite my nephew and his children who live nearby. We don’t go crazy cooking, because we are all so busy. We keep it casual … sometimes we just get pizza,” she said. “We try to make a commitment to do it once a month, but honestly we aren’t always able to. But I do feel more connected to my Jewishness just being connected to the group and raising my awareness about it. “
Now that they have finished the Chai Mitzvah curriculum, Klieback says she would like to continue meeting with her group to talk about Jewish topics, but after graduating, the goal is for them to continue or expand on their Jewish involvement in the community.
“…Our goal is engagement in the host community,” Lichter said. “That means we want them to become more involved with the congregation or community offerings. Having said that, some groups stay and hire a teacher to continue learning together, like the Hartford Lion of Judah group. Other groups morph into something a bit different, like Rabbi Ilana Garber’s Chai Mitzvah Next. Some stay as chavurot and do other things together, and some disband. We like to see ourselves in collaboration with other organizations like Melton, Partners in Torah, Machon Hadar, Global Day of Jewish Learning, JTS Curriculum, etc. All of these have opportunities for additional study as well as what local communities offer. We have the Greenberg Center, the Universities, and the Federation Leadership Institute.”
New Chai Mitzvah groups are already starting.
“Chai Mitzvah groups can start any time, but they all have to start with the month’s topic. We love it when groups start in October, but we have groups starting all throughout the year,” Lichter said.
Earlier this month, an “Inspiration Fair” was held at the Mandell JCC with various participants of Chai Mitzvah who “chose creative ways to grow their Judaism” sharing their experiences; as well as information about community organizations offering volunteer opportunities.
For more information, email Audrey@chaimitzvah.org.
CAP: The June 14 Inspiration Fair showcasing Chai Mitzvah’s “Ignite Hartford.” Photo credit: Wayne Edwards Production