By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – On April 25, supporters of JT Connect, Greater Hartford’s Jewish Teen Learning Connection, will “Eat, Drink, and Connect” at the organization’s 2021 gala fundraising event.
Well, they will connect, at least. While they have kept the name of their annual in-person gala, the Zoom event will not include any refreshments.
It will however be a chance to celebrate and raise funds for JT Connect and its programming, and to honor three community leaders dedicated to Jewish teen education: Audrey Lichter, founder of JT Connect’s predecessor, Yachad; JTConnect teacher Rabbi Steven Chatinover and board member Cyral Sheldon.
“Our gala raises significant funds for us to carry out our mission, and we were working tirelessly to put an in-person event together last year that we had to cancel at the last minute,” says Eric Maurer, executive director of JT Connect. “It’s a year later and we are looking not only to raise money for our organization, but also to honor three exceptional individuals in our community who have had a tremendous impact on Jewish teen education and leadership.”
Highlights of the gala will include a video of a discussion between Lichter, Sheldon and Chatinover on Jewish teen education and programming, and another of teens participating in various classes showing, “the impact that JT Connect is having on their lives today,” says Maurer.
“There will be an opportunity for the guests of the gala to be a real fly on the wall for a conversation these community leaders had with one another about what drives them and what their vision is for education and community,” Maurer says. “Additionally, we’re highlighting our organization. So viewers from the comfort of their living room will have an opportunity to get a glimpse of how JT Connect looks today.”
JTConnect engages teens from across the Greater Hartford Jewish community in fun, interactive and thought-provoking educational and social experiences grounded in Jewish learning and values. Together, teens examine religion, history and traditions through innovative, hands-on programming that includes classroom study, volunteer projects and special events.
JTConnect meets at four different locations at four separate times – Congregation Beth Israel, the Emanuel Synagogue, Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation, and the Mandell Jewish Community Center.
Maurer says JTConnect engages with approximately 400 teens over the course of a year.
When JTConnect President Ben Wexler reflects on the program’s success, he can’t help but focus on this year’s three honorees.
“Simply, without the three honorees JTConnect would not be in the position it is today,” he says.
Referring to Audrey Lichter’s 16-year work as founding director of Yachad, the Greater Hartford Jewish Community Teen High School, which was the forerunner of JTConnect, Wexler says, “Audrey built the incredible foundation that JTConnect now sits on. JTConnect would not have been able to grow and adapt to what it is today without what Audrey created with Yachad.”
In addition to her work at Yachad, Lichter also helped create the Jewish Day School Consortium that was made up of what was then Greater Hartford’s three community Jewish day schools. And, she served as served as a founder and board president of the Hebrew High School of New England, which later merged with the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy to become the New England Jewish Academy. For the past 10 years, she has served as director of the national Jewish engagement program for teens through adults called Chai Mitzvah.
“Yachad was really an incredible model, where you had a compete buy in from the community and you had lots of teens coming together on a Monday night, to explore tons of different topics. In many ways, the core elements of Yachad still exist today,” Maurer says. “We still thrive on being a unifying force in our community and of representing the entire Jewish community in our teen programming with buy in from the synagogues. We still are deeply committed to Jewish learning.
“In many ways I look at the work of JTConnect that I’m able to do, and our successes as really being able to stand on the shoulder of giants, and I think Audrey is a giant in our community. She created an incredible institution and set the foundation for where we are today. JT connect has seen incredible growth in recent years.
Rabbi Steven Chatinover has taught at both JT Connect and Yachad since its inception in 1993. Ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 1982, he served as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor and, in 1989, began teaching middle school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, where he still teaches Judaic studies. He has taught numerous adult education courses and at countless workshops in the community and has tutored many bar/bat mitt ah students.
Cyral Sheldon is a past board member of Solomon Schechter Day School and Hartford Hillel and sits on the boards and various committees of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford, the Jewish Community Foundation, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, where she serves as co-chair of the Community 21 Task Force.
Along with Chatinover, she founded JT Connect’s Teen Leadership and Philanthropy Institute (TLPI), an intensive and impactful three-year program for teens to learn about civic responsibility and philanthropy from a Jewish perspective. She continues to share her expertise and passion with TLPI in an advisory role.
TLPI, says Maurer, enables teens to “explore philanthropy through a Jewish lens.” Teens learn step by step about raising money, sending out requests for proposals (RFP) and giving grants. He estimates that the program has awarded more than $30,000 in grants.
“Cyral and Rabbi Chatinover have worked directly with the kids and have really touched the kids’ lives. There are kids today, whose involvement in the Jewish community and in Jewish leadership today is I think a direct reflection of their of the experience with TLPI.”