By Audrey Lichter

This pandemic has heightened our  reliance on the very kinds of connectivity and community we’ve  been growing and practicing since our inception. In 2009 I was asked to envision a national program that would partner with organizations and encourage adults to continue on a lifelong journey of connecting to the Jewish community and personal growth. On top of that, I was told “success” would be when we are a “household name” and everyone is thinking about where they are Jewishly and what their personal goals for growth would be. Fundamentally, the vision was that there was lots of “supply,” talented educators and plenty of programs, but not enough “demand” – people willing and eager to engage. Our mission was to partner with organizations to help create the demand for this supply.

This being a tall order, we convened a small group of local outstanding educators (in my home town of Hartford, CT) as well as embarking on discussions with national Jewish educational leaders. Almost everyone on the national scene at the time said that no one is interested in people 40 and up, and that our limited resources and energies need to be focused on the young and unaffiliated. Furthermore, we were  told that our name “Chai Mitzvah” was too Jewish and that this would be a turn-off to anyone participating. 

Undaunted, we began to pilot a small group model where individuals would come together for 9 sessions of learning while simultaneously looking into their community to engage what we called their “Jewish bucket list” of a personal commitment for learning, spiritual growth and social actions. We wanted people to pay attention to both what they wanted to learn and do, and what is available in their communities to fulfill their desires. 

This was not designed to be a Jewish literacy program such as Melton, but a Jewish engagement program. Our belief was that once people felt comfortable with a small group that nurtured each other and each one’s personal journeys, the desire to continue to grow and engage would continue.

Now 11 years later, we have engaged over 7,000 people in our initiative including a robust teen program. Chai Mitzvah partners with umbrella organizations such as  Federations and JCC’s, mostly in small and mid-sized Jewish communities. Working in collaboration, we create as many as 20 groups a year across a specific community from synagogues, JCC’s, independent living facilities and day schools, as well as informal friendship and affinity groups. Some of these groups are professionally led, most are lay-led.  Nationally, we average 1,000 Chai Mitzvah participants a year in about 100 groups. 

Our materials are turn-key and our organization offers tutorials on the content. All materials are self-guided and, as I like to say, “You can have a PhD in English literature and run a book group, and you can read a book and run a book group.” Since our mission is one of engagement and connection, not necessarily literacy, we felt that text study with some guidance can be meaningful and open to everyone.

When people engage with Chai Mitzvah over the course of a couple of years, results clearly show that they continue to grow Jewishly and deepen their engagement in their Jewish communities (ignite Evaluation Report)

What do we need to do now? Scaffolding and partnerships. 

We need to come together to create  seamless and robust opportunities for adult education and engagement. If you loved your Chai Mitzvah group, why not think about a Melton program, participating in Pardes, Machon Hadar, Shalom Hartman Institute, the Mussar Institute, Gratz, Spertus or any of the denominational programs, just to name a few? However, one thing we learned, it is not just about learning. It is about creating communities of caring and engaged individuals who trust each other and nurture each’s spiritual journeys. 

I listened intently to a webinar entitled Adapting: The Future of Jewish Education with David Bryfman and Dr. Miriam Heller Stern, National Director of the School of Education and Associate Professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Dr. Stern’s expansive vision of Jewish education, including the home and community, reinforces our commitment to encouraging all of us – at any age – to continue learning and growing. One Chai Mitzvah group we ran at an independent living facility had participants ages 90-102. Sophie who was 100 wanted to learn about Jews around the world, and Sylvia at 95 incorporated daily Jewish meditations into her morning rituals. 

Lifelong learning is not just a buzzword, it is a fundamental principle that has huge ramifications in our ability to be role models and to pass on our love of Judaism and Jewish learning. As we adopt this expanded view of what a Jewish education looks like, we must commit to encouraging Jewish growth throughout our lives – our children are watching us. And we have communities to build and sustain at every level, together.

Audrey Lichter is Executive Director of Chai Mitzvah.