Audrey Lichter

Our program, Chai Mitzvah, currently works across the spectrum of the Jewish community and across the generations. We work with over 30 teen groups, young professionals, baby boomers and seniors. We even have three groups in senior living facilities with people ages 90 to over 100! In general, we have found less enthusiasm among funders and the Jewish world in general for our work with older generations, which we feel is misguided and a huge mistake in thinking seriously about our Jewish future.

Chai Mitzvah groups form through social networks in formal Jewish organizations such as synagogues, JCC’s, Federations, Hillels, and Day Schools, in other kinds of organizations like Senior Homes, Mikvahs, and cultural centers. In addition, informal groups, similar to a book group, form through professional groups, friendship circles, condo associations, Mah Jong groups , etc. We nurture community and create strong social networks within and outside formal organizations. It is these bonds that create a sense of warmth and belonging, which then leads to greater commitment to organizations and the Jewish community in general.

Chai Mitzvah groups meet monthly for discussion and mutual support. Each individual is asked to not only attend the 9 monthly sessions, but also asked to prioritize what is important for them in the area of learning, social action and ritual/spiritual development, and make a commitment for the year in each of these areas (the Jewish Bucket List). We encourage people to look inside their community to fulfill these obligations. Often we find that people are not aware of what their Jewish community does nor what opportunities for involvement exist for them. These groups can be self-led (our guided source books and monthly webinars provide much support for the lay leader) or led by a professional.

Our monthly source books use modern and ancient texts, each one addressing an issue of relevance to one’s life. (Some examples are: our relationship to family, mindfulness, gratitude, tzedakah and philanthropy, Israel, leadership, death and loss, Passover, Judaism and the environment, and rites of passage.) In addition to these source books, to deepen the conversation, we provide monthly supplements with contemporary articles, TED and ELI talks, and other relevant material.

In addition to these global conversations (everyone is on the same topic throughout North America and Israel) each person is asked to identify what we call their “Jewish Bucket list”. Each person decides on something Jewish they want to learn, a ritual to take on or deepen and a social action project. We take these personal commitments very seriously and we want people to reach beyond their comfort zone and dig deep inside themselves to identify what is important to them in these three areas. Part of the monthly group discussion centers on supporting each other’s independent commitments (sometimes groups decide to work together in some of these projects).

This year, we have 1,000 people in the program and 90 groups in North America with an additional 300+ people in 14 groups in Israel. This year, we piloted an Ignite Hartford initiative, where we helped form 25 groups in Hartford CT with over 250 participants to see what happens when we concentrate Chai Mitzvah in a particular city. Before launching we received buy-in from community umbrella organizations (e.g. Federations, JCC and Rabbinical Associations.) We are currently working to identify additional Ignite Cities to work with. Since our inception in 2009 there have been over 4,000 Chai Mitzvah participants.

In thinking about your challenge to find something different from your paradigm for the future, I am going to propose something perhaps not in sync with current thought. Along with personal and organizational growth, which Chai Mitzvah is certainly committed to, our motives stem from what can be called “Radical Collaboration.” We believe that there is value in preserving many of our community organizations. We believe that when people feel included and engaged, they also value these structures. Our program is a vehicle for increasing community engagement through strengthening social networks within these structures. We believe in and honor the work of communities. Our purpose is to help increase engagement in the communities we work with. How many times do we put lots of energy into creating opportunities for engagement only to lament that we wish more people attended the great program or opportunity? There are many reasons for this. We all know how busy and noisy lives can be; perhaps there was poor advertising, or perhaps not enough attention was devoted to reaching out. Perhaps the program was not of interest or perhaps, people felt uncomfortable entering alone. There are, of course, room for new ideas, and we know that people usually feel more connected to things they create. However, we believe there is generally more “supply” than “demand.”

We see engagement on three levels-individual growth, organizational growth and ultimately, community growth. A successful Chai Mitzvah experience is when the individual is more committed to their synagogue or community in some significant sustainable way. Our basic goal is to increase demand for community programs and to collaborate with local communities to increase engagement and reduce redundancy. We expect Chai Mitzvah groups to last one to two years (although they usually do not want to disband and then “morph” into something else).

Our budget remains fairly low to ensure sustainability and we collaborate with communities to decrease costs. Perhaps we do not need another big idea… perhaps what we need are safe environments for people to engage in the opportunities already offered. Our tradition is rich with wisdom, opportunities for spiritual growth, community and kehilla building, It is multifaceted and nuanced. It has spoken to hundreds of generations and it has the capacity to speak to current ones. We just need to take the time to create moments of intimacy and to let our tradition do its magic.

Audrey Lichter is a serial start-up person. Over her career she has been in the forefront of starting a congregation, a Jewish community high school, a Jewish Day high school, a Jewish Day School
Consortium, and now a national Jewish engagement program called Chai Mitzvah.