Young and old at Temple Emanuel pursue their Chai Mitzvah

The adult Chai Mitzvah group meets for a study session at Temple Emanuel earlier this month. A group of confirmation students are also taking part. Photo: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For Barbara Lewington, the Chai Mitzvah program isn’t so much a new experience as it is an ongoing extension of her faith.

“We’re only in the beginning stages,” said Lewington, 65, of Creve Coeur. “But I think it is adding a Jewish slant to the mitzvahs that I have been doing my entire life and putting it more in the context of Judaism.”

A number of people seem to feel that way about Chai Mitzvah, a national program that’s been brought to St. Louis by Reform congregation Temple Emanuel.

“I asked one of my congregants to look into it,” Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh said. “We got more information, and it looked like an exciting opportunity.”

Started in 2009 in Hartford, Conn., Chai Mitzvah is a nine-month, multifaceted educational initiative that includes  group learning sessions and individual efforts to deepen a particular Jewish ritual or practice. In addition, students can engage in a social action component.

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Nina Woldin, the New Jersey-based director of special projects for Chai Mitzvah, said the initiative is modeled after the ideas of Scott Shay, author of “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry.”

“In it, he talks about how, a lot of times, once you are past your bar mitzvah, you really are no longer engaging in growth of spirituality in your Jewish life,” Woldin said. “There are so many opportunities. Jewish life has so much to offer people that it would be wonderful if we could think of a way to re-engage people and grow that spirituality in the 21st century.”

The way is Chai Mitzvah’s combination of study, spirituality and social action, she says. While group sessions focus on discussion of text, the personalized aspects of the program can include anything from painting biblical scenes to reading every book by Jewish author Philip Roth. Woldin calls it a Judaic “bucket list.” Ritual commitments might include keeping a gratitude journal or lighting Shabbat candles.

Woldin said about 2,000 people in 97 groups have undertaken the program across the United States, Canada, Israel and Costa Rica. Some groups are associated with synagogues or Judaic organizations; others form more organically among acquaintances, like a book club.

“You just ask a friend and they ask a friend and before you know it, you have 10 people who meet once a month and study text,” she said. 

In September, Temple Emanuel became the first in St. Louis to adopt the program and adapted it in an interesting way by running it on two tracks, one for adult learners and another for its confirmation class. Three of the class sessions bring both groups together to create an intergenerational component.

“Our adult learners go anywhere from their 30s or 40s to their 80s,” Hersh said. “Then you bring in these kids, and I think they learn a lot from each other. The older generation can learn what the younger generations think and what’s on their mind, and yet the older people are modeling for the kids that study is lifelong.”

Joel Iskiwitch of Clayton is facilitating the program and co-chairs adult education at the synagogue. He said the sessions are accessible and require no more than perhaps an hour of research beforehand.

“Everything is set out for you,” he said. “You really just need to sit there and have very good discussions.”

Iskiwitch said participants’ personal projects involve doing everything from learning how to help with Friday night prayers to brushing up on Yiddish. Social-action projects might include volunteering at a food bank or visiting nursing homes. The confirmation class, led by Hersh, is helping with Room at the Inn, an emergency shelter program for the homeless.

Subjects studied in the group sessions have covered Jewish perspectives on rites of passage, interpersonal development, the environment and the role of tzedakah. Iskiwitch said he also sees people at the sessions with whom he might not otherwise have the chance to interact.

“We think it is helping us come together as a congregation, as well as expanding our knowledge of Judaism in whatever stream or thread of Judaism you are,” he said.

Lewington said she’s always been involved in social action but this has provided her with a historical perspective.

“I think you can gain something from another person on what they value and how they’ve gone about their chai mitzvahs,” said Lewington, who likes to make gift baskets for the homebound and is helping to secure housing for athletes at the upcoming Maccabi Games in St. Louis. “It is fascinating to see how each person interprets chai mitzvah for themselves.”

Lea Braff, 69, of Maryland Heights, said she’s chosen a personal project in which she’s learning Hebrew poems by the favorite poet of her Israeli daughter-in-law. 

“The poetry has been very good in broadening my vocabulary,” she said. “It has been hard work, but it has been fun.” 

Lenore Schuff of St. John said her participation in the program represents her biggest involvement with the temple. 

“What it is doing is just giving me more interaction with my religion,” she said. “It is being involved in something more than just coming to services. I don’t have a lot of free time, but there are people who are actually researching, checking out books and doing a lot of research. I’m benefitting from their research.”

Schuff said that she’s still picking her personal project but that she’s already enjoying the text study sessions.

“Just as interesting as the [text] sections themselves are how other people interpret them,” she said. “I’m learning as much from the reading as from the other people in class.”

Participants from the confirmation class are equally enthused.

Dylan Vermeire, 15, said he enjoys gaining a deeper understanding about the roots of his faith and likes the lessons on tikkun olam. 

“I think it is really interesting learning about different aspects of Judaism and different ways it can play into everyday life,” said Dylan, a 10th-grader at Holt High School in Wentzville.

Emma Upbin, 16, a Lafayette High sophomore, feels the discussions on discrimination against Jews are fascinating. 

“I enjoy the different opinions and different views from the older versus our generation,” Emma said. “It was interesting to see on anti-Semitism how it has changed and how it has been similar throughout the years.”

Emma also had participated in Room at the Inn by babysitting younger children, playing games and buying bedding for them. 

“I love giving back because I have so much,” she said. “It makes me happy.”

For more about Chai Mitzvah, visit chaimitzvah.org.

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