Chai Mitzvah initiative to infuse ‘life’ into local learning

Chai Mitzvah initiative to infuse ‘life’ into local learning

Adults searching for new avenues of Jewish learning, spirituality and community may find what they seek beginning next month when seven area congregations join together to participate in Chai Mitzvah, a wide-sweeping initiative to promote Jewish connection.

The nine-month study program will be offered at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, Temple David in Monroeville, Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Temple Sinai, Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler and Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.

Participants at each location will meet once a month in small groups to study a set curriculum and also will gather four additional times during the year with the greater Chai Mitzvah Pittsburgh community.

Participants do not have to be affiliated with any congregation to be a part of Chai Mitzvah, according to Rabbi Barbara AB Symons, spiritual leader of Temple David, who instigated the local communitywide initiative.

Symons first heard of Chai Mitzvah from a congregant who received information about the program at the Union for Reform Judaism North American Biennial. After reviewing the study material, Symons became enthused about the project and asked some of her rabbinic colleagues if they would be interested in organizing Chai Mitzvah cohorts at their respective synagogues as well.

“I said, ‘Temple David will be doing this, and there could be an opportunity for shared programming,’” Symons said.

After several of her colleagues agreed, Symons applied for — and received — a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh to help support the joint programming.

“Every synagogue will study the same topics at the same time,” Symons said. “Then, when we come together as a group, we will have an activity that enhances that month’s learning.”

Some topics that will be covered during the course of the program include: tzedakah/philanthropy; individual and community; interpersonal relations; and mindfulness and conscious living.

“So, maybe when we study mindfulness/conscious living we will get together to do a chant circle or maybe yoga in a Jewish way,” Symons offered as an example of possible joint programming.

Chai Mitzvah, a nonprofit, was first piloted in Hartford, Conn., in 2009 with 49 participants. Since that time, the program has expanded throughout the United States, Canada and Israel and has engaged more than 2,000 learners, according to Ilana Bernstein, Chai Mitzvah’s director of engagement.

Each month, Chai Mitzvah groups throughout the world study the same topic through the same curriculum. Texts are offered in Hebrew and English and are from both contemporary and traditional sources.

“We have 100 different cities that are committed to start this fall,” Bernstein said. “We also have a vibrant program in Israel with 200 participants.”

In addition to the group study, Chai Mitzvah also includes an individual Jewish “bucket list” component, Bernstein said, which encourages participants to take on something meaningful for themselves, such as a new ritual practice or a social action commitment.

Chai Mitzvah has seen positive outcomes among its participants in terms of maintaining Jewish engagement, Bernstein said.

“We see people staying committed,” she said. “People tend to stay involved. And the groups also tend to stay together, doing things together like social action or continuing to study at the synagogue.”

Symons sees Chai Mitzvah as an opportunity for people to sample group Jewish learning through a program that does not require a huge time commitment. Some people may desire the “intimacy of small groups of learners” but find the weekly meetings of an adult b’nai mitzvah group too time consuming.

For those people, Chai Mitzvah may be “b’nai mitzvah lite,” she said. “But it can be a conduit for Jewish learning and can open doors.”

“I think it really is an engaging and not overwhelming way for people to be involved,” Symons added.

Each cohort will consist of nine to 15 adults. Temple David is planning to run three different cohorts this fall (on Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) in order to accommodate the varied schedules of those wishing to participate. Symons will be leading one session herself, with lay leaders running the other two.

Each congregation participating in Chai Mitzvah will determine the leader of its own cohort.

While participants in the program do not have to be Jewish, Symons recommends they are somehow “Jewishly connected.”

Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom, praised the program’s emphasis on collaboration among the various participating congregations.

“What a terrific opportunity to have the chance to take what we’re learning in our respective congregations and to get the community together beyond the walls of our individual institutions and to learn together.”

>> There is a $36 fee to join to cover the cost of materials. For more information, email or call 412-372-1206.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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