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Scott Shay wants you to recharge your mitzvah—every 18 years

by Dvora Meyers, JTA

October 17, 2011 | 5:35 pm

Scott Shay in his book on energizing American Jewry says his call for a cyclical 18-year bar/bat mitzvah captured the most attention on his promotional tour. Photo by Howard Roy Katz, Art Box Studio

Scott Shay in his book on energizing American Jewry says his call for a cyclical 18-year bar/bat mitzvah captured the most attention on his promotional tour. Photo by Howard Roy Katz, Art Box Studio

Remember that 2009 episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” when as part of a plot to coax Michael “Kramer” Richards to go along with a “Seinfeld” reunion, Larry David’s African-American housemate, Leon Black, pretends to be the Jewish accountant Danny Duberstein?

To sell the cover story, Leon says he was adopted by a nice Jewish couple and has been a bar mitzvah three times, most recently just a few months ago in Atlantic City.

Understandably confused, Richards says he thought the milestone happens just once, at the age of 13.

“No, no, no, no. You misunderstood,” Leon insists. “It’s once every 13 years. You’ve got to recharge the mitzvah.”

“Curb” was playing for laughs, but Scott Shay is serious.

In his book “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry,” which was published before the “Curb” episode aired (maybe that’s where Larry got the idea?), the Signature Bank chairman called for the creation of a new custom—the cyclical 18-year bar/bat mitzvah.

It was this idea, Shay says, that seemed to capture people’s attention during his book tour.

“I’d get e-mails and questions from people who wanted to do it, from rabbis and educators who asked me for a curriculum,” he says.

Not a professional educator, Shay brought the idea to Audrey Lichter, a veteran in Jewish education, to help develop a curriculum and launch a program. It was Lichter, who has started numerous ventures herself, including a day school, who gave Shay a key piece of advice.

“You have to do this community by community,” she told him. “Otherwise it won’t really catch on.”

Chai Mitzvah, the program that Lichter ended up creating, relies heavily on the support of synagogues, local rabbis and teachers, and JCCs, which help refer participants. With two pilot years under its belt and a website, the program is now being offered in conjunction with communities in Manhattan, Westchester and Long Island in New York, as well as Hartford, Conn., and Israel.

Since its inception, the program has attracted about 200 participants from across the religious spectrum—from Jewish Renewal to Orthodox to the unaffiliated.

Looking ahead to 2012, Lichter hopes to see Chai Mitzvah running in more cities.

The program is comprised of four elements: monthly group study sessions, a new ritual undertaking, social action and celebration. Participants, who are divided into four age cohorts (26-33, 46-52, 64-70 and 80-plus), make an eight-month commitment to complete the four steps. The program typically starts after the conclusion of the High Holidays and ends in the spring with a celebration and public recognition of their accomplishments.

“We pick these ages because they capture certain stages in one’s life,” Lichter says. “Everybody notices their 50th birthday, yet we don’t mark it Jewishly.”

Most significant for many of the participants is the adoption of a new ritual, which can vary widely according to education and observance level. Often it is something they have long intended to take up—perhaps chanting the haftarah, lighting the Sabbath candles or reading the fifth aliyah of every Torah portion—but needed a push and support to accomplish.

“What we’ve heard from people is that it was a spark for them to do something meaningful,” Lichter says.

Donna Lippman had been encouraged to sign up by her rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She first came to KJ a decade ago, attending the shul’s beginners’ service, but had felt like her Jewish learning had plateaued.

“I have always loved Jewish learning, ” Lippman says. “[Chai Mitzvah] was a way to integrate that into my life by taking on some rituals and social actions.”

For her new ritual observance, she decided to adopt the recitation of the morning blessings.

“I had never really looked at them,” explains Lippman, who joined Chai Mitzvah’s middle-aged cohort.

After incorporating them into her daily routine, Lippman says she realized an immediate impact on her life. In particular, she cites the teaching that “these are things for which there is no fixed measure—being charitable, acts of kindness, Torah.”

“It got me oriented to carry out my day the right way,” she says. “I really made an effort to be kinder and more patient.”

Though there is a group study component to the program when all of the cohorts come together, Chai Mitzvah is highly personalized, tailored to the individual. Once a participant decides what he or she wants to study or how to volunteer, the Chai Mitzvah support staff helps find programs and opportunities within the person’s community.

A businessman, Shay has found himself frustrated with the approach to creating Jewish adult education programming within the United States.

“It was all about supply and not about demand,” he says. “We’re creating these programs and trying to chase people into them.”

“There’s a lot going on in communities,” Lichter adds. “The biggest challenge is engagement, not creating another program. Chai Mitzvah provides the reason to engage.”

It also gives Jews at every stage of life an opportunity to learn and celebrate. Perhaps most appreciative of this chance has been the 80-plus crowd, which is particularly underserved when it comes to educational opportunities.

“People are always offering them [the elderly] services, but not a chance to learn and grow,” says Galya Greenberg, an educator who leads monthly text study sessions for Chai Mitzvah. “Someone in her 80s decided to say Modeh Ani every morning. That was the ritual she added to her life.”

Attracting younger participants has been more challenging.

Lichter is finding it difficult to engage the youngest cohort, the 26- to 33-year-olds, especially since the majority of the outreach for Chai Mitzvah is done through synagogues and other institutions having their own troubles reaching young Jewish adults. To reach this group, Lichter acknowledges that Chai Mitzvah may have to change some of the program parameters, such as scaling back the length of the commitment, and will need to partner with other organizations that have greater appeal to the younger set.

The challenges of engagement notwithstanding, Shay is optimistic that the 18-year bar/bat mitzvah cycle can take root in the Jewish community. After all, as he noted in his book, the bat mitzvah was far from widely accepted when it was introduced more than 50 years ago, yet is now a near-universal staple in most corners of the Jewish community.

Maybe 50 years from now, if Shay has his way, we’ll all be doing the electric slide attending our grandparents’ Chai Mitzvah parties.

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