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Chai Center is a Jewish Community Center without Walls

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Valley programs include playgroups, family activities and lectures

When Lisa and Robert Berman moved with their two young children from New Jersey to Avon seven years ago, they were looking for ways to connect with other young Jewish families in the area.

Dennice and Mike Schenk were in a similar situation. In 2006, the Schenks relocated to West Simsbury from Owings Mills, MD, for Mike’s job at Travelers Insurance. Parents of two young children, they, too, wanted to meet other Jewish families.

Both families found their way to CHAI: The Center for Jewish Life, a Jewish community center “without walls.” The Chai Center (as it is more commonly called) is a Jewish “welcome center” in the Farmington Valley, said Elana MacGilpin, who has been director of the center since 2006.

“I went to a playgroup with my then-infant daughter and met all these other moms,” Berman recalled. “It was a great way to meet other Jewish women in the community.” She said those women are still her friends, and she has become so active that she is now a CHAI advisory committee member.

“We wanted to foster Jewish friendships for our kids and be involved in Jewish activities,” added Dennice Schenk, who started going to events such as a swim club party and lectures and before long was named chair of the organization.

“The people are very nice … and whether or not they belong to a synagogue, they are looking for another way to enhance their Jewish identity,” Schenk explained.

Result of population study

In the year 2000, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford sponsored a population study, which concluded that the Jewish population in the Farmington Valley was on the increase — especially among young families and interfaith families.

To help meet the needs of this growing population, CHAI: The Center for Jewish Life, was created in Fall 2004. Seven years later, the Chai Center serves approximately 600 families, according to MacGilpin.

“We strive to build a sense of Jewish community in the Farmington Valley and connect and expose Valley residents to the larger Jewish community in Greater Hartford," she explained. "We promote a sense of identity."

An advisory committee helps develop programming for the CHAI Center.  For several years, the organization rented space in a building on Route 44 in Avon. They soon outgrew the space and realized they could save money holding events in public spaces around the Valley.

“We meet at libraries, senior centers, retail locations and at the synagogue in Simsbury,” said MacGilpin, who sends out a bimonthly email newsletter called “Chai Happenings.”

One of the best-attended and longest-running programs is the Monday afternoon study group with Rabbi Howard Herman from Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom in Simsbury. There are monthly Jewish-themed playgroups, year-round family activities and an Inside Israel speakers series co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, based in West Hartford.  As part of that series, the Chai Center recently co-sponsored a talk by Professor Donna Divine of Smith College on the unrest in Egypt. It was held at the Simsbury Public Library and was free and open to the entire community.

Many programs are co-sponsored with Greater Hartford area synagogues, the Mandell JCC in West Hartford, Jewish day schools, and other organizations. MacGilpin splits her time as director of the Chai Center and as director of adult programming at the Mandell JCC.

One of the most successful programs has been The Mother’s Circle, a program for non-Jewish mothers raising Jewish children. Developed by the national organization, The Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), this 16-week course has been successfully completed by 30 women from the towns of Avon, West Hartford and Glastonbury. Last November, the group was honored at a JOI Tribute Evening, for their involvement in the program.

Liddy Doyle is a Mother’s Circle alumna who lives in Granby with her husband Alan and their two daughters. “When I joined the Mother’s Circle I thought I was the only one trying to navigate the Jewish world without being raised Jewishly. My girls are so proud of being Jewish and I am so proud and grateful for that,” said Doyle, who spoke at the tribute on behalf of all mothers in the program.

An alumni group, Beyond Mother’s Circle, meets monthly in Avon and is facilitated by Avon resident Laura Kinyon, LCSW, who also leads The Mother’s Circle.

Other ongoing programs include the Valley Book Club, held at FVJC-Emek Shalom, in conjunction with their Early Childhood Center PTO Book Club; “PJ Library” story time, for children from ages birth to five, held at the Farmington Library; and holiday events such as Chanukah story time at Barnes and Noble in Canton.

There are no membership fees. The majority of their funding comes from the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford’s annual campaign and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford. The Chai Center holds fund-raisers, such as the recent one at Flatbread Pizza Company in Canton which raised close to $500 from pizza sales and a teacup auction.

For more information, or to be added to the list to receive “Chai Happenings,” call Elana MacGilpin at (860) 677-1235 or email her at emacgilpin@jewishhartford.org

Have you attended CHAI events? Tell us in the comments.

About this column:

Businesses are ever-changing. New ones come to Avon and older ones move out. Patch is going to monitor the changes in the Avon business world.

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