A new cohort of 25 congregations from Judaism’s Conservative Movement will enroll in The Jewish Theological Seminary’s groundbreaking Mitzvah Initiative this fall, joining the nearly 50 synagogues, Solomon Schechter day schools, and Ramah camps already involved with the program. The 2010–2011 cohort includes congregations in California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Georgia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, as well as London and Berlin. The initiative, unlike many other education curricula, begins with frank discussions by the participants about their personal relationships to the “commandments, commandedness, and the Commander.” Only then do they proceed to study and observance of a range of mitzvot (the 613 Torah commandments), followed by reflection on the meanings that these mitzvot hold for those who engage them.
In one of his first efforts as chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Arnold M. Eisen asked Conservative rabbis across the country to begin a serious discussion with their congregants about their individual connection to the mitzvot. The result was the Mitzvah Initiative, which has engendered probing dialogue among Jews of all ages—from parents and teachers to campers, students, and elders—about the role of mitzvot in their lives. A daughter and her father, a rabbi and a congregant, a student and his teacher are talking about visiting the sick, kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), Shabbat, and tzedakah (charity/justice). The Mitzvah Initiative, by encouraging Jews to take the next step and incorporate these practices into their daily lives, has produced enhanced commitment to individual and collective observance and new appreciation for Conservative Judaism.
In this year’s High Holiday message, Chancellor Eisen wrote this about the Mitzvah Initiative: “I have many emails from participants . . . explaining how study, practice, and honest exchange with members of their community had set off a lightbulb in their heads about the meaning of mitzvah and led to a resolve for greater study and observance. I am grateful to them for taking the trouble to write to me about this.”