Rabbi Hesch Sommer of Jewish Family Service stood at the white board in Chapel Haven’s library, posing a question to students and community members: “You just got back from break. Did your Jewishness go on vacation?” For student Andy Hausler, who led a Shabbat service on a cruise, and Liora Steinschriber, who led two shabbatons or celebrations, it was an obvious, “no.”
But for a couple of others in the meeting of Chapel Haven’s Jewish Students Organization, it took a little drawing out by Sommer to realize their Jewishness didn’t go on vacation either. “I played with my dog,” David Schleifer said, after telling the Rabbi he didn’t do anything Jewish.
To which Rabbi said, “Taking care of pets is a very Jewish thing to do. It’s a mitzvah (good deed)…We learn in the Torah that God gives us the responsibility to take care and responsibility.” Eric Kay said he went to “synagogue” over vacation, then changed it to, “Let’s say we went to Temple.” He also helped his grandmother put on her seatbelt. “You didn’t let your Jewishness go on vacation,” Sommer said. “The Jewish part to us isn’t a separate part, it’s within us.”
Sommer, Director of Jewish Wellness and Healing Center at Jewish Family Service, said the student group at Chapel Haven was begun about two years ago, an extension of work JFS was already doing with the Chapel Haven community.
The Jewish Students Organization – unique to Chapel Haven – falls under the auspices of JFS’ Shalom Group, which serves Jewish individuals in the New Haven area who have developmental needs. The Shalom Group seeks to help the individuals experience holiday observance, Torah study and shared fellowship.
“We want them to know they are part of the Jewish community,” Sommer said. “We want to find ways to help them affirm their own Jewish identities.”
Many of the 6-15 students and Chapel Haven community members who attend the twice a month meeting have a strong Jewish life at home, but are away from family and relish the chance to carry on traditions and learning.
“It’s made me feel stronger and closer to my religion,” said student Andy Hausler, who was instrumental in establishing the group, along with some dedicated Chapel Haven parents.
Organization members meet two times monthly on Wednesday at 4 p.m. in the library, with Sommer leading one week and JFS social worker Rachel Scolnic Dobin another. While Sommer focuses on religious teaching, Dobin handles etiquette, daily living, holiday observances and activities through the Jewish Community Center.
Sommer is welcomed enthusiastically by organization members as he walks through Chapel Haven’s front door. A seasoned leader, he’s quick-witted, perceptive and knows how to keep an audience engaged.
When Andy Hausler shared that he led the Shabbat service on the cruise, Sommer joked, “Even I’ve never led a Shabbat service on a cruise.”
As a segue way to the next topic, Sommer asks the group, “Is David’s pet dog April Jewish? They look uncertain.
“Are Cats Jewish?” Sommer asks. Someone says, “No,” cats are not Jewish. Sommer quickly responds: “Well, I know a lot of Jewish people named Katz.” The humor wasn’t lost on any of them.
Once the vacation talk ends, Sommer goes over some Hebrew with interesting twists, such as that the Hebrew word pronounced “he” actually means, “she.” And the Hebrew word for fish is pronounced “dog.”
One student asked the Rabbi, “When we kiss the tallis, what does that actually mean?” Eric answered: “Maybe to respect the Torah.” They even talk about a recreation trip to Israel. Students are so riveted with the Rabbi’s lessons that when he says, “We’re going to wrap up now,” Andy reminds him, “We have 10 more minutes.”