Chai Ceremony

A Jewish way of sending young people off to college

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The following ceremony is an adaptation of havdalah, the ritual for ending Shabbat. which includes blessings over wine, fragrant spice, a multi-flamed candle, and one known as Hamavdil explicitly commemorating the shift from Sabbath to weekday. Reprinted with permission from Ohalah.org.

Background 

 

The "chai ceremony" is an innovative ritual celebrating the life passage at age 18. Chai means “life,” and the young adults, having finished high school, are embarking on a new chapter in their lives.

Chai equals 18 in gematria (Hebrew numerology), and most young adults in our culture make this transition at about age 18. The chai ceremony is centered around havdalah, the traditional ritual separating Shabbat from the days of the week. It is also a time of separation, as our young adults go to college. (Even if they continue to live at home, the nature of the relationship will change.)

lifecycle ritual quiz

Families gather on a Saturday night shortly before the chai participants leave for college or other destinations. (The congregation or havurah might consider Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of consolation after Tisha B’av as a regular annual time for the chai ceremony. It could also be done around high school graduation but seems to have more impact just prior to leaving for college.) 

If the gathering is small, it may be held in a home, and the entire program may be done while participants are seated in a circle or other informal arrangement. For larger groups, after the opening, the sharing portion could be done in small circles or at tables that seat two or three families. 

The chai ceremony was first practiced in Congregation Beth Am, a Reconstructionist congregation in San Antonio. I look forward to different communities finding new ways to enrich and enhance the chai ceremony. For example, most North American Jewish youth head for college, perhaps preceded by a year in Israel, at age 18. At that age, most Israeli youth embark on their military service. This ceremony might have an even more powerful meaning in Israel, where the young people would be blessed for life and protection as they prepared to serve their country in the military (or volunteer service).  

There are three parts to the ceremony:

1) Sharing & Blessing

2) Havdalah Service

3) Social-Simhah [Festivity]

A wordless refrain (for example, from Debbie Friedman’s havdalah song), may be sung between parts of the ceremony to create coherence and flow. 

Part One: Sharing  

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Rabbi Julie H Danan

Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Chico, California, and an instructor in the Modern Jewish Studies program at Cal State Chico. She is author of The Jewish Parents' Almanac.