The Chai Society — Yales members-only Jewish club

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The building is classic brownstone, complete with an inner sanctum of a courtyard. Don't look for a number on the New Haven address; the point of reference is a hair salon next door.

Inside, polished wood and cozy furnishings invite guests to be comfortable and stay for a while.

It is this Crown Street dwelling that is home to the Chai Society, a members-only organization at Yale University.

On this Friday, as on most Fridays, the house is filled with the aromas of preparation for Shabbat dinner, a weekly event that often lasts until the wee hours of the following morning.

Despite its traditional venue, Chai Society is a relatively new organization, started four years ago by Ben Karp, a student of African-American studies, and Lubavitch Rabbi Shmully Hecht. Hecht came to New Haven from Australia, where he had received rabbinical ordination and simultaneously managed many millions of dollars in the equity markets for high-worth individuals.

The two had very different ideas for starting a new Jewish organization at Yale.

Hecht, who is from a long line of rabbis, came to Yale to spread Judaism, choosing New Haven because of family connections; a cousin runs the New Haven Hebrew Day School. Karp was looking to start a more traditional Yale club.

A chance meeting at Sterling Library on the day Hecht arrived led to the founding of the Chai Society.

"I immediately realized that his vision for a leadership, member-based society would allow me to interact and teach Torah to the best and brightest at Yale," said Hecht, who was able to call upon his clients to provide financial support to the new group.

"He and I had very distinct but overlapping visions for the way we wanted to spend time and the kind of people we wanted to spend time with. Both of us, for very different reasons, were interested in spending time with Jews who had not found an expression for their Jewishness; mine was more social," Karp said.

"We didn't really have an outlet. My feeling was to combine our ideas and create a salon that is pulled from the best traditions of Yale to create a small intimate place, where people can gather in a meaningful way. Our club would be founded on the authentic values of a real tradition, so the club would be organically Yale, yet traditionally Jewish."

Karp earned a master's degree from Yale in African-American studies in 1995. He is currently a candidate for a joint degree in history and African-American studies, and expects to finish his dissertation this year.

Chai currently has a membership of 120. Participants are invited to attend events by other members; in turn, they are voted into the society.

In the early days, dinners and events were held in an apartment.

"At the first dinner, there were seven or eight, then 18 to 20. By the 18th week, there were 50 people every Friday night; most had never been to a Shabbat dinner in their lives," said Hecht, who serves as rabbinical adviser to Chai. "Then, we realized we needed to buy a house. So I went to New York and asked Benny Shabtai," the president of Raymond Weil, whom Hecht knew from his investing career. "He asked how much, and wrote a check."

The Chai Society provides a unique combination of Jewish content and social interaction.

"The idea was to bring in Jews on campus who are leaders in their own right, bring in really interesting people, who are not necessarily religious. These are American secular Jews who are going to make a difference, but were not actively involved with Judaism," Hecht said.

The society does not try to compete with other Jewish organizations on campus, such as Hillel.

In fact, Chai members such as Josh Newman, a senior from Palo Alto who is majoring in neuroscience and computer science, is a member of the Yale kosher kitchen.

But Chai is different, said Newman, who is also a managing partner in Silicon Ivy Ventures.

"To be able to get an Orthodox Jew who runs the kosher kitchen [together with] a very secular Jew who felt he had no place at Hillel is the magic of Chai. There's a different role and flavor."

Hecht agrees: "We are not a dining hall, we're a club. I'll tell them as they get more comfortable with Judaism to join the kosher kitchen. Most of our constituents are people who have never prayed before. The majority of Jews at Yale are not looking for Judaism."

However, a single Shabbat dinner may help spark an interest in Judaism. When that happens, Hecht is ready to offer classes and discussions, often geared to a specific interest. He estimates that during the week, 50 people come to Chai to learn — from studying Hebrew to Jewish history.

One of Chai's two main activities is Shabbat dinners, which feature speakers as diverse as Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of American, talk-show host Jerry Springer and area rabbis.

The other main event is the Wednesday night 5Q, a networking opportunity, named for the apartment where Chai Society first met.

Perhaps surprisingly, Chai is open to non-Jews, as well, who are "interested in the conversation of Judaism," according to Hecht.

Andrea Armeni, from Italy, is in his third year of Yale Law School, where he transferred from Harvard University. Organizations like Chai are precisely [what was ] "missing from Harvard. There was no cohesion between the law school and other schools on campus," he said.

The level of conversation draws Armeni to return. He now considers himself "more aligned with Judaism" than with the Catholicism in which he was raised. "I've kept coming back because it felt right. I've come to share a lot of cultural values with American Jews," he said.

Hecht added "The underlying premise of Chai is our differences are not as important as our similarities. That's why you don't have to be looking for a Jewish experience; you have to be looking for a great experience."

Still, Hecht wants to reach more of Yale's Jewish population.

"There are 3,000 Jews at Yale. Until 3,000 Jews are studying Judaism, we haven't finished the job."