Union for Reform Judaism

A Path to CHAI
May. 20, 2009

Rabbi Aaron Starr, director of lifelong learning at Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, Michigan, told us about the process he went through with his school committee that resulted in defining the school’s goals and adapting CHAI as a means to that end.

The Path toward CHAI by Rabbi Aaron Starr

As the director of lifelong learning at Congregation Shir Tikvah, I was charged with the task of analyzing and evaluating the religious school curriculum that was in place to be sure that it would enable us to achieve our educational goals. Here are the steps we took that ultimately led us to a different understanding of what would be best for our school:

Step 1: Reflection. We asked the parents of our religious school students: What is the ideal Shir Tikvah adult? In a small group exercise, I asked parents to draw a person and to enlarge the qualities they considered essential to the ideal Shir Tikvah adult. For example, a large brain depicted a commitment to Jewish knowledge, a kippah symbolized Jewish rituals, a lulav in hand represented awareness of the Jewish holidays, and a large heart reflected Shir Tikvah’s commitment to ethics and social action. After debriefing each picture and discussing the pictures as a whole, we knew in what direction we needed to go.

Step 2: Learning. We held a series of parent workshops on the state of American Jewry today to better understand the challenges we face in raising and educating our Jewish children. These workshops were entitled: “Did Moses Send His Kids to Religious School? The History of Sunday School in America”; “Of Planks and Platforms: Reform Judaism”; “Hidden Curriculum: What Messages are We REALLY Sending Our Children?”; “The State of American Jewry Today: A Look at the NJPS”; “Shir Tikvah and Detroit: A Plethora of Learning Opportunities”; and “Bar Mitzvah vs. Confirmation: Endings or Beginnings?” By reflecting on the journey of our past and our place today, we began to build a map toward the desired future.

Step 3: Goal-setting. We broke down each of our curriculum components and evaluated them on the basis of desired enduring understandings by asking the following questions: What essential ideas, concepts, and feelings do we want our children to take away with them? Why study the holidays, Bible, and mitzvot? How do we want our children to relate to God and Israel? What function ought Hebrew to play in our children’s lives? The answers to these questions became the framework upon which our curriculum needed to be built.

Step 4: Finding a fit. We then had to decide whether to find an already-existing curriculum or to develop our own. Naturally, our first stop was the Union for Reform Judaism, but in no way was it our last stop. After evaluating several options, we determined that the CHAI curriculum best reflects and communicates the values and knowledge we want our children to possess. In addition, our own journey using the Understanding by Design approach (beginning with big ideas, then identifying methods for learning them) taught us that the methods employed by CHAI were most effective as well.

Step 5: Approval and training. Our parents, education council, and I were now all on board to implement CHAI. But that left us one important part of the community yet to play a role: the teachers. Though they knew that we were undergoing a curriculum evaluation and had participated in their own conversations, they did not yet know about CHAI. At one of our scheduled staff meetings, I brought in an expert on Understanding by Design to teach our faculty its approach. They loved it and saw its great benefits. When our regional educator Rabbi Rachel Rembrandt was invited to walk through CHAI with us, our parents (represented by our education council) knew their goals for our curriculum and both the parents and teachers believed in the method. Rachel’s explanation of the curriculum core was thorough and she was able to answer all of our questions and concerns. The vote to accept CHAI became a practical “no-brainer.”

By making explicit our image of the ideal Shir Tikvah “graduate,” studying in brief American Jewish history and its institutions, reflecting on the current state of American Jewry today, and studying Understanding by Design, the path toward CHAI became an enriching journey.

We’ve identified eight key factors from Shir Tikvah’s experience that we believe can be applied to virtually any school.

  1. Begin with the end in mind. Knowing what it is you want to accomplish will help you make the best possible choices about what steps to take.
  2. Devote the necessary time to the process. Successful planning and implementation needs to be an ongoing process, rather than a one-time event. With our deep commitment to successful Jewish educational outcomes for our students, keep the need for conscientious planning on everyone’s mind.
  3. Include key stakeholders. If the school is preparing students to become full members of the congregation’s Jewish community, congregants must help shape the mission of the congregation’s school. This includes parents and school committee members as well as board members. The teachers and director of education need to be part of the learning process while also bringing expertise as to how to carry out the charge of the congregation.
  4. Understand the context. The outcome we want for our students is only part of the equation. Also take a realistic look at the environment in which they learn and live. This will help you set achievable goals and hopefully establish the necessary partnerships and alliances that will enable you to leverage limited resources.
  5. Consider all reasonable options. Involving a group of people in such a process means being open to many possible conclusions. If the decision has in fact already been made, it won’t take long before the members of the group realize their opinions do not count and the effort is a waste of time. Respect the process and those involved, and the result will likely be some agreement of goals and one of several satisfactory ways of reaching them.
  6. Think like an assessor. Once your goals are set and implementation is underway, monitor progress and make periodic corrections, where necessary. Building evaluation “checkpoints” into the process at the beginning will help keep everyone on track and will significantly increase your chances of success.
  7. Lead by enabling others to realize their goals. In the dual role of leader and facilitator, you have a unique opportunity to both guide and serve the Jewish people. Making the plan and the process a shared endeavor will enrich the experience and build community.
  8. Bring in experts. Change requires education and support at every level, including your teaching staff. When adopting and implementing CHAI, take advantage of the many resources available to you through the URJ. Provide the necessary training and support for your teachers to make the change to the new curriculum.