Family Education, Board Involvement at Heart of New Initiative

A new curriculum core that aims to create educational standards for how Reform Jewish children learn was unveiled at the UAHC Biennial Convention and will be available for grades 2-3 in the fall of 2002.

Chai: Learning for Jewish Life , the first comprehensive curriculum developed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in more than 25 years, was created to support Rabbi Eric Yoffie's call for a total overhaul of the after-school educational system in more than 910 Reform congregations.

Yoffie called for a sea change in the way Reform children are educated. "In the Reform Movement alone, we have 120,000 children in religious school. They need our attention now," Yoffie told the almost 6,000 people gathered for the UAHC's Biennial convention in Boston.

Featuring an adaptable curriculum core, a new, individualized method of Hebrew learning, family education components, and online resources for new and experienced teachers, the Chai project seeks to improve the way Reform synagogues and Reform families educate their children between preschool and bar/bat mitzvah. The UAHC's network of regional educators has been trained to support schools and help them implement the new curriculum.

"We believe that every child who comes to a Jewish school should find a home in Torah, should be at home in a sanctuary, and should be able to make his or her home a sacred place," said Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of Jewish Education for the UAHC. "The Chai curriculum, based on the three fundamental precepts of Torah (study), Avodah (worship) and G'millut Chassadim (action), will, we hope, accomplish this."

The Chai curriculum is a flexible system easily incorporated into a synagogue's existing curriculum. Designed to enhance and enrich key learning areas - not replace ones already in use - the lessons and programs can be implemented by schools in areas they need to strengthen most. "The educational key to Chai is its focus on enduring ideas," Katzew said. "We are intent on teaching our children about the ideas that lie at the heart of Jewish life, that require commentary, and that are as important to adults as they are to children."

In addition to the in-class materials, supplemental materials will help parents impart the Chai curriculum's lessons to their children - helping them live at home what they learn in the synagogue - with a variety of activities, programs, and holiday observances. "This curriculum will empower parents to reclaim their traditional role as Jewish mentors to their children," Yoffie said, noting he is asking every parent to attend three family education and three parent sessions each year, making them full partners in the Jewish educational process.

The curriculum also includes Mitkadem: Hebrew For Youth (mitkadem means "to advance, go forward"), a new, five-year program for students that teaches both prayer book and modern Hebrew with the aid of games and interactive learning tools. Mitkadem is highly individualized, enabling students with special needs to set their own pace of learning.

The UAHC intends to phase the Chai system in over the next three years. Resources for learners in grades 2 and 3 will be available in Fall 2002; eventually, materials for children in grades pre-K through 7 and their parents will be available.

The Chai curriculum is truly a Movement-wide project. It was developed by teams of Reform educators from the UAHC, the National Association of Temple Educators, and members of the education faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The UAHC's regional educators - the Jewish professionals who handle education-related matters in each of the UAHC's regional offices -also played a part in the development of the program, and will be able to aid congregational educators as they select and implement materials. The process was completed by the expert editorial team at the UAHC Press.

To further help congregational educators adapt to the new curriculum, the UAHC has instituted a new teacher-training program. Using state-of-the-art CD-ROM technology, as well as a series of online message boards and discussion forums, and a video guide, the materials will allow educators to learn at their own pace. There will also be opportunities for special teacher training at UAHC camps and regional biennial conventions.