Starting a CHAI Kindred Center:
A Brief Recipe

Peter Ochs,
University of Virginia

1. Scriptural Study for the sake of peace

The method of CHAI is strictly one of scriptural study: to draw a small group of participants into religious dialogue and friendship through close textual study and interpretation of passages from each of their sacred scriptures: Bible (Tanakh or Hebrew Bible), New Testament, and Qur'an. The point is not to rush to locate THE meaning of these passages, nor to rush to find sources of peace in the literal messages of the texts. It is, instead, to foster relations among the participants, so that these relations will become sources of peace and deeper understanding. As used here, the term "relations" refers to several kinds of interaction, and each of them is vital to the success of CHAI:

  • "Religious Relations": a CHAI center should be a place of sanctity, in which participants come to honor all three scriptural traditions as witnesses to the work of God in the world and to honor one another as witnesses to faith in God's work.
  • "Study Relations": CHAI participants come together to study Scripture: to share with others the wonders of their own sacred texts; to enjoy learning about the other text traditions; and also to achieve the mutual trust that, as a group, they can eventually study all three scriptural sources, side by side, as subjects of group inquiry. There is therefore a dual goal: to respect the sanctity of the scriptural texts and traditions while also discovering that careful and open study and dialogue is part of that sanctity. The second goal is truly to press for understanding and to open the texts to intellectual-and-religious inquiry that goes beyond mere liturgical "wonder" about the texts (see more below).
  • "Friendship Relations": a CHAI center should be an environment of deepening friendship among all participants. The deep levels of study that CHAI seeks can be achieved only in an environment of deep trust. This comes only gradually: the more participants trust one another's faith and good will, the more they can open dialogue with one another about the troubling as well as the wondrous dimensions of the text traditions.
2. Kinds of CHAI centers.
There are several ways to organize a Kindred Center of CHAI. All groups should seek representation from each of the three Abrahamic traditions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. A group may begin, however, with representation from only two of these traditions, in the hopes of eventually finding participants from the third. Representation should be, roughly, equal, but, again, local conditions will influence the exact mixture. The most important factor is to locate participants who share in the goals and methods of CHAI and, then, to seek representatives from each group. The goal of CHAI is not simply dialogue among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The first priority is to locate folks motivated to pursue scriptural study together, then to find folks who bring sufficient familiarity with the sources (not expertise, just familiarity - although the group will need leaders with some expertise), then to find folks from at least two and eventually all three traditions. The ideal size of all groups is from 5 to 15 participants. (also linked groups)

  • CHAI University Centers gather together groups of faculty or students or a mixture of faculty and students. The intellectual intensity of study should reflect the character of the participants. Faculty may be more motivated to historical as well as rhetorical text study; students may be more motivated to study general themes.
  • CHAI Clergy Centers gather together religious leaders from the three (or at least two) traditions. If it is of interest to the clergy, these groups may also include faculty from local colleges/seminaries or more learned members of their congregations.
  • CHAI Community Centers gather together clergy leaders and/or faculty leaders with members of local congregations who are motivated for CHAI study and who bring at least some familiarity with their scriptural traditions. Group leaders (clergy or a combination of clergy with some faculty) should meet together first to decide how they would like to compose their groups: focusing, for example, simply on more learned members of their congregations, or on political, civic, and business leaders who are also active members of the congregations. One goal of CHAI is to nurture many small Centers that nurture close relations among scripture-readers among the congregations. Another goal - and one of the main political goals of CHAI - is to gather community leaders (business, political, civic) from all three traditions, so that the Centers can eventually become centers of political and civic judgment as well as religious study.
3. How to begin.
For the sake of illustration, we will take the example of a CHAI Community Center led by local clergy or religious leaders, with consultation from CHAI faculty members at nearby colleges. The following sequence is therefore only illustrative of many ways a CHAI group might begin:

  • Before beginning a Community center, clerical leaders have met together for 6 months of scriptural study and dialogue with some local CHAI faculty. During this period of monthly study sessions (1 ½ hrs each), they developed a group, if still early, sense of the meaning of "scriptural reasoning" (see below). They then made plans for a community group.
  • A group of three clerical leaders (Muslim, Jewish, and Christian) decided to invite 3-4 folks from each their religious communities to meet every 2 months for CHAI study. The congregational groups decided to meet, first, by themselves for one or two sessions of study within their own scriptural tradition. This was to give them some sense of confidence in their "own" tradition of study. Then they held an initial meeting of the Community Center.
  • For an example of how to select topics and texts for study, see the illustration by Michael Cartwright. Some CHAI groups have selected texts that touch on themes of "hospitality"; some have chosen texts from the Abraham stories in all three scriptural traditions; some chose themes of "song and psalms," and so on. The idea is to begin with brief textual selections, so that study can proceed with care for each sentence, as opposed to hasty studies of "themes." After a few meetings, it may be good to bring in examples of traditional readings of these texts, from sources in the rabbinic, patristic and haddith literatures; or also contemporary readings if that fits the style of a given group.
  • Most sessions began with brief (5 minute) introductions to each tradition's text selection by a member of that tradition. Introductions may focus on the tradition's sense of the "plain sense" of the text, on some historical-critical treatments (if the group is open to that), and on the presenter's own initial responses to the text - for example, sharing thoughts about what is religiously engaging in the text and also raising questions about what may be challenging, both for co-religionists and for members of the other religions.
  • Group leaders do not offer lengthy presentations of their own: the goal is not to teach one another "the truth" of the texts, but to offer enough learned background on the texts that dialogue can be deep and lively without wholly misrepresenting any tradition's sense of the text.
  • After about 45 minutes into each session, the group should be engaging in a free exchange of readings and interpretations of all three text selections. Group leaders should gently nudge the group toward some overall reflections toward the last ½ hour of each sessions: reflections on the general themes of the day's readings, on shared insights, and on challenges.
  • After about three sessions of this kind, a successful group should begin to nurture a sense of friendship in study and an emergent sense of direction: how this particular group may want to direct its future study. At this point, we recommend some interaction among group leaders and consultants from the CHAI board of directors, to discuss the next stage of group study. The group, for example, may want to plan a year of study along some developing textual theme, or to work gradually to insights into some communal or political or ethical theme.
4. A note on Student/Faculty Groups
At the University of Virginia, our Charlottesville Community Center began after we nurtured a Faculty-Grad Student Center and another Undergraduate Center.

The Faculty-Grad Center met monthy for studies that parallel the national meetings of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning (see the journal issues based on such meetings, on The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning website). The Undergrad Center has been less focused on scriptural study as its only work. Instead, more reflective of student learning and interests, it has sponsored four areas of work:

  • a)"Abrahamic theo-politics" At bi-weekly meetings, the Center invites faculty from the different traditions and also from Government and from History departments to offer presentations and discussions in different issues arising from Abrahamic religion and international political relations;
  • b) "Chai Study" Once a month, students gather with a faculty or grad student leader for study of scriptural sources. Since most students have limited textual background, these sessions are partially introductory, partially expressive of the methods discussed elsewhere in this overview;
  • c) "Religion, Violence and Peace": Every two months, the group meets with representatives of all religion groups on campus for programs that examine how the world's religions contribute to both peace and war around the world;
  • d) "A New Undergrad Course on Abrahamic Theo-politics" Aided by a grant by UVA's Center for Religion and Democracy, students and a faculty advisor also met monthly to plan a new Religious Studies/Government Course that examined theopolitical traditions in the three religions and how contemporary studies of International Relations can both come to draw more on, and contribute more to the study of these traditions.
5. Scriptural Reasoning
CHAI scholars label the process of CHAI study "scriptural reasoning." For discussions of what this means, group leaders should consult the website and electronic Journal of Scriptural Reasoning in addition to the CHAI website.

6. Registering a Kindred CHAI Center.
The CHAI Institute requests that participating Centers register with the international organization as an official "Kindred Center." Such registry will entitle the Center to make use of the name "CHAI" (or Children of Abraham Institute), to make use of CHAI websites and instructional materials, to consult with CHAI board members about how to nurture their centers, and to join the web-Network of CHAI Centers. As members of the web-Network, all participants in the Center may interact with other CHAI participants internationally: discussing the work of their centers, debating major issues facing Abrahamic groups, and joining international peace projects in CHAI. Center leaders will also be invited to contribute to CHAI and Scriptural Reasoning journal issues and regional or i nternational meetings.

To obtain registry, a local CHAI Center should:

  • Submit brief registration forms to be provided by the CHAI Co-directors;
  • Gather annual dues from each local Center participant: part of the dues will be used locally for Center expenses, part will go toward the annual Kindred Center dues, to be center to the CHAI Institute.
Further information

For more information on how to aid your synagogue, church or mosque community in developing CHAI study groups please contact any one of the following individuals:

Randi Rashkover
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
York College of Pennsylvania

Peter Ochs
Edgar Bronfman Professor of Jewish Studies
University of Virginia

Michael Cartwright
Dean of Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations
University of Indianapolis

For more information on how to begin and develop a CHAI university group please contact any one of the following individuals:

Randi Rashkover

Chad Pecknold

William Young

Basit B. Koshul

Katie Spencer