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Jewish Enrichment Center

Jewish Enrichment Center
Chicago, Illinois United States
Leadership team

Rabbi Rebecca Milder, Founding Director
Sara Greenberg, Assistant Director
Erica Benton, Advisory Board President

Organization website
Prize category
Local/Regional
Operational
5+ years
Target audience
Adults, Children, Early Childhood, Educators, Families, Unaffiliated
Categories
Arts & Culture, Children, Community Building, Experiential Learning, Family, Jewish Education

The Jewish Enrichment Center embodies a shift in children’s Jewish learning on Sundays and afterschool. By valuing the whole child, inspiring the child to be co-creator of a Judaism that grows through the centuries, and building the capacity of adults to partner with children in this endeavor, we develop strong, confident children and families who recognize themselves as powerful agents in a dynamic Judaism.

Our site is a laboratory for developing tools and strategies that let children ask questions that matter to them and wrestle with Judaism based on their individuality, with peers, and as part of the ongoing Jewish conversation.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

The Jewish Enrichment Center is founded on the Jewish wisdom of chavrutah. Chavrutah is the dynamic, ever-evolving relationship of person, peer, and Jewish text tradition.

Consider the three chavrutah elements as a triangle: a child, their peer community, and the ongoing, centuries-old, Jewish conversation. In order to make it possible for each child to develop their own relationship with Judaism, based on who they are as a person, we use practices that let this triangle remain live, itself ever-evolving, and we work to let each of the three voices “speak” as clearly, as fully, as they can. We set this triangle within a Jewish Enrichment Center context of an evolving Judaism, within a values system that welcomes Jews of all backgrounds, practices, and beliefs, and within a continuous striving to treat each human being with dignity.

What does a wisdom of chavrutah look like in practice? We partner with children to develop skills for listening to their own inner ideas and responses, to peers, and to Jewish texts. We offer children multiple ways to express their ideas, knowing that by working with a different material, we may discover new things we think or believe about Judaism and life. Starting at age 3 around a snack table, we actively work with children on skills for respectful dialogue. Dynamic chavrutah looks like using educational practices that offer children time: for children to hear their own internal response to a text, time for their ideas to deepen, based on ideas from peers and from early rabbis, and time to make more connections with what they already know. It looks like paying educators for daily professional development time to practice language for Torah and God that actively values multiple perspectives, and to cultivate classroom language with the message, “You are a powerful, capable Jewish learner.” Children’s chavrutah looks like partnership with parents, to support adults in growing the same capacities, skills, and dispositions, that we seek to grow in children.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

At the Jewish Enrichment Center, children involve their whole selves in Jewish learning, wrestling with Jewish text with friends, and designing creative, in-depth projects that unfold over several months. Through these projects, children develop a personalized relationship with Judaism, while simultaneously developing essential life skills, such as cooperation, engagement with diverse perspectives, and resilience.

We’ll explore a Jewish theme, e.g., Berakhah (Blessing) or the Joseph cycle in Genesis 37 - 50, for 8 – 10 weeks. All children, ages 3 - 12, explore the theme at the same time. We’ll listen carefully to children’s questions and interests, noting how they play with the story or ideas. Behind the scenes, educators work as a team to imagine materials and explorations to offer children in order to deepen their connections with text and each other. Mid-theme, we’ll pivot into the arena where children show their most intense fascination, and with the children, we’ll develop an extended project that lets children, individually or in small groups, grapple with questions they find most pressing. Parents and community members participate in significant ways daily and throughout the theme, aiming to build grown-ups’ own sense of themselves as integral players in dynamic Jewish life.

Finally, we bring together children’s ideas about the theme into a floor-to-ceiling, creative, text-based installation - the kindergarten children’s book of the Joseph story, as retold by the 5-year-olds in their own words, with photos of themselves as actors, using costumes and props they created themselves; the fourth grader’s set of three-inch tall, hand-drawn Dominos of events in Joseph’s story, with Yaakov (Jacob) as the first Domino, setting the events in motion by favoring Joseph; next to the first grader’s collage demonstrating that what happened was all God’s plan - hundreds of interpretations together in a community room used daily by many different groups. We hold a special event to celebrate the opening of our installation, when children and grown-ups wrestle with Jewish texts and ideas together. The conversation continues for several weeks as more and more people visit the installation.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

We are humbled by the intensity of the Jewish Enrichment Center’s impact.

Jewish Enrichment Center is where children spontaneously devise ten different interpretations of a Jewish text, just like the ancient rabbis; where a child who could not relate to peers at age 4, at age 7 has close friends; where adults stand before children’s ideas about berakhah (blessing) and cry at the depth of children’s ideas; where families feel comfortable choosing Jewish life for the first time in decades; where non-Jewish parents, after four years of watching their children at the Center, now join in singing at the end of a session; where children proudly share the Jewish music they’ve written, the plays they’ve organized themselves, their “new rules” for games so no matter our physical differences, everyone can play; and above all, children’s deep-rooted, unshakable sense that the Torah and Judaism are theirs to play with: theirs to interpret and live out in ways that heighten joy and connectedness, because every year, the children do just that, molding three interpretations of the biblical Rebekah in clay, or designing a costume for Miriam dancing at the sea, or exploring the pain of animals dying in the Flood.

At the Jewish Enrichment Center, children want to learn Hebrew, and want to be Jewish, because Jewish community is where a child knows that I am a powerful human being in the world. That’s our impact: children who now walk through the world secure in their belief that Judaism is flexible enough and strong enough to hold them no matter who they are, who believe that Judaism will nourish them for their entire lives.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

Chavrutah is a live, dynamic relationship. The more strategies we use to keep the three chavrutah parts open to genuine encounter with each other, the more fully we make it possible for a child to own their own Jewish experience. For example, using our visual environment in a robust way helps keep ideas and relationships live. The way our walls look during a theme - photos of children playing, post-its with questions, scribbled lists of phrases and ideas, texts with notations, children’s drawings - are a record of ideas we’ve had about Judaism and each other. When we walk into the room, slightly different than how we showed up yesterday, our walls let us jump right back into conversation. It’s one example of a strategy we’ve developed to make possible a chavrutah relationship that remains dynamic, day after day, because a dynamic relationship is one in which a child can determine for himself what is most meaningful about Judaism.

To do this work requires a tremendously strong belief in children: in children’s capacity to grapple with complex ideas, to ask important questions, and in children’s desire to be connected with each other and Judaism. It is the single most important thing we have learned about applied Jewish wisdom at the Jewish Enrichment Center. Our trust in children must run so strongly that children know it in every word we speak, in our every facial expression, in every moment that a child fails to meet their own internal standards, and in every joyous discovery large and small. We trust children, enter into dynamic chavrutah with them, and in turn, it is the child who creates Judaism anew for every one of us.