The recently published issue of the annual alumni magazine for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel included a few profiles of innovative Jewish education models. We're republishing them here. Take a look!
There’s a new face of Jewish education in Chicago: the Jewish Enrichment Center, founded and directed by Rabbi Rebecca Milder (Fellow ’91). About two years ago, Rabbi Milder tackled a daunting challenge for Jewish educators nationwide: to provide high quality Jewish after school care with an educational approach that includes children from many different Jewish backgrounds—congregational members, unaffiliated students and day school students. Since then, community collaboration and funding support as well as a grant from the AVF have turned parking lot conversations into a full-fledged educational institution.
The educational model is hands-on and engages children in relationship with an evolving Judaism. “Children explore Jewish values, culture, and history through art, construction, drama, baking, science, and more, while playing with friends and hearing Hebrew as a living language,” explains Rabbi Milder. So what does a typical day look like? “On one day during the theme of Sukkot, K – 1st graders were drawn to pictures of themselves in action from the previous week, when they had “wandered” bamidbar (in the desert/wilderness). The children told stories about their experience bamidbar, consolidating their understanding of Leviticus 23:42, 43.”
Rabbi Milder developed a curriculum that focuses on four Jewish themes per year, examined through five lenses: biblical, rabbinic, historical, cultural, and personal. Staff learning is a vital part of the educational model: “Each day at the Enrichment Center includes paid professional development and collaboration time for the staff. The team studies biblical and rabbinic texts and works together to translate core ideas into language and experiences that could serve as the foundation for children’s exploration.”
One of the most rewarding elements of the project has involved bringing the local Jewish community together in support of a common goal. People have donated time and skills including painting walls, reading legal documents, offering educational insight, building a website, recruiting families, and more. A local synagogue generously donates space. “I’ve stayed focused on the idea that we are building a place of Jewish enrichment: that the Jewish Enrichment Center is one piece of families’ Jewish lives, and only by institutions working together can we provide children with the knowledge and experiences necessary for lifelong Jewish engagement.”
Rabbi Rebecca Milder (Fellow ’91) is a Jewish educator whose work has included rebuilding synagogue schools, creating and leading family education initiatives, and running around the woods with kids as a Jewish environmental and experiential educator. Rebecca’s most recent work was at the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, fostering collaboration among Jewish day schools, and of course, the Jewish Enrichment Center.
Sarah Jacobs (Fellow ’10), from Newton, MA, decided her Ma’aseh initiative would aim “to create the experience of pluralistic dialogue on an individual basis for the participants.” Across the country, in Berkeley, CA, Marnina Wirtschafter (Fellow ’10) was inspired by Sarah’s idea and they decided to collaborate. Sarah comes from a traditionally observant family and attended a Modern Orthodox high school, while Marnina is active in her Renewal synagogue and Reconstructionist chavurah and attended public high school. Their collaboration positioned the project to bring together a diverse group of individuals for conversation, and “Bite-Sized Torah” was born: a series of weekly parsha discussions via phone and Skype.
Initially, Sarah and Marnina set up several chevruta learning pairs and gave them some starting questions for discussion. Soon, they evolved the project to have maximum impact. They realized that facilitated conference calls would give the participants a more concrete basis for conversation. The topics they covered included a discussion of Shabbat, Shmita, and Yovel in relation to the idea and meaning of completion, the role of punishment in the learning process, and the final call focused on the meaning of identity and smaller communities within larger societies in the context of the census. Although the unfamiliar format of the conference call and participants’ busy schedules combined with a time difference introduced some challenges, the discussions that came out of the three phone calls reaffirmed the importance of engaging disparate communities and individuals in Jewish dialogue for both Marnina and Sarah. As one participant reflected, “our parsha sessions are reassuring for me as a student about to head out into a college with barely any Jewish community. I know now that I will be able to find Jewish learning no matter where I go or who I’m with.”
Sarah Jacobs (Fellow ’10) is from Newton, MA, and attended Maimonides High School. She is currently spending a gap year in Jerusalem, volunteering and studying at Nishmat. Next year she will be a freshman at Princeton University.
Marnina Wirtschafter (Fellow '10) is in her first year at UCLA, pursuing a Theater Minor and considering Sociology and Women's Studies Majors. She grew up in Berkeley, CA, where she attended a non-denominational Jewish Day School and later participated in the pluralistic Midrasha program to maintain her connection to the Jewish community while at a public high school. Marnina has performed with an all-female a cappella group and in a production of Spring Awakening on UCLA's campus, and looks forward to becoming more involved in the Hilllel and social activism scenes.