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Innovator Spotlight: Jewish Enrichment Center (Chicago)

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What does the word
Berakhah (Blessing) mean to you?

For nine year-old Eli, it is a flowing and dynamic presence – yet something that has always been present. For eight year-old Asher, you say a berakhah (blessing), “when you see something beautiful, and you think it is a miracle that it happened.” Reuven, age eleven, has his own take:  “You don’t have to be amazed. You gotta say the berakhah (blessing), even if you’ve seen it so many times.”

Questions like these – ranging from the simple to the most deeply existential – are at the core of the Jewish Enrichment Center’s pioneering approach to after-school Jewish education.

“We want children to know that they are a powerful voice in the Jewish conversation,” says Rabbi Rebecca Milder, Director of the Center. “They are not just passive recipients of knowledge, but powerful co-creators of a fluid and dynamic Judaism. Learning to ask questions is a big part of that.”

JEC_art2Every season, the Center picks a theme for all children to explore through text study, art, costume-play, building, chavruta (partner text study), and dozens of other modalities. The curriculum is child-centered, encouraging children to direct the curriculum based on their own questions and interests.

Last fall, the Center concluded their Berakhah (blessing) theme with an installation of children’s work. The installation addressed some big Jewish questions:

  • What is the human impulse to make a berakhah? Why might we make a berakhah?  
  • What is the power of a parent giving a child a blessing, as Jacob gave his sons in the Torah, and as Jewish parents may give their children on Shabbat?
  • What is the power in repeating the same words of a berekhah (blessing) for thousands of years?

Nursery and kindergarten children found 100 moments of berakhah (blessing) – 100 moments that inspired them to say, “WOW!”JEC_grandparents

“The Berakhah installation showed the power of inviting children into the larger Jewish conversation. I watched
visitors – parents, grandparents, and educators – well up with amazement at the children’s ideas. It provoked something true and meaningful about their own Jewishness,” said Milder.

Milder created the Jewish Enrichment Center with a few local families who yearned for a pluralistic, child-centered afterschool . But Milder’s vision goes beyond her Hyde Park community. Last year, she consulted with St. Paul’s Beth Jacob Congregation to help them launch a new school based on the Center’s child-centered approach. In the UpStart Accelerator, she is honing her growth strategy, and exploring how to share her tools and methodologies across the country.

“Judaism is dynamic and evolving, because every one of us is co-creating it together. The UpStart Accelerator is helping me think about what that means beyond the walls of the Enrichment Center.”

 

100 Moments of Blessing. Nursery-Kindergarten final project

A section of the display from Jewish Enrichment Center’s fall berakhah (blessing) installation.

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One student’s answer to the question, “what does berakhah mean to you?”

 

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