By JESSICA KIM COHEN
A Hyde Park-based Jewish after-school and Sunday School program will host workshops for Jewish educators from around the country next month.
“Having spent three years working on the tools and strategies for our education approach, we’re ready to start sharing it more broadly,” said Rabbi Rebecca Milder, founder of the Jewish Enrichment Center. “We’re going to focus on growing the skills and the capacities to be doing this kind of work in more schools around the country.”
Founded in August 2011, the Jewish Enrichment Center, which currently enrolls children from infancy to 4th grade, has grown from 26 students in 2011 to 49 students this past year, according to Milder. Its staff has also increased, now employing eight educators, a steady increase from three educators and one volunteer its first year.
The program, which typically meets at Congregation Rodfei Zedek, 5200 S. Hyde Park Blvd., uses a teaching method based on the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood learning. The Reggio Emilia approach believes each child is “powerful, resourceful and capable of making sense of the world,” according to the Jewish Enrichment Center website.
“What we do really is we partner with children in long-term Jewish exploration. That means we’re listening hard to the children’s ideas and questions, and shifting what we do to be in concert with the things that matter to them,” Milder said.
Another focus of the program is “project-based learning,” often having students create visual representations of the lessons they learn.
“One recent theme was last fall, when we explored the biblical character Rebecca through three stories,” Milder explained. “One of the ways that the 2nd and 3rd graders explored her character was through using and learning about iconography, making clay portraits of how they understood her character. As they understood more and changed their ideas about her, they would wipe their clay clean and build it up again based on their new and more integrated idea of her.”
Milder said she encourages children not only to explore Jewish texts and ideas, but also to develop their own opinions about them, something many parents have been impressed with.
“I think it’s pretty different from your standard, traditional Hebrew school,” said Beth Niestat, parent of an 8-year-old attending the program. “Rebecca always talks about how it’s child-directed, and I really think that that’s valuable. They’re more likely to enjoy the learning and to internalize it, I think, if it’s not taught at them, but being taught with them.”
Editor’s note: See photos on page 13 to see the program in action.