For twelve years, the Jewish Enrichment Center has engaged in research and development to design a methodology and best practices for a framework of dynamic relationship of child, world, and Judaism. We hold deep gratitude for the children and families and funders who have been part of this growth. The result is our Signature Project Process.
Our Signature Project Process invites children to define their own relationship with Judaism, as an individual, connected to their world and in dialogue with the Judaism that came before them. It necessitates that children practice social-emotional capacities as part of their Jewish learning. Each iteration of our Project Process, called a theme, takes 8 – 10 weeks. We explore three themes every year: one rooted in Torah text, a second in ritual and/or prayer (Avodah), and a third in acts of lovingkindness (Gemilut Chasadim). All children ages 3 – 12 explore the same theme at the same time in their multi-age groups, typically twice/week after school and/or Sunday mornings.
There’s no presumption that children will all learn the same things during a theme. Even as they encounter the same text, what provokes or inspires one child about the text is different from what provokes or inspires another. Jewish literacy grows while the child’s relationship with Judaism develops according to the child’s proclivities. Yetzirah – ongoing creativity through art – empowers every child to explore and wrestle with their own perspective and share it in their own voice. This creative process supports self-discovery and dialogue between children, Judaism, and their world. Children emerge with a new understanding of self, relationships, humanity, Judaism, and/or God, with an insight that is at once rooted in Judaism and also deeply personal.
The Framework in Action
In Fall 2022, we offered first through third grade children the following starting point for our theme: “teshuvah is returning to the path you want to be on.” The group had already spent a few weeks creating a community agreement and getting comfortable with daily routines, so children were firmly oriented towards a path of kindness. Children brainstormed a list of strategies to get back on the path, like saying “sorry” or taking a walk to cool off. They connected teshuvah with the fall High Holydays, and quickly understood that teshuvah was also available as a year-round practice. Then the storytelling began! Children drew and wrote and mimed imaginative scenarios in which someone needs to do teshuvah…in space, on other planets. In our weekly Theme Meeting, educators theorized that children would focus on ways we could do teshuvah. Perhaps we could use the metaphor of steppingstones, ways to step back to the path you want to be on.
Children’s questions poured in. What if you did something on purpose and not by accident: should you have a different kind of teshuvah? Is it teshuvah if you don’t mean your apology? Who is teshuvah for – the other person? yourself? God? How do you know when you need to do teshuvah? The “easy” stuff children agreed on. Of course you do teshuvah if you accidentally hurt someone. Children discovered, however, that they genuinely disagreed on many fronts. What if the other person thinks you didn’t mean your teshuvah – is it enough to just try? Or do you have to keep trying to make them feel better? Does the other person have to forgive you if you do teshuvah? Now that was exciting! How fun and powerful to share ideas with each other!
We offered these 6 – 8 year-old children a Talmudic text (Berakhot 10a)1. This short text is written such that every word can hold multiple interpretations. Who did teshuvah in this text? How? What helped them do teshuvah? Who do you think needs to do teshuvah, and why? Slowly we brought children into the text, capturing children’s interpretations and placing them on the wall for children to reflect upon.
The complexity of children’s ideas exploded. Our weekly Theme Meeting was not frequent enough to study the long, rich set of questions and notes that rushed out of the children. What if you did something that cannot be fixed? Should the teshuvah you do be connected to what you did? What if the teshuvah you do isn’t what the other person needs? What can you do if you’re not ready for teshuvah? What if they don’t forgive you? Robots and superheroes disappeared from children’s stories. Sarah2 asked the group: