It’s old news that Jewish children’s learning needs to include more of the child’s voice. Transmission of content alone—a teacher telling a child facts and beliefs—is rarely the most effective mode of education. But how do we raise the child’s voice in Jewish learning? Is it a change of curriculum? Different teacher training? Greater partnership with parents and guardians? Yes. All of that can bring the child’s voice more firmly into their learning experience.

Yet we can do more. The broader educational landscape contains many visions of the child as a powerful agent in their learning, from the work of John Dewey to Maria Montessori to Loris Malaguzzi of Reggio Emilia and many others. But none of these educational leaders offers a framework and methodology for integrating the Jewish part of Jewish children’s learning. What does a framework look like that holds the child as capable and in dialogue with a dynamic Judaism?

One such framework entails a perpetual dialogue of three voices: the child, their world, and Judaism. As child, world, and Judaism change, all three elements influence one another and are influenced by one other.

What is a methodology that enacts this framework? The process is the product. That is, how a child learns impacts what they learn. Thus, a methodology that enacts this framework should let a child live this framework, not just learn about it. To do so, the framework needs to fuel every element of a child’s Jewish learning: content, relationships, every hour and year, every physical item. Then the child is not learning “for when you’re older,” but is practicing relationships and skills they can use no matter where they go or how they grow. They’re living as a vital voice in our ancient and ongoing Jewish conversation, experiencing the power of their own voice to influence the world around them. The resulting process integrates a child’s growth as a Jew with their growth as a person. The same process that grows a child’s Jewish literacy also grows their courage, integrity, resilience, creativity, critical thinking, and compassion.

“Jewish literacy grows while the child’s relationship with Judaism develops according to the child’s proclivities.”

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:

I get really mad… I’ve given an “I hate you” note to my mom before. And she was really hurt by the “I hate you” note I gave her. And so I gave her an “I’m sorry” note but at the end I wrote “I hate you.” And then I never actually did teshuvah. How do I fix that? How do I do teshuvah?

Children listened intently. They offered thoughtful suggestions. By the next day, a new idea had taken hold. You could do teshuvah to a grown-up? And they might do teshuvah with you? Children’s conversations became even more exuberant.

Children’s vigorous questioning and conversation was…not enough. They needed more. How might we support children to synthesize their learning about teshuvah? What might constitute evidence of a child’s new insight? Educators sat together, children’s words and drawings beside us, listening closely to the children and brainstorming and sketching and rejecting idea after idea because it did not match the complexity of children’s conversations, until: we are teshuvah specialists.

The project is the vehicle for learning. For the past several weeks, although educators had thought we were partnering with children in one project, in fact we were already inside a project that children needed. Steppingstones of how to do teshuvah had been but an initial idea; it was not where children found complexity. Instead, children had been opening and deepening avenues of inquiry they needed to pursue.

We asked the children: are you teshuvah specialists? Yes, they answered, we are. Although there was a little trepidation: can you be a specialist if you don’t have all the answers? We don’t have all the answers, children decided, but we have suggestions. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and we’ve considered a lot of perspectives.

We posted an open call for situations that might need teshuvah. Younger and older shared real-life situations, nursery children and teens and educators and parents and people from the broader community. Using their magnificent questioning and conversation skills, our 6 – 8-year-olds produced video- or writing-based recommendations, often with several ideas for the same situation. Then children headed out to meet with their interlocutor about their many suggestions. They never stopped questioning! One child summed up their experience, “I know that we are teshuvah specialists but it seems like some stories, no one can solve the mystery of teshuvah.” He said it matter-of-factly, his educator said, as if he were saying, “Yeah. That’s just the truth of the world. We don’t always know how to do this. It’s a lifelong thing figuring out how to do teshuvah.” Which was perfectly fine for everyone.

“The process is the product. How a child learns impacts what they learn.”

The large sign above the booth children had crafted read, “Teshuvah Specialists.” In an overflow area, old-fashioned dial phones sat at the ready. We’d had to teach children how to use them. On a Sunday morning at the close of our theme, families streamed in to reflect on children’s ideas about teshuvah and spark new dialogue. What enthusiasm! What pride! Fifth graders visited the booth to talk with second graders about sticky situations. Parents and children pretend-called one another, discussing family events in the safety of play. Nearby, younger and older children shared their own projects with family. We concluded the morning full of joy and amazement and new ideas about teshuvah. In the following weeks and months, families told us regularly about teshuvah conversations at home. Children’s groups onsite integrated teshuvah into their daily life, creating more tightly knit, supportive communities. Our intensive exploration of teshuvah had taken root.

The Impact

The process is the product. How a child learns impacts what they learn. Our Signature Project Process enacts a framework the child can live for the rest of their lives: a perpetual, vibrant dialogue of self, world, and Judaism. The child’s growth as a Jew is inextricably entwined with their growth as a human. “You gave me a language for Judaism that I was looking for in my own life,” an educator said at our end-of-year educator reflection. A parent wrote, “At the family gatherings, I’m able to have intimate, profound conversations with my child that we don’t have at home.” It’s not only the children, but educators, families, community – all are influenced by this framework of perpetual dialogue of self, world, and Judaism. The framework insists that every voice matters. Taking seriously the child and the child’s voice in Judaism will necessarily shift what Jewish children’s learning looks like, sounds like, and feels like. We’ll need to allocate our resources differently, from time and money to relationships and organizational structures. The Jewish Enrichment Center Signature Project Process is only one possible methodology to embody the framework of three voices in perpetual dialogue; many others could be designed. We’d shift educator development, and how we partner with parents and guardians. It doesn’t need to happen all at once. Every effort that raises the child’s voice makes a difference, empowering children and bringing us closer to field-wide transformation. The child is profoundly capable. They deserve – and we need – a framework for Jewish children’s learning that holds their never-ending growth as a unique person, the resilience and diversity of Judaism, and our ever-changing world in dynamic relationship. Then the child’s voice will be cherished as essential to the vitality of Jewish life. Then our children’s Jewish selves will be fully entwined with their humanity.

BERAKHOT 10A .ברכות י
Once there were some bullies in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir הָנְהוּ בִּרְיוֹנֵי דַּהֲווֹ בְּשִׁבָבוּתֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי מֵאִיר
Who caused him a great deal of trouble .הֲווֹ קָא מְצַעֲרוּ לֵיהּ טוּבָא
Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die .הֲוָה קָא בָּעֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ כִּי הֵיכִי דְּלֵימוּתוּ
His wife Bruria said to him:
“What is your thinking? Are you thinking it’s okay to pray that they should die? Because it says in the Torah, “Let the people doing bad things be destroyed”? No! It actually says “Let the badness (NOT THE PEOPLE) be destroyed.”
:אָמְרָה לֵיהּ בְּרוּרְיָא דְּבֵיתְהוּ
:,*מַאי דַּעְתָּךְ — מִשּׁוּם דִּכְתִיב ״יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים״
?” מִי כְּתִיב ״חוֹטְאִים
. ״חַטָּאִים״ כְּתִיב
“Instead, pray for them that they should return in teshuvah תְּשׁוּבָה” אֶלָּא בְּעִי רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ דְּלַהְדְּרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה
He did pray for them and they returned in teshuvah תְּשׁוּבָה. ,בְּעָא רַחֲמֵי עִלָּוַיְהוּ
וַהֲדַרוּ בִּתְשׁוּבָה.

FOOTNOTES

1 Translation by Rabbi Rebecca Milder and Baci Weiler
2 Names have been changed to protect children.