Judaism Unbound Episode 187: Child-Centered Jewish Education – Rebecca Milder

Rebecca Milder, Founding Director of the Jewish Enrichment Center in Chicago, joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg for a conversation about rooting Jewish education in empathy, text study, and creative expression. [1]

(0:01 - 20:05):  Milder begins by talking about her experience as a parent, looking for high quality of Jewish learning among many Jewish communities. She felt it was important for her children to experience education as co-creators of Judaism. [2] She speaks to society’s tendency to see teachers as holding all the answers, and why shifting that idea to a framework in which the child has an active voice, is crucial. Milder then looks at the Jewish Enrichment Center’s curricular structure, focused around three themes every year, with Jewish text embedded into each theme. [3] Next, she provides a window into some of the key similarities and differences in her approach to educating younger and older children, highlighting some student projects in the process. [4]

(20:06 – 30:20): Dan asks Milder if the model of education at the Jewish Enrichment Center always should have been the standard for Jewish learning, or if its methods are specifically important for our current place and time. She talks about how this educational process is developing the creativity and critical text skills and empathy that Jewish children will need for themselves and the Jewish future. Milder cites many different educational philosophies which influenced Jewish Enrichment Center. [5] Responding to a question about “Jewish Literacy” in the JEC’s curriculum, Milder discusses the structure of the three annual themes, plus their annual unit on Passover. She then pivots to discuss the learning environment, describing Hebrew, song, and prayer as core features of the learning, in addition to text study.

(30:21 – 42:07): Milder describes how the prayer curriculum centers social and emotional learning, as well as mastery over language. [6] She discusses how time constraints impact her work (and Jewish education more broadly). Milder then dives into one word in particular, “L’hitpalel” the verb meaning “To Pray,” and argues that its character as a reflexive verb is particular important to internalize. [7] Milder shifts to explaining the back-end work required to train educators in the JEC’s pedagogy, paying teachers 8 hours a week for professional development and collaboration time. What these educators are doing, she says, is something that educators have likely never experienced in their own education. Milder closes with her vision of a JEC graduate as a Jewish adult, saying her hope is that students will become “people who hold Judaism inside, treat every single person in the world with dignity, and are working on the really complex problems of our planet.” She also expresses her desire that graduates practice “an active and dynamic Judaism that continues to grow and change as they grow and change.”

[1] Visit the Jewish Enrichment Center’s website and learn more about Rebecca Milder and her team here.

[2] Read an article by Milder about the process of Child-Centered Jewish learning here.

[3] Lex references two children’s books by his uncle which address hard topics, and including the perspectives of children themselves. Purchase them at these links: The Kids' Book About Death and Dying, The Kids Book of Divorce

[4] Read the source-text that JEC students learned about Hagar and Ishmael here.

[5] Learn more about John Dewey and Reggio Emilia, two educational philosophers who inspired the Jewish Enrichment Center’s work.

[6] Interested in learning more about the Psalm mentioned in the podcast? Read this piece about Psalm 150, written by Lex for MyJewishLearning.

[7] Check out the story of Hannah, which is a key model for Jewish prayer, from the book of 1 Samuel