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JLEAP aspires to create welcoming space with hands-on activities for families and children

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By Michal Lipp
JLEAP Program Director

It’s a Sunday afternoon in late November at the Weinstein JCC.

Inside, in one corner of the room, a high school-aged girl assists an elementary school student in building a model of the Beit Hamikdash – entirely out of straws and tape.

A few feet away, children and adults of all ages are openly exploring a station of LEGO bricks and loose parts with a Chanukah-themed challenge. A father sits with his 18- month-old daughter on his lap sharing a PJ Library book about Jewish holidays.

Across the room, led by a team of enthusiastic middle school-aged boys, guests of all ages have stopped by to lend a hand and a can of food (or even a few) as a giant “Can-orah” comes to life and later, light!

Children are exploring art mediums like oil and watercolor paints, working with beeswax to create custom-designed Chanukah candles, playing games of Dreidel as they spin it to win it or just spin it through paint to create stunning works of art that will later decorate their homes and bring holiday joy to the residents at the Beth Sholom Senior Living campus.

But wait– step outside into the tent. The sun is setting, but things are just lighting up as children conduct their own glow in the dark lava lamp experiments, warm up with some hot cocoa and dance to favorite Chanukah songs, sporting glow sticks in every color of the rainbow! What’s happening here?

It’s the JLEAP Maccabee Mission-– and while this is just our way of shedding and spreading the Chanukah light around Richmond, we’re on a grander mission to share in the joy and light of Jewish holidays with our community all year round.

What is JLEAP?

What is JLEAP? Jewish Learning, Enrichment and Play is a project of Keneseth Beth Israel in proud partnership with PJ Library, JSU (the Jewish Student Union), the Weinstein JCC and generously sponsored in part by the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond.

The new project  aspires to create a welcoming space for families and children in the greater Richmond area to connect with the Jewish holidays. Our events are free and open to families of all Jewish backgrounds and/or affiliations.

Events

Each event hosts a variety of fun, educational, hands-on activities to engage children of all ages ranging from infancy/early toddlerhood all the way through high school (and we’ve noticed some “kids-at-heart” having a pretty good time, too).

JLEAP’s innovative curriculum has been custom-designed by program director, Michal Lipp, to foster meaningful connection to Jewish themes and traditions through the lens of S.T.R.E.A.M. education (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art and Math) to meet the interests, developmental needs and educational goals of all learners.

We aim to “teach” in the way that humans learn best–through self-led exploration and discovery as well as hands-on experience.

How It All Began…

Coming out of these last two years of life during a pandemic, what Richmond, and indeed, the world needs now is connection. We need connection with one another, with our communities at large and with something larger than ourselves.

Our Jewish heritage provides us with such a rich tradition of meaningful routines, rituals and holidays. These, for so many Jewish families, have served as an anchor during these troubling times.

What we have greatly missed, however, is connection with one another. JLEAP has provided our community with an opportunity to begin to reconnect and build on to the beautiful and rich, diverse foundation that is Jewish Richmond!

When the opportunity to create a program for children first arose, a team of parents, educators and leaders at Keneseth Beth Israel considered the idea of designing a holiday-based curriculum that would feel inclusive for the Jewish community at large.

We wanted to create something that would feel inviting and welcoming to any and all Jewish families. We wanted to build a curriculum that is engaging and meaningful to children of all ages, abilities and learning styles, utilizing best current educational practices.

We envisioned a system of utilizing the innate and emerging leadership qualities of older children to engage this population in Jewish community life–a population that across the nation is often “left out” of family programming.

And to do all of this effectively, we would need a lot of brilliant minds and support! We are so fortunate to have a growing team of experts and agencies involved in creating, facilitating and running our programming including Rabbi Elliot Plotnick, Shlomo Skaist and Rivkah Skaist of Keneseth Beth Israel, Arielle Sherman of the Jewish Student Union (JSU), Rachel Peters, director of Community Engagement at the Jewish Community Federation of Richmond and leader of Richmond’s chapter of  PJ Library, and Jessica Crowe, Youth and Community Engagement coordinator at the JCC.

Greatest Asset

Our greatest asset, however, are the children themselves. They are the ones who tell, and more importantly, show us what our next steps, or leaps should be!

What We’ve Done So Far…

JLEAP kicked off with our first event in September, a High Holidays Hop through the Jewish month of Tishrei.

Over 100 children turned out to explode etrogim (lemons), build and test boats for Jonah (out of only tinfoil), create holiday-themed art, share a great book in the PJ Library Lounge, build a teeny tiny Sukkah out of loose parts, and more.

A team of around 15 youth volunteers came out from JSU, Rudlin Torah Academy, Shaarei Torah and other local schools and synagogues to help run the activities, support the guests and, of course, enjoy the event themselves!

And out of that success, JLEAD was born–our official youth leadership program. Our J-LEADers gathered the week prior to our Chanukah Maccabee Mission in November to have some fun of their own as we prepared for our next event.

This time over 120 children attended the event and upwards of 25 youth volunteers.

Variety of Curated Activities

Each of our events hosts a variety of thoughtfully curated activities that include relevant Jewish themes, traditions and symbols associated with the holidays and a variety of ways to engage with these. We strive to provide opportunities for families to expand on these activities at home and beyond the events themselves by utilizing materials that are easily accessible and affordable as well as offering resources for continued exploration.

We also feel it is extremely important to foster opportunities to connect with members of our Jewish community and the greater Richmond community at large who may be isolated and otherwise underserved. Our programs always offer at least one activity with a focus on chesed (kindness) and/or tzedakah (charity).

Some of the artwork and handcrafted gifts made at our events are sent with love to the residents at Beth Sholom Senior Living.

And that giant menorah we built out of canned goods? Over 500 cans of food were collected and donated to Feed More and the Elmer Toth Food Bank at the JCC, an agency of Feed More just in time for Thanksgiving, Chanukah and the winter holiday season.

What’s Next

What’s the Next LEAP?

Always leave ‘em wanting more! We’re very excited to announce our upcoming event on Sunday, March 27, from 3-5  p.m., at the Weinstein JCC as we invite families and children of all ages to Get Out of Egypt, QUICK just in time for the Passover holiday!

And stay tuned for an amazing travel opportunity to follow where you will be able to visit and explore the beautiful land of Israel without stepping foot outside of Richmond. We are always seeking opportunities to continue growing and expanding our program and we welcome faces, new and familiar, to take the LEAP with us!

Have questions, comments, ideas or feedback?

Are you an adult who would like to volunteer to work with our youth leadership and events?

Are you (or do you know) a mature school aged child, tween or teen who enjoys connecting with peers, working with children and/or are searching for fun and meaningful opportunities to volunteer?

Contact JLEAP Program Director Michal Lipp at inpraiseofplay@gmail.com

We always love to hear from you and look forward to taking these next LEAPS together!

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