Making a difference: This is not your mama’s religious school

Making a difference: This is not your mama’s religious school

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a recurring series of columns about people who are making a difference in Jewish education.)

When I was a little girl my family lived too far away from a synagogue for us to attend religious school, so I grew up always trying to make up for my lack of Jewish education.  In fact, I so overcompensated that I became a Jewish educator myself.

In graduate school and since,Making a difference: This is not your mama’s religious school

I have studied some of the top religious schools in the country.  There are so many creative endeavors in the world of part-time Jewish education and even some right here in Pittsburgh.

Over the next several months, I’ll be bringing you stories of how these programs are having an impact on the lives of real families.

And I’ll start this week with Michael Uhl.  

Michael had friends who had volunteered at food pantries, but through his seventh-grade class at Adat Shalom in Cheswick, Michael actually grew what the food the pantry handed out.  His “Sustainable Food Production with a Jewish Twist” class was a break from the usual religious school fare. Students spent time working in the synagogue garden, planting, tending and harvesting.

The gardening lesson didn’t end there.  Students then cleaned and crated the produce they grew to donate to the North Hills Food Pantry and the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry.  Michael explained that Judaism teaches we must treat others like we want to be treated, so this project “made everybody in the class feel good about themselves and feel better for helping others.”

Working in a garden was old hat for classmate Rachel Himmel.  She had gardening experience from camp but the Jewish twist was new.  Rachel appreciated how religious school actively engaged her in doing a mitzvah rather than just passively learning. She said the class “teaches you that you can make a big difference by doing something really small like planting a garden.”

She particularly remembers a guest professor from Chatham University who showed them the book “Hungry Planet: What The World Eats,” where they learned about what a family eats in a week in different countries including Israel.  The class did a bit of eating themselves.  Michael was one of the brave few in his class to try nasturtium, edible flowers.  “Whew!  They were spicy,” he said, “but I loved them.”

(Melissa Werbow is an educational consultant at the Agency for Jewish Learning. Her work is part of Shinui: Igniting Change in Jewish Education, a consortium of the Jewish education communities of Cleveland, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and San Francisco. A Signature Grant from the Covenant Foundation funds the Shinui project.  Werbow can be reached at