The Catholic Mentsch Teaching Jewish Sunday School in the Mississippi Delta

News flash: In Greenwood, Mississippi, Jewish religious school has officially been deemed “cool.” And it’s thanks in large part to someone you may find surprising.

My husband and I are longtime Greenwood residents, and recently our two grandsons – Walker, a second grader, and Jack, a kindergartener – moved here with their parents. When they made the move to our small Delta town, we all still wanted to make sure that these two boys could have an excellent Jewish education. So our congregation, Ahavath Rayim, re-joined the ISJL Education program. (We were partners before, until we had no more religious-school age children left; now, we have kids again!) We decided pretty quickly that the boys needed someone in addition to their mother and immediate family to participate in this process.

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I reached out to Nancy Ehret, a devout Catholic friend of mine. Nancy recently moved back to Greenwood, retiring here after a very impressive 40+ year education career in Louisiana. During our lunch meeting a few weeks ago, I asked her to consider helping us provide a Jewish education for my grandsons.

I explained to Nancy, as Rachel Stern explains to all: the ISJL curriculum is developed to allow folks with limited Jewish knowledge to teach each lesson, with very little preparation or previous knowledge required. Everything you might need is included in the books and supplements. To my delight, Nancy said she was “in” for the challenge and opportunity. She quickly committed to teaching one lesson every month.

We just experienced Nancy’s first lesson for the boys. She taught them about Tikkun Olam, and it was beyond amazing.

IMG_5825Nancy gathered the boys in her kitchen, and with amazing teaching skills she interacted with her two new students, asking questions, sharing her research, and bringing the rest of our family into the conversation. Nancy had indeed “done her prep” as the lesson continued: to our surprise, she produced a container of live earthworms, and then explained to the boys exactly how worms are part of the Tikkun Olam concept. Worms are important – worms aerate the soil, allowing air to get to plant roots; worms eat dirt, digest it, and excrete this rich-in-nutrients matter back into the soil. They help repair the world!

With non-toxic food coloring and paper, Nancy showed her now fully engaged students (what kindergartener and second grader wouldn’t love a lesson featuring live worms?!) how the worms were going to paint a picture to remind us of their impact. As the Shalom Sesame “Tikkun Olam” song played on Nancy’s iPhone in the background, we placed food coloring and worms on paper. As they wiggled through the different colors – art was produced. The art will be framed using twigs.

The lesson concluded with a “to be continued” component. Nancy and the boys share a ditch behind their homes. Nancy explained that Tikkun Olam needs to be action, not just thought. She asked the boys to make a pledge – to “repair the world” by beginning at our neighborhood ditch. We all walked to the ditch and discussed what needed to be cleaned up.

In a few weeks, Leah Apothaker, our ISJL Education Fellow, will spend her first Shabbos in Greenwood. We will have Shabbos dinner in our “holy” garage, and services in our 109-year-old synagogue. And now, we’ll have something new: follow-up on Nancy’s lessons and more ISJL curriculum adventures. That Saturday morning we will continue Walker and Jack’s Tikkun Olam project: Cleaning the ditch, making the neighborhood aware of not throwing trash, and the ongoing commitment of monitoring the ditch. In the long term, Nancy is interested in applying for a grant to make the ditch a natural habitat, and our boys will be part of that process.

As I said, Nancy’s first lesson was way beyond cool. I can’t wait for her November lesson.

The ISJL Education Department is important to all communities — providing the curriculum, the Ed Fellows, the Conference, and the access to the support provides access to a Jewish Education. However, to make all this work and be effective, you must have the support of your synagogue. In a community like Greenwood, with only 15 Jewish people, reaching out to our faith-based neighbors and friends is an option; receiving their support is a blessing.

I told Nancy as I thanked her: “You are a mentsch.” (Yes, she had to look it up.) Thank you, Nancy Ehret for sharing your time and your knowledge with our boys, and helping make their Jewish education phenomenal right here in Greenwood, Mississippi.

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