Brandeis families embellish quilt with Jewish learning

Tan and white strips of fabric separate each 18-by-24-inch holiday representation.

The quilt is the final project in a yearlong family education program that piloted in fifth- and second-grade classes at the San Francisco day school.

"I designed the concept. The kids and families implemented it," said fifth-grade teacher and Brandeis Family Education Director Eric Keitel. "This is the work and efforts of all these families."

Accompanied by a team of Brandeis educators and parents, Keitel attended the Shirley and Arthur Whizin Institute for Jewish Family Life at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Upon returning to school in the fall, he held a quilt-planning meeting for his fifth-grade students and their families.

After matching each of his 16 students with a holiday or ritual and providing the students with appropriate information, Keitel asked families to complete the sentence, "When I think of the Jewish holidays, I feel…"

Answers varied from "happy because I'm with my family" to "stressed, getting ready for Passover" and "sad, because bubbe isn't with us anymore."

The activity "brought the group together, formed a safe environment and got the families warmed up," Keitel explained.

Following the emotional brainstorming session, families began sketching designs for their panels on construction paper. About a month later, armed with puff paints, glue, glitter, faux leather and fabric swatches, families received their blank quilt panels and set to work.

Many parents felt less than confident about facing the challenge.

"I don't cook. I don't sew. How could I possibly do this?" said parent Mickey Naggar Bourne. "I was scared of the time commitment and the physical labor."

Nonetheless, after about 25 hours of research, drawing and sewing, and with help from a grandfather and the babysitter, the Naggar Bourne family — assigned to depict Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day — proudly showed off an appliquéd panel of worshippers at the Western Wall.

Parent Lori Beckerman expressed other concerns.

"I'm handy. I sew. I crochet. But I was intimidated conceptually. And I was concerned about not doing this for my son but with my son," she said.

Fifth-grader Sam Beckerman had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do, however.

The Beckermans' Simchat Torah panel displays five Torah scrolls and the Hebrew names of the five scrolls of the Jewish canon — all drawn with slick puff paint.

"I designed the whole thing," Sam said proudly.

Katherine Hamburger, a parent, sewed the finished panels together.

In addition to creating a quilt panel, each family wrote a short report about its holiday or ritual for "The Jewish Holiday Source Book," a softcover handbook the classes created.

Families flipped through their own copies of the book at a recent gathering where the quilt was unveiled and participants played student-designed games — including "Jewopoly" and "Jewpardy" — that tested holiday knowledge.

The varied components of the project "made this true family education," Keitel said. "It involved families, learning and a Jewish content. It sounds obvious," he said — but not every Jewish family activity held at a school qualifies as family education.

For instance, a model seder may lack a learning component. But the quilt project involved both parents and children studying Jewish holidays and rituals in depth.

"This was a project that could speak to everyone," Keitel said. "This involved study and creativity and art."

The biggest challenge, Keitel said, was trying to find a time for families to meet. "But we've had 100 percent cooperation," he boasted.

"It's difficult when teachers ask parents to get involved. But when the kids are doing the asking…how can they say no?" he said. "Parents got to see their children engaged in learning and having fun. And the kids were excited about their families being involved."

Student Matthew Goldman agreed, adding, "Usually during school, parents don't do work."

But this time, "parents had homework too."