Students’ Handmade Tallitot Forge Personal Connection to Prayer

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From left: Krieger Schechter fifth-graders Maya M., Shalva S., Jessica B., Marissa B. and Hannah B. read from the Torah during a tallit ceremony as middle school teacher Jodi Wahlberg looks on. (Erica Rimlinger photo)

Krieger Schechter Day School’s fifth-grade students made their own tallitot in a  series of five workshops conducted in partnership with the Jewish Community Center. On Monday, the students  presented the culmination of their work — handmade, individualized tallitot — to their parents and peers.

“Each student picked a text that was meaningful to them, then we used our MakerSpace,” said Jodi Wahlberg, a middle school teacher and the school’s director of community partnerships. Each tallit was adorned with text in the atarah.

The students worked in Krieger Schechter’s new Abramoff MakerSpace for the project. A makerspace — sometimes called a “hackerspace” or “fab lab” — is, as its name suggests, a place where people can create and construct projects. In schools, they are often used for projects that further STEM curricula.

Fifth-grader Noah G. explained the concept of a maker- space as only a fifth-grader can: “A lot of people go there and make a lot of stuff, and just put it there.”

The idea for a tallit workshop grew out of the school’s partnership with the JCC.

“The JCC and Krieger Schechter have a really great partnership,” said JCC senior director of Jewish Learning and Life Rabbi Jessy Gross. “We threw around a whole bunch of ideas. Then we landed on a tallit-making workshop, and we landed on fifth-graders as a great age group to work with in terms of the timing of their studies.”

Wahlberg said Gross “has led tallit workshops before, so I thought it would be the perfect match for the fifth grade. I thought it would be so lovely if they could make a tallit they could wear throughout their middle school experience.”

The project began on Oct. 17, following a trip JCC CEO Barak Hermann took to Israel during which he picked up about 50 scarves for students.

“I was told he carried them in giant bags through the streets of Israel [before] he brought them back to us,” Wahlberg said.

The students picked out their scarves, and then material and Jewish texts that were meaningful to them for the atarah.

[pullquote]”It was beautiful to see the boys and girls wearing a tallit together, leading prayers together and reading Torah together.” — Jodi Wahlberg, Krieger Schechter middle school teacher[/pullquote]

Gross said she was impressed with “how engaged in the text-learning component the students were. It was amazing to me just how jazzed and excited they were.”

At the event Monday, several students explained to the group why they chose the texts they did.

Asher U. chose the Avot, “the first line of the Amidah … because my Hebrew name is Avraham, and it made me think of generations. I hope that my kids and my grandkids can have this when they’re in school.”

Zachary M. said he chose his text because it was “something my dad said to me every night and every Friday after Kiddush.”

Krieger Schechter’s MakerSpace has a laser-cutting  machine, which was used to print, or rather cut, text onto the cloth. The laser, said Wahlberg, “helped make the tallit look so beautiful and so professionally done.”

“The entire fifth grade learned how to iron — safely! — and in our makerspace, we had about four or five ironing stations,” Wahlberg added.

The atarah was then sewn onto each tallit. Teachers helped the students sew, but Gabrielle J., mother of student Sydney, said this was her daughter’s favorite part. “She loves to sew,” Gabrielle said. “She’s our resident button-putter-onner.”

Students then tied the 613 knots necessary to make the tallit holy. “The [students] just had a lesson on gematriah in one of their classes a few days [before the workshop],” Gross said. “So when we introduced gematriah and how the tying of the tzizit uses gematriah, their excitement was huge.”

Lielle B., with her mother, Diane, wears the tallit she made with her fifth-grade classmates. (Erica Rimlinger photo)

Wahlberg said the knot- tying even became a team effort,  saying: “Some were working together to help each other.”

At the event Monday, Krieger Schechter “had the kids lead Hallel that was  specially chosen for Rosh  Chodesh and Chanukah,” said Wahlberg. “Then they read from the Torah. Each child had a leadership role in the service, and they all got to select which part they’d lead.”

Wahlberg told the group after they had seen the tallitot: “Parents, I’ve heard a little buzz: if you want to make a tallit in our MakerSpace and under our guidance, please let us know!”

“It was beautiful to see the boys and girls wearing a tallit together, leading prayers  together and reading Torah together,” Wahlberg said. “It’s really a hallmark of our egalitarian school. As director of community partnerships, we work closely with the JCC on many projects. This was really one of the highlights of the year, I think.”

Wahlberg added that she learned a lot from the experience as well: “I learned how connected kids really do feel to something they create themselves.”

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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