Rachel Petroff Kessler grew up in a fairly secular household in Liverpool, New York, a suburb of Syracuse, where she was one of few Jewish kids in the public school she attended.
So, how did the energetic 34-year-old with the easy laugh get to Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland, as the shul’s family educator, where she teaches children through adults about the language, history, culture and laws that comprise Judaism?
After earning her bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from Binghamton University and going on to get her master’s in religious education at Hebrew Union College, Kessler found her perfect job at the temple and her perfect home in the planned community of Columbia, where Kessler and her husband, a mechanical engineer, live in the Owen Brown neighborhood with their three children.
What was it like as one of the few Jewish families in Liverpool?
All the other Jews I knew grew up on the other side of town. To me, it was normal while I was growing up. You had no other Jewish kids in your class during the week and then you went to temple [Temple Society of Concord] and saw everyone at Sunday school. Sometimes it was wonderful. In elementary school, my mom used to come in and do a Chanukah program for the class. We had a couple years where my class would take a field trip to my family’s sukkah. We lived in walking distance to the school.
Why Middle Eastern studies and religious education?
Over the course of my childhood, our family became more connected with the Jewish community and slowly took on more markers of traditional observance. I always knew I loved being part of Jewish stuff and I always knew I loved teaching. In high school I went to Israel with NFTY. And every morning we had Ulpan, where we had our Hebrew class, and we had Jewish history. And by the end of that trip, I was like, “Oh, this is what I want to teach about. I could teach about this forever.”
The other thing I knew after I went to Israel was that we had been given a really strong, progressive Zionist education. And I knew there was a lot more strands to that story, so I was really looking for somewhere where I could study Arabic and a pretty robust program that would help me flesh out my understanding of Israel. I don’t think I had a sense yet of the idea of lots of stories, but I knew there was something more.
What’s a typical day at Temple Isaiah?
My best days I get to have conversations with different kinds of people, visit the preschool, maybe have a meeting with colleagues in the congregation about a new program that we’re working on. And then the other days are the teaching days. Sundays are my most intense days. In the morning, I might get to go to kindergarten and have boker tov time with them, sing some songs. Then run a family program, so I have a chance to learn with parents, and then invite their kids in to do some learning and exploring together. And then I come back to teach our teenagers in the evening. The best part is the people. It’s really fun.
How did you get involved with March for Our Lives?
We had our youth retreat scheduled before the march and we had a whole other theme planned. But when the march was scheduled, we felt like that really was something we had to be a part of. We did a lot of learning with our kids and a lot of listening to them about what they were thinking and feeling about gun violence and violence in schools. We did some studying around Jewish texts and legal issues and then we had a group and took them into D.C. for the march. It was not the Shabbat we originally planned, but it was an incredibly powerful way to spend the day.
What do you do in your spare time?
I love, whenever we can, getting outside. Columbia has beautiful places to walk. We live right near one of the lakes, so taking advantage of that whenever we can is amazing. I do love baking. I’m on a quest to find the perfect breakfast muffin for my kids that’s sweet enough that they’ll eat it, healthy enough that I feel like it’s a good breakfast and quick enough to make that I can make it every week. I’m still searching.