Carving out a niche to teach Jewish values

Carving out a niche to teach Jewish values

Judaism in the plans of Maplewood woodworker’s projects

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ryan Wolff, a camper at JCC Camp Deeny Riback, engaged in woodworking last
summer, thanks to Schloff’s Maplewoodshop.
(Photo courtesy JCC Camp Deeny Riback)
Ryan Wolff, a camper at JCC Camp Deeny Riback, engaged in woodworking last summer, thanks to Schloff’s Maplewoodshop. (Photo courtesy JCC Camp Deeny Riback)

Last summer, children at JCC Camp Deeny Riback (CDR) got to try their hand at woodworking, thanks to training from Mike Schloff and his Maplewood-based Maplewoodshop. It was a big hit, according to CDR’s executive director Dana Gottfried, who said it was like “nothing they’ve ever done before.”

Woodworking will return to CDR this summer, but with a twist, after a suggestion from Gottfried. The new curriculum includes a layer of Jewish values.

It turns out that Jewish values and ethics are embedded in woodworking, according to Schloff, 50, a Maplewood resident.

“Woodworking embodies many of the same values of humility and perseverance and joy and creativity and charity that come from biblical teachings,” he said. And hey, Jesus was a carpenter.

At a moment when woodworking has all but disappeared from schools, pushed out by budget cuts and an overall shift to a pre-college academic focus, Schloff is introducing shop to a new generation of kids, providing not only the training, but portable workbenches that he designed (patent pending) for all the students, as well as a portable tool chest.

It took Schloff about a year to put together the underlying curriculum, and a few months to create the Jewish overlay, which he calls The Work of Our Hands: Jewish Values in Woodworking.

Mike Schloff, creator of the Jewish Values in Woodworking curriculum, with the tool chest.
(Photo by Johanna Ginsberg)

With the help of rabbis and educators from his synagogue, Congregation Beth El in South Orange, and at JCC MetroWest, he added elements of yiddishkeit to the curriculum, both explicit and implicit. The simple, explicit changes give a Jewish flavor to some of the woodworking projects. So, a keepsake box from the general curriculum becomes a tzedakah box; string art in a variety of shapes becomes a hamsa or Star of David; and the list of projects now includes a mezuzah and a seder plate. Campers also learn about Bezalel, the mastermind behind the construction of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, in the desert, as well as King Solomon, who spearheaded the building of the First Temple.

Implicit changes to the curriculum provide relevant Jewish values and principles that the instructor integrates into the lesson. For example, if campers are making a footstool, they might consider how the prop can help others, and what Jewish value they might be exhibiting. Or, if they finish part of a project and their neighbor is struggling, they should help the neighbor, reflecting the essential idea of tzedakah.

“It doesn’t need to be a coin in a box or a donation in multiples of 18,” said Schloff. “It can be something very simple that you can do all the time, and it becomes a habit.”

Other principles include melacha (creative work), tikkun olam (repairing the world), ometz lev (strength of heart), b’tzelem Elokim (being created in the image of God), shmitta (letting the fields rest every three years), and lihiyot b’simcha tamid (being happy).

A multigenerational menorah project at Congregation Beth El in South Orange. (Photo courtesy Mike Schloff)

Schloff only discovered he had a passion for woodworking 15 years ago when he and his wife, Liz Hochberg, bought a house. At that time, he was a white-collar professional with a career in digital marketing. But “we couldn’t afford to hire anyone, so I did all the work myself,” he said.

Of all the projects he did for the house, including electrical wiring, he found woodworking mesmerizing. “What draws me in is the mental presence,” he said. “Our lives are usually scattered, and our attention is scattered.” Woodworking is an opportunity to be “completely focused, completely present,” Schloff said. 

His first commission came when a former president of Beth El asked him to build a sukkah for the congregation, a project, said Schloff, that gave him the confidence to take on others. Woodworking has also taught him some life lessons — the same ones he designed his curriculum to teach: collaboration, perseverance, resilience, and problem-solving.

In 2016, he opened Maplewoodshop, which started as a storefront for teaching woodworking skills to all ages. But after meeting an art teacher who wanted to bring his program into her New York City school, it quickly morphed into more of a laboratory for creating curricula that can be implemented anywhere people work with children. He eventually ditched the storefront for studio space, and today his curriculum, in one form or another, is being used in more than 40 sites—both Jewish and non-Jewish, schools, camps, and JCCs — around the country, and he expects the number to rise to 50 in the next month.

Since developing his Jewish Values in Woodworking curriculum, Schloff has seen a sharp increase in interest from Jewish camps and JCCs; it will be used in 12 Jewish camps this summer, including Camp Ramah in the Poconos and Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake, as well as eight JCC camps. (Another 10 secular camps are using the curriculum without the Jewish values overlay.)

The Maplewoodshop tool chest at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill. (Photo courtesy Mike Schloff)

Over the years he’s also worked with kids in preschool, at the JCC MetroWest Early Childhood Center and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange; and he did a two-day residency with middle schoolers at Golda Och Academy in West Orange.

Schloff says he is a “tinkerer” by nature. He plays around with his creations, tweaking and perfecting them until he’s satisfied. That portable workbench he invented? It took seven iterations until Schloff was satisfied.

He also sees possibilities where others may not. When a tree falls near his home, instead of calling someone to haul it away, he takes out his tools. From one 600-pound tree he’s made projects with families at his synagogue, such as Chanukah menorahs and yads for reading Torah.

He sees a comparison between the wood’s potential and human potential.

“Within each of us, you know, there’s beauty that other people don’t see but we can render with our hands,” he said. “There’s more value that we can each offer that isn’t immediately obvious.”

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