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Hands-On Jewish Learning

From the midst of the Bible Belt comes a woman who believes that when parents and children undertake holiday craft projects together learning and fun ensue.

By Sue Tomchin
Bible Belt Balabusta
A Purim grogger (noisemaker) made out of legos? A mezuzah case made from a Pez container? A Mount Sinai cake?

These “hands-on, Jewy projects,” are the creations of Joanna Brichetto, aka the Bible Belt Balabusta. A resident of Nashville, Tenn., which she describes as “the buckle of the Bible Belt, with more churches per capita than anywhere else in the country,” she launched her blog, BibleBeltBalabusta.com, in 2008. Her mission: to create opportunities for kids and their parents to spend time together making Jewish things for the holidays and home. “I like stuff that is hands-on, attractive, non-fussy, cheap and real, and so fun no one realizes it's educational,” she explains on the site. “The value is in the doing, not just the being done, and in the conversations and questions that happen along the way.”

A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Joanna didn’t know anyone Jewish until moving to Nashville. “I can’t imagine an adult with less exposure to Judaism than I had,” she said recently in a phone interview. “I married the second Jew I ever met.” She converted to Judaism prior to her marriage, but found that she still had a lot to learn. “My conversion was really only the beginning. Making Jewish things became the way I educated myself,” she said. 

Since that was before the Internet had turned into a significant source for Jewish information, Joanna turned to books and to her husband’s family in the North who were “well-educated and eager to share.” She later earned a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and now works as an Experiential Educator at West End Synagogue, a Conservative congregation in Nashville. She has also written Jewish parenting articles for Kveller and Interfaith Family and links to these are included in her blog. 

Lego Gragger BrichettoAfter her daughter was born in 1994 (her daughter is now in college in New York), Joanna began teaching Sunday school. She discovered that many of the children she taught had limited knowledge about Judaism and few positive associations about the holidays. That inspired her to start classes where parents and children could create Jewish projects together. “No Jewish background was assumed. I know what it is like to be a beginner and to feel insecure,” she said. “We made things together. I wanted them to associate Judaism and fun. For me, making things together creates meaning and identity.”

Between working with her classes and her own children (her son was born in 2006), Joanna’s  collection of Jewish craft project ideas burgeoned and by 2008 she had decided she wanted to share them. She launched the blog naming it after the balabusta, the capable Jewish woman of Yiddish lore. “I’m not a balabusta, I just play one on the Internet,” she claims with the same wit that characterizes her blog entries. While Joanna’s projects and ideas are primarily designed for children from elementary school on down, that hasn’t stopped USY groups and Hillels from using them for their activities.  She says that she has heard from parents and educators who have liked her ideas from across the U.S., from Canada, and even Australia. 

For the upcoming holiday of Purim, she has created multiple versions of lego groggers and will be making them with the third graders whom she teaches. When she makes hamantashen with a class of preschoolers, she has them work with play dough first, she said. “Preschoolers have a hard time turning circles into triangles, so we practice on the play dough.”

At Passover, she encourages parents to involve children in preparation. The Seder plate is a “huge teaching tool,” she says, yet moms are often so busy, the tendency is to do it all themselves. “Let your child do it,” she advises. “Let them grate the horseradish root for the maror or the apples for the charoset, or at least to put the items on the Seder plate. There is so much potential for learning.”Perfection isn’t her goal, whether making an edible sukkah out of graham crackers and pretzel rods, a mini menorah from an Altoids tin, or caramel dreidels—that spin.  “Pinterest sets the bar very high. We don’t have to be Jewish Martha Stewarts,” she says. If making a holiday food from scratch stresses a parent too much, it’s fine to use a “slacker” recipe, she advises, such as using ready-made pie crust dough to make Purim hamantashen. “They may not be gorgeous but are beautiful because the kids made them.”

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