“You’re going on a space mission to Mars 2.5. What three special items are you going to take with you to represent yourself and your culture on another planet?”
Teacher Jonathan Tessler poses the question to a classroom of 12 students in grades three through five circled around a whiteboard in the basement of Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Chevy Chase.
“We are Jewish men, so the Torah!” one student responds animatedly.
“No, silly—we’re Jewish boys,” retorts his peer.
Tessler hands out mini blackboards and asks students to work together in pairs to pick their three important space carry-ons.
The students are enjoying a January afternoon at MoEd, Montgomery County’s only organized Jewish after-school program. Founded in 2012 by two Jewish families—the Handwerkers and the Snyder-Garbers—MoEd offers a combination of immersive Hebrew learning and traditional after-school care.
The program provides students in kindergarten through eighth grade a safe place to learn and play—which local Jewish advocates say is especially important in the wake of recent antisemitic acts across Montgomery County. MoEd, an abbreviation of “more education,” is open from 3:30 to 6 p.m. every weekday during the school year.
Chevy Chase resident Max Grossman and her husband have been involved since the program’s inception. They have two children, both of whom have attended MoEd. Grossman’s younger son is currently in his last year before aging out of the program.
Like multiple parents and student volunteers, Grossman said MoEd maintains a joyful, curious spirit shared by students and staff alike. Within the safety of MoEd, children feel empowered to explore their Jewish identity on their own terms, according to staff. That can mean something as simple as playing with other students in an explicitly Jewish setting. The original character of the program has remained intact even as it has evolved into a state-of-the-art model for informal Jewish education countywide, Grossman said.
“We’ve always thought MoEd was doing precisely the work that Jewish education needs,” she said.
Begun as a hands-on, close-knit group run by several families, the program now has over 100 students across three separate campuses—at synagogues in Chevy Chase, North Bethesda and Fairfax—offering opportunities for students during the school year, plus a seven-week summer camp.
“It’s so nice to go to work and know my kids are safe and well-fed and doing things they love,” Grossman said.
‘No right way … to be Jewish’
While around 90% of MoEd participants attend Montgomery County public schools, others are students at Jewish day schools or private schools, according to founding executive director Orna Eldor Gerling. Students and their families have a range of religious backgrounds from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform to secular or nonreligious.
“In a way, it’s like home,” said Eldor Gerling, who moved to Chevy Chase from Israel with her wife and two kids 12 years ago. “I tried to create a place where I would have wanted to go.”
Eldor Gerling defines herself as a secular Jew. In Israel, she said she was taught there was “only one way to be Jewish.” She described a government-prescribed approach to religion that she remembers as being rigid and dogmatic.
“I don’t eat kosher, and I didn’t go to synagogue in Israel or observe holidays in the way they wanted me to,” she said.
When she moved to Chevy Chase, she said she discovered that being Jewish meant different things to different people in America.
Empowered by the freedom to explore her Jewish identity on her own terms, she realized she wanted to preserve her children’s knowledge of the Hebrew language and help them connect with their heritage.
“It’s about understanding who you are, where you come from,” Eldor Gerling said.
This desire led her to MoEd. The program’s lessons and activities cover a colorful variety of aspects of Jewish identity and culture, but politics is one area Eldor Gerling said staff avoids discussing, in the spirit of letting students come to their own conclusions in their own time.
“Israel is a very complicated country, and it’s hard to teach it without taking sides,” she said.
Other MoEd parents share Eldor Gerling’s appreciation for the nuances of Jewish identity embraced in America. Dan Lautman grew up in Israel and moved to Silver Spring 25 years ago. He and his wife have three children, all involved in MoEd.
“I grew up in a place that’s very homogenous in terms of what being Jewish is,” he said.
One of the things he appreciates most about the program is how much it exposes his children to different cultural elements of everyday Jewish life, including customs and traditions that the Lautman family might not practice themselves.
“There’s no right or wrong way to be Jewish,” he said. “I really appreciate that MoEd exposes my children to that.”
MoEd parents say for some students, the program is their only exposure to Jewish culture. Others have lived in Israel and attend synagogue every week with their families. Grossman, whose family attends Ohr Kodesh, said the student diversity is “really lovely.”
A typical afternoon
Upon arrival at Ohr Kodesh, the students’ first order of business is to enjoy a healthy snack, which can include hummus, carrots, apples and crackers. Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School junior Ari Pincus is tasked with filling students’ plates after they make their selections in Hebrew.
“You would be surprised how many names of foods kids can pick up when they’re hungry,” Eldor Gerling said. “There’s not a single child here that doesn’t know all the food names perfectly.”
Students are encouraged but not required to speak Hebrew with staff, and their activities tend to incorporate practical language-learning opportunities. The number of students at the program varies on any given day, but on busy days like Thursdays there are upwards of 60 students ages 5 to 14 in attendance—by far the most of the three MoEd campuses.
Public school students who ride a school bus are dropped off directly outside the synagogue on Meadowbrook Lane. Eldor Gerling said other families make the drop-off themselves, with several students driven from homes in Washington, D.C.
After the students finish eating, they enjoy free time until structured lessons begin at 5 p.m. Middle and elementary school students play kickball and swing hula-hoops around their hips in the gym, while others draw in coloring books or get their nails painted by staff member Katya Davidzon.
Davidzon joined the MoEd team three years ago via The Jewish Agency for Israel, a large international nonprofit founded in 1929. Israeli emissaries like Davidzon, called shlichim, are sent by the agency to work in schools, synagogues and programs around the world with the goal of providing Jewish communities a “living connection” to their shared heritage.
Davidzon said she views her role at MoEd as an opportunity to empower students to be kind and responsible through the power of play.
“It’s not just about learning Hebrew,” Davidzon said. “It’s about learning how to be a human being—how to be respectful. And kids learn best when they’re active.”
While the younger kids play, some of the middle schoolers complete homework assignments together in quieter areas of the building.
At 5 p.m., students split by grade level into different classrooms for a one-hour planned program geared toward learning Hebrew vocabulary. Lesson topics usually focus on upcoming Jewish holidays or interesting facets of Israeli culture.
Seventh-grader Ilana Handwerker, who lives in Silver Spring and attends Eastern Middle School, said she’s been coming to MoEd since kindergarten and loves the program’s emphasis on learning about social issues such as Israeli politics and civil rights.
After the lesson, parents pick up their children between 6 and 6:30 p.m.
Silver Spring resident Alissa Crispino said this is her 5-year-old son Xander’s first year attending MoEd. When he’s not looking forward to going to school in the morning, she said he’ll sometimes ask her to pick him up from MoEd early. But when she gets to the building, “it’s always ‘five more minutes,’ ” she said.
“When he’s having a really bad day, he’ll tell me, ‘Mom, I’m only going to MoEd today,’ ” she said. “And then I have to explain to him why that’s not an option.”
Children who grew up in the program often return as volunteers or counselors. Eldor Gerling said she has seven former students working with her as counselors at the original Chevy Chase campus, which serves around 60 students.
Grossman, whose younger son is in his last year with MoEd, said she used to joke that “instead of the MoEd symbol, they should have used a picture of claw marks on a door because you can’t drag your kids away from it.”
A kid-centered approach to learning
One of the world’s oldest languages still spoken today, Hebrew is particularly tricky to learn because the written language traditionally has no vowels. It shares very few similarities with English in terms of grammar and vocabulary, and it requires reading words from right to left. The best way to learn to read Hebrew is by speaking it, Eldor Gerling said.
Many parents send their children to Hebrew schools to help them prepare to recite expected scriptures at their bar and bat mitzvahs. Without continued practice, their knowledge of the language tends to crumble, according to several MoEd volunteers.
“Everyone I know who went to Hebrew school forgot their language learning after their bar mitzvah,” said Tamar Eldor Gerling, Orna’s daughter. The B-CC senior has been coming to MoEd since second grade and described it as “the biggest part of my life.” A volunteer at the Chevy Chase branch, she said she especially loves the connections she’s developed with the kids.
By making Hebrew lessons functional and fun, Orna Eldor Gerling said MoEd gives students the power to expand their vocabulary in ways that will stick with them.
“It has to be fun. It has to be loving,” she said. “They have to want to come.”
On that January afternoon, Davidzon is teaching kindergarten students about an upcoming Jewish holiday called Tu BiShvat, also known as the birthday of the trees. She leads the students in singing jingles and playing themed games that incorporate Hebrew vocabulary words for things like “tree,” “paper” and “shade.”
Down the hall, second graders learn themed vocabulary by playing a word-matching game with paper cards on the carpet. Others piece together a puzzle of a Vincent Van Gogh painting, while Tamar Eldor Gerling helps several girls paint trees and handprints with acrylics.
“Is it safe to say I need a new piece of paper?” one student asks Tamar diplomatically, surveying her artwork. “I messed up.”
Davidzon described the after-school program’s approach to education as an informal frame designed to empower students to take control of their own growth, giving students “a safe zone to explore who they are.”
A desire to humanize Holocaust education
MoEd’s impact on the Jewish community stands in relief amid the recent onslaught of antisemitic acts across Montgomery County, including antisemitic graffiti, dissemination of flyers and anonymous emails. Swastikas have been found scribbled on multiple student desks in high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. In March, four antisemitic incidents at Northwood High in Silver Spring prompted the school to shut down all outdoor facilities until further notice.
County officials have released statements standing in solidarity with the Jewish community, multiple student walkouts have been staged, and groups including the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington are calling for school curriculum enhancements to provide better Holocaust education and to teach cultural sensitivity.
Crispino said that when Xander first started attending MoEd in August, she battled some nerves about his safety.
“Of course, you certainly have hesitation dropping your kid off in any explicitly Jewish building these days,” she said, adding, “But I won’t live in fear.”
After a 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh became the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, Eldor Gerling said the staff at Ohr Kodesh increased security measures at the synagogue.
While MoEd doesn’t teach students about the Holocaust directly due to the young age of most participants, older students sometimes learn about its impact on the Jewish community.
Eldor Gerling said she believes education failures are partially to blame for the county’s recent surge in antisemitic acts.
“Mankind has a very profound lesson to learn from the Holocaust about how people behave towards others when they have the power to do it—for no obvious reason other than bigotry,” she said.
She said she believes that lesson isn’t emphasized enough in public schools.
As Jews, she said, “I think the best service we can do to ourselves is when we work with people who aren’t Jewish, and they realize our humanity.”