Erica Belkin Allen once worked in a history museum, wearing a bonnet, an apron, and a heavy woolen skirt, while demonstrating post-Revolutionary War cooking.
Beyond being fun, she said, the experience underscored for her the power and impact of bold and imaginative education.
Fast forward to today. At Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville, Maryland – where she is in her second year as a full-time middle school Judaics teacher – Allen is using all manner of creativity to engage students in Jewish identity, understanding, and practice.
For example, in her sixth grade Judaics class, students used physical movement – an approach Allen learned at a Covenant Foundation conference – to convey emotions of biblical characters and to interpret objects on the Pesach seder plate. When her seventh grade Jewish History class was studying Kaballah, she asked students to construct an artful Aleph as part of an arts beit midrash, with each part of the Hebrew letter representing some aspect of kaballistic thought or interpretation.
On another occasion, Allen’s students crawled through the hallways to a small basement room to recreate the secrecy and desperation experienced by Jews making choices about their religious observance during the Spanish Inquisition.
“Jewish history is Jewish because we are studying something Jewish, but it is also Jewish due to the way we study it,” Allen said. “It is not just history; it is our story. I’m trying to bring personal connection to a piece of history that otherwise might feel very distant.”
“This is especially important at this age, in middle school, when students are questioning a lot about their place in the world, their relationship to God, and their identity as Jews. They don’t always feel they have the freedom or words to ask questions. As a result, I am committed to creating an environment in which they can reflect without even talking.”
In retrospect, Allen said, becoming a Jewish educator was a natural destination for her. She cites her mother as “embracing every aspect of Jewish ritual and bringing the love and fun of Judaism into our house.” She also credits the teachers at her first Jewish day school who were “inspiring and warm, warm women who wore their love of Judaism in their hearts. But for a long time I thought I could never be a teacher because I couldn’t live up to that.”
Asked to identify that “aha” moment when she knew a Jewish educator track was her destiny, Allen cited the two years she spent as an assistant teacher at the Jewish Primary Day School in Washington, DC, beginning in 2009. “I found a field that I was good at, and I realized that classroom teaching was something I wanted to excel at. I wanted to have the sort of deep impact that I saw happening there; it is something I still strive for.”
When she received The Covenant Foundation’s 2015 Pomegranate Prize for her promise and potential as a young Jewish educator, Allen was serving as both the Assistant Director of Congregational Education at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, a conservative synagogue affiliated with Krieger Schechter, and as a part-time teacher at the synagogue’s religious and day schools.
At Chizuk Amuno, she redesigned and led High Holy Days programming for elementary and middle school students, revamped the seventh-grade curriculum, and co-founded Achshav, a supplementary religious school program for students in grades 8 to 10 that culminated in an Israel trip.
“Erica is impactful in her mannerisms, kindness, and her thoughtfulness, and also in the very nature of her pedagogical approaches,” said Dr. Robyn Blum, Head of Middle School and Judaics Chair at Krieger Schechter.
“She is a thoughtful and creative lesson crafter, hitting on multiple ways of engagement, from discussion and traditional questions and answers, to art and theatre, to application, allowing her students to connect in a modern way, yet mindful of tradition.”
Allen extends her reach as Jewish educator beyond the classroom, with her Jewish values-driven passions seeding the school and the greater community in often very topical ways. She has been a powerful advocate for the school’s participation in a “reading buddies” program with Baltimore inner-city youth. Allen believes that participation in this program will open up students to their communal responsibilities through awareness of racial and socioeconomic class relations.
And she is co-founder of the Baltimore Social Justice Seder, which each Passover creates resources, learning opportunities, and moments of community engagement around justice issues such as police accountability and immigration.
“A big part of why I love being a Jewish educator is because it is not just about facts,” she said. “It is also about values and how we treat each other and how the world should work.”
Allen cited the connections made to other Jewish educators and leaders, as well as idea exchanges, as among the most valuable assets of being a Pomegranate Prize recipient. The annual winter conferences for Project Directors were, she said, “the most thought-provoking and creative professional development opportunities that I’ve ever had.” She incorporated some of the approaches she learned at the conferences – such as movement in the classroom and building devices to help biblical characters work through questions – nearly immediately.
With resources attached to the Pomegranate Prize, Allen participated in the Jewish Educators’ Institute of Mechon Hadar. She also worked one-on-one with a biblical scholar to deepen her own knowledge and enhance what she brings to her classroom. In 2017, she traveled to Poland with the Ramah Israel Institute to tour Holocaust sites – an experience, she said, that is newly informing her teaching of the subject.
Allen remarked that the fact that she is one in a group of young Jewish educators selected for the Pomegranate Prize is not only an honor, but also a validation of her work and vision for impact.
“The Covenant Foundation saw me as being a worthy Jewish educator. That is my takeaway and responsibility now – to better enrich my students, share with the teachers I work with, and create a greater mindfulness for what we can all achieve.”