“Judaism wants us to have the joy of becoming our best selves, and the Torah is the handbook to help us get there.” Yonina Schlussel’s fifth through seventh grade students say those words every morning as class begins. She teaches her students that learning Torah is a privilege, and through study, they can gain a personal connection to the text.
When I sat down with Schlussel, I did not expect to get a lesson in midrash, but I quickly realized it’s impossible not to learn when in her presence. Not only is she a natural when it comes to teaching, but her passion for teaching Torah shines through in all she does.
Schlussel grew up in New York and attended a typical Orthodox day school. She spent some time studying at a seminary in Israel and received her master’s degree in occupational therapy. Schlussel worked in the OT field for about 10 years before deciding to stay home after the birth of her third child.
A few years later, teaching fell into her lap. She was asked to teach Parsha – the weekly Torah portion – at Torah Academy of Milwaukee. She knew she would enjoy it if she could create the same atmosphere her Parsha teacher had years ago.
She explained that her parsha teacher growing up, Rabbi Jeff Greenberg, was a warm person who built a safe space for them to explore Torah and ask questions; she was eager to do the same. Schlussel has created a space that’s more reflective and personal. “The idea is that it’s not just an academic course, but more of a reflective course, helping them to find inspiration in their lives,” she said.
In what Schlussel has dubbed the parsha art journal, students write or draw something meaningful from the Torah portion and make it personal. She asks them, “What resonates with you? What idea are you going to be inspired by that’s going to help you be excited about your Judaism? What do you want to remember?” Schlussel hopes that when students leave her class, they understand what in the Torah resonates with them and keeps them inspired in their Judaism.
After some time, Schlussel noticed in recent years, “students were changing, but I didn’t really have the words for it.” So she contacted Tzipi Altman-Shafer, Jewish education community planner for Milwaukee Jewish Federation, and asked her to get a group together to learn more about project based and interactive learning. Tzipi convened a group of educators, including Milwaukee Day School’s director of Jewish life and learning Mara Kleiman. Mara saw something special in Schlussel and asked if she’d be willing to teach parsha at Milwaukee Jewish Day School.
While Schlussel loves teaching at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, teaching middle schoolers has been an adjustment. “High school kids have basic foundational understanding skills that middle schoolers haven’t quite perfected yet,” she said. Using growth mindset ideals, she has welcomed coaching to understand the minds of fifth and sixth graders and learn how to slow down for her younger students. Schlussel said she feels fortunate to be able to teach at two completely different schools. She is able to take everything she learns and the best of both schools into all her classrooms.
Schlussel resides on the West Side of Milwaukee with her husband. They have four children and one grandson. In her spare time, she loves creating art, specifically with Hebrew letters, and enjoys grabbing a coffee while visiting the Milwaukee Art Museum.
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Writer Nicole Boico is the Education and Engagement Specialist for the Coalition for Jewish Learning. The Coalition for Jewish Learning of Milwaukee Jewish Federation is celebrating local educators with this regular feature. To suggest someone for coverage, contact Jewish Education Community Planner Tziporah Altman-Shafer, at TziporahA@MilwaukeeJewish.org.