GLOUCESTER – A decade ago, Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester was looking for someone to head its education program. Finding a Jewish educator willing to drive up to Cape Ann twice a week can be a challenge.
“We had this wonderful art teacher, with a creative vibe, really good with interfaith couples,” said Marilyn Kramer, who was temple president at the time. “She had the talent. She had the interest. And she was living in Gloucester.”
“I don’t know anything about developing curriculum or working with teachers,” Kramer recalled Phoebe Potts saying. And then came the brainstorm. “Rather than find a school leader, we decided to make one,” said Kramer. “We paired her up with a mentor. And [the temple] paid for her to go to Chicago to a Jewish educators’ program.”
It was a gamble that has paid off for this scrappy, inclusive congregation on Cape Ann. The Sylvia Cohen Family Learning Program has become a model of forward-thinking education, and Potts was honored this month, along with other educators, by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. (Other local honorees were teacher Alyssa Pessaroff Kischel and education director Susan Sugerman, both at Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.)
Potts was born in Brooklyn, grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, and had what she calls a patchy Jewish background. She became an artist and ended up in Gloucester because her artist husband, Jeff Marshall, was painting there. (Potts, the 2018 Gloucester Writers Center Storyteller in Residence, is also a comic storyteller. Her graphic memoir, “Good Eggs,” about her travails with infertility, was highly praised by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast.)
They were living outside of Boston, and looking for a cheaper home. “We thought, let’s go to where it’s beautiful, and we’ll commute to our teaching jobs,” she recalled. The couple moved into the Lorraine Apartments, next door to the Gloucester temple, “and we could hear the singing.”
In 2004, she began teaching something she called visual midrash at Ahavat Achim. “I had kids interpret Torah through animation, theater, and drawing; studying Torah and responding to what they’re learning; asking questions about the text, and answering through art and design.
“I was thinking that I didn’t know a lot and I needed to learn. I know the Torah is the curriculum of the Jewish people. It’s full of stories, and kids love stories. Fusing text studies with art was also a way for me to learn it.”
Asked to sum up her approach she said, “I work from two questions that I learned as a community organizer and union leader: Why do they come, and what do they need? What draws people to the Jewish learning community, and then what keeps them there? What needs are people getting met? We can’t assume we know why people are coming. The reasons families walk in our door are very complicated and very varied. It can’t be your father’s Hebrew school. We have to respond to the time we’re in, and what the tradition actually provides.
“The good news is that Judaism is a study and a practice of how to live thoughtfully and honorably. Whenever I’m in a tight spot and I feel overwhelmed, I go back to the tradition. It offers a practice, a container for the questions of the day. When I’m really in doubt – just sing. It makes everyone feel good and you’re learning Hebrew.”
A program she started this year is an example. “The students come to temple in person and are given a tablet. Each student is paired with a bubbe or zayde, a member of the congregation.” The bubbes and zaydes arrive via Zoom, and each inter-generational pair learns together. “Learning Hebrew is the key to the culture. We want the students to be able to decode Hebrew words, see them and say them out loud, learn basic prayerbook Hebrew.”
So far, the program has been successful. “I don’t know where this will go, but the magic part is that none of the kids complain about this part of the program, which is their birthright,” Potts said.
From the temple, Potts wins particular praise for her approach to pandemic learning. “She went out of her way to visit each family and give them school supplies,” said Amy Farber, current Ahavat Achim president. “She adapted the length of the program to Zoom. This year, she has been truly heroic. [Students] have been outside every day until winter break.”
Rabbi Steven Lewis was just as enthusiastic. “Phoebe has transformed and deepened the experience of teachers, students, and families through careful listening, sparkling creativity and relentless work.” he said. “For our students and families, she is constantly finding new ways for them to engage in Jewish life and learning. Even aside from the extraordinary challenge of the pandemic, maintaining a small Jewish school comprising dozens of busy people with diverse and particular perspectives is a daunting task that Phoebe has managed with grace and determination.”