In search of shop class

Almost two months ago, as the sun sank toward the horizon, and the Jewish world prepared for Sukkot, my sons tested out their new wiffleball cannon.

For weeks, my fourth-grader and my husband planned their father-son project. On Sundays throughout the summer, they shopped at Sears and Home Depot for PVC pipes of various shapes and diameters until they had collected all the right pieces and connectors, consulting the Do-It-Yourself instructions in Popular Mechanics. The eleventh-grader sawed everything down to the right length. The high school freshman determined the optimal distance that the batter should stand from the barrel. It was left to the fourth-grader to duct-tape the contraption to the leaf blower, wrestle it onto the picnic table on the lawn, plug it in, and switch it on.

The cannon works. As long as someone stands at the feeder pipe and drops wiffleballs into the top, it fires fastballs. As I stood in the kitchen mixing honey cake and skimming chicken soup, the boys took turns at bat, enjoying the machine they had built with their own hands.

Which got me to thinking. I was blessed to attend a remarkable Jewish high school, Ida Crown Jewish Academy, in Chicago. What made it remarkable? Small classes. Teachers who cared. A pretty, airy new building with a great layout. A real gym, with basketball nets, rings, a pommel horse, bleachers. A crazy mix of teens from all walks of Jewish life. I made friends with kids from public schools whose families didn’t keep kosher, kids who had been frum from birth, the children of Holocaust survivors and children who grew up under Communism, privileged kids, poor kids. There were kids from Russia and Israel and Egypt and Iran, as well as Omaha, Minneapolis, and Peoria. We had sports teams and cheerleaders. A drama club, an art club. There were classes for the average student and classes for the academically advanced. We were fortunate to have a tolerant and fair-minded principal.

Also this, which I never realized was special and unique until I grew up and moved to a place where it didn’t exist: Shop Class.

Some teens in my grade were academically gifted. They would go on to become doctors and lawyers and rabbis and physicists and politicians. There were teens with talent, who went on to become artists and musicians and writers and photographers. But there were also kids who excelled at working with their hands. So, along with their Gemara and Jewish philosophy and Ivrit classes, they learned how to create things out of wood and metal and wiring and circuits. Maybe they weren’t at the top of their class in calculus or chemistry, but in shop, those kids were kings.

I can say with feeling and honesty that I am madly in love with my children’s high school. Walking through the halls, I am overwhelmed by the sensation of Jewish belonging that it kindles, and energized by the atmosphere of learning and scholarship and kinship that surge through the air. The kids, as they did at my high school, come from all walks of Jewish life. The teachers are dynamic, enthusiastic, experts in their fields. We have a tolerant and fair-minded principal. The building is spectacular. The many sports teams win championships. They offer an arts track. They offer an engineering track. They offer every activity and club under the sun.

Except for Shop.

None of the other Jewish high schools offer it, either. Why is that? Is it an insurance issue? A safety issue? All those computers that are outdated within five years and have to be replaced, did they take over the space that used to be allotted to lathes, clamps, sanders, and jigsaws?

I cannot think of a better and more useful addition to our high schools. In Jewish society, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and people who repair cars are just as necessary as doctors and hedge fund managers. There are great numbers of Orthodox Jewish kids who would shine in these fields, who could happily shape a successful and satisfying career out of them — if they only had access to the tools and an experienced and knowledgeable teacher.

So, if anyone reading my column today has influence in this matter, please consider this; perhaps we already have enough awesome options for high school kids striving to get into Ivy League colleges. Perhaps what our communities really need are more classes where Jewish boys and girls can learn the joy and satisfaction of building something with their own hands, out of wood and wiring, sheet metal and pipes.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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