Jorie Bernhardt’s degrees from college wouldn’t lead you to think she’d be a synagogue’s Director of Youth and Family Programming, but that’s exactly what she’s doing at Temple of Aaron. The Chicagoland native is settling into St. Paul with her husband, and talks about how she went from a biology major to a Jewish educator, her time in Ann Arbor, and baking as hobby AND therapy in this week’s Who The Folk?!
How have you been settling in?
I’m really loving it here. My husband and I are loving the Twin Cities so far. We live on the river in Downtown St. Paul. It’s a unique drive to work every day.
Was it Temple of Aaron that brought you guys here?
It was my husband’s job. I always joke that he started it. He went to business school at the University of Michigan and last summer he interned at 3M. They said, “We really like you, would you like to come back?” And we said “We really like you, too.” So 3M brought us here and then I found this job.
Is your background in education?
Yes and no. My undergrad is in biology and my grad is in public health. So how did I end up in informal education? After grad school, I moved back home to Chicago and started volunteering the Chicago Botanic Garden. I was helping with their camp program and I loved it. I loved teaching, I loved working with kids, and just being outside. Volunteering turned into a part-time job, a part-time job turned into a full-time job, and five years later, I was there until we moved to Michigan.
What kind of program are you walking into?
The USY program here is very established and has a great history and really great legacy. I know I want to honor that history, but think about it in a modern context about how do we connect teenagers to their Jewish identity and see what being a Jew means to them. So trying to think about traditions the program has and also what twists we can put on it to make it more attractive. My position is different than my predecessor’s because I oversee the Shabbat school programming, which is new this year. It’s an hour, rotational, hands-on experience. They learn a little bit of Hebrew, they learn about any Jewish holidays that are coming up, or the themes of the Rosh Chodesh, then a bit about the Torah portion. Each week I have to think of different ways to make the Torah relatable. I always love doing things that are hands-on and engaging.
Specifically, with teens, what do they say they want?
They just want to hang out with their friends and have fun. That’s the meat of it. They love baking activities, so we had a lounge night where they could get to know me, so we baked rugalach and taught them how to do that and they loved it. They want to have fun and socialize, so we’re trying to find different programs that also have that Jewish aspect. What’s challenging with teen programs is balancing the needs of the Jewish world with the needs of the secular one and how do you intersect? There’s always something.
Given that the USY chapter is so established, is it hard to come in and make changes?
One of the things that’s different is that I was never a part of USY. I accompanied one of my friends to lounge nights when I was in high school, but never formally joined. And I went to BBYO events but never formally joined. For me this is all new. I come in with open eyes. There’s a very steep learning curve, but everything that I have to do for the program, I can relate to a program I’ve done in previous jobs. One of the good things is that I’m listening to what my teens want and can help execute their vision. Within reason. They are very easy to reason with.
What are you looking most forward to as you grow?
I’m just looking forward to getting to know my students and families a lot more and just encouraging them to continue come. I’m hoping the programs that I put on and provide can help encourage families to choose Temple of Aaron as their synagogue.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
I’m going with Tu B’shvat. I love that Judaism in many ways thinks about agriculture and the trees and the environment. Especially after working at the Chicago Botanical Gardens, I have this appreciation for the environment and trees and flowers. I think it’s really fun that we have a holiday that says let’s have a birthday party for the trees and celebrate their offerings.
Favorite Jewish Food?
Ok, this is hard. I’m a huge baker, and it’s got to be either babka or rugalach. I love a good brisket. I love a good challah. If I can bake it, it’s going to be one of my favorites.
Where did your interest in baking come from?
When I was in undergrad at Illinois State, they didn’t have a formal Jewish group. When I started I helped start the Jewish student union. I was on board and one of my jobs was kitchen coordinator. I felt so strongly that the food we make has to be kosher. It’s not like we were going to be serving things that were obviously against the rules, but I wanted everything to be hekshered. One of my infamous occasions was myself and one other person spent 24 hours making a Passover seder for 80 people. That is probably one of the craziest thing I’ve ever done. Everything was made from scratch. That’s where the passion started. Baking, for me, is where I find center. I do stress bake. I was the person who, when my husband and I got married, baked all the cookies for the out of town swag bag. That week I made four challot, two chocolate pudding pies. I just kept baking and baking. I was very tempted to make our wedding cake but Aaron stopped me. He’s a very reasonable human being. One of the issues is that the bar is so high for when we go purchase baked goods. Ultimately we had to go with Zingerman’s because it was the only place that beat my baked goods. I can’t be as good as Zingerman’s.
It’s therapy then?
Yes. I love it.