By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – When Rebecca Busansky and Jonah Zuckerman moved to Northampton from New York with their three children, they began looking for religious education for their kids – but a different kind of religious education.
“We moved from NYC to Northampton and were looking for a Jewish education for our children, but did not want to join a synagogue,” said Busansky, the mother of Miranda, now 15, Kaleb, 13, and Nola, 10. “That is how I received my Jewish education, and it is what we had done living in NYC. I heard about Alison Morse and the program she was starting and got in touch.”
That program was Circles for Jewish Living (CJL), a Jewish educational program in Northampton, which builds community through the arts, culture and education and which serves serving mostly unaffiliated and interfaith families.
Its programs include an afterschool program for grades K-8, bar/bat mitzvah lessons and Mincha celebrations, holiday celebrations, community events and adult classes. CJL classes and holiday celebrations take place in the homes of participating families.
CJL was founded by Morse in 2010 with seven families. Now 30 families participate.
Morse is a long-time Jewish educator in the area. She worked for Congregation B’nai Israel for 14 years before forming CJL.
“I am a longtime member of the conservative synagogue (CBI), but I don’t think of boxing myself in that way, because my background is traditional and my spirit moves toward renewal.”
Originally from New York, Morse was raised Modern Orthodox in the Bronx.
“I had a very rich family and community experience, with grandparents who lived in the neighborhood and everyone congregating there on Shabbat and holidays.”
She left Yeshiva after the third year of high school, she says, to “seek a broader perspective.”
But she still had a strong connection to Judaism.
“The songs, the spirit, the music, the culture lived deeply within me, but I needed to open up into a more secular world,” she said.
She got into college early admission, ending up at Northeastern majoring in medical technology and biology.
After college she went to Israel for the first time and met her husband Joe. “We did a Sherut La’am program for half a year and lived on a kibbutz for half a year. We spent time in the north living with my extended family in a farming community.”
They came back to the U.S. and “followed Joe’s path for a bit,” she said, while he studied glassblowing. They landed in Western Massachsetts 32 years ago. Joe got a job blowing glass in Holyoke, and along the way, they had two daughters, Ayana and Leeba.
Her kids began attending preschool at Gan Keshet in Northampton.
“At a time when Gan Keshet at CBI did not have extended care, I created an extended care program at my house. And that is how I first got involved with the Jewish community in Northampton in the early 90s,” she recalled. “When they started the program, it ended at noon, and I picked up four children in my car and brought them home and we had an extended program until 3 p.m.”
It was from this that people in the community got to know Morse.
“Someone asked if I would teach their children who were in a havurah together. Some of the families I ended up working with in the mid-90s were the precursors to the Beit Ahavah synagogue community. They had been in a havurah for I don’t know how many years, but their kids were of an age where they wanted some kind of informal education. They rented space in the Montessori building in Northampton. I started a program and we hired some other teachers…I ended up leading an informal Hebrew school for these havurah families.”
Besides leading the Hebrew school, she also officiated at many of their bar and bat mitzvahs, leading 30 over the years.
She then facilitated “Stepping Stones,” a two-year program for interfaith families at CBI, then continued to work there for 14 years. After Stepping Stones, she ran the temple’s high school program, then taught in their preschool program, then was director of education for six years.
“My tenure at CBI ended in the spring of 2010. In the fall various families in the community approached me and asked if I would work with their families. It kind of put me back in that place I was at all those years ago with the havurah group,” she said.
She began working independently with these families, forming Circles of Jewish Living.
Sarah Swersky and her husband Jeff Wagenheim are an interfaith couple in Northampton with two kids, Aaron, 12, and Rebecca, 10.
The family became involved with CJL five years ago when Busansky, their new neighbor, began talking about Jewish education for her children. “She had met Alison and they began talking about an alternative to the traditional Hebrew school programs that are offered in the synagogues. I was very interested because I didn’t think the traditional synagogue religious school education was a good fit for our family because of the schedule,” Swersky explained. “Rebecca Busansky and I were the pioneers in Alison’s group and we told her what we were looking for and she was open, flexible and had her own great ideas to add… CJL has been a great way for my kids to feel connected to the Jewish community here.”
There are now 4 or 5 afterschool co-horts a week from Monday through Thursday with up 8 children per co-hort meeting in someone’s home.
The students learn history, values, Torah study, community service, and Israel study.
“Alison has an incredible way with children, a strong belief in the importance of community and a love of sharing Judaism,” says Rebecca Busansky. “She brings this to everything she does at CJL. She meets every child where they are at and is outstanding at group dynamics. Also, since each class is taught by Alison it means that she knows each child and the group dynamics. For an afterschool class, that is very important… Also, the quarterly family gatherings are a wonderful way for us to celebrate the holidays with our Jewish community.”
This year at CJL, 10 students are preparing for their bat and bat mitzvahs and they will meet on Thursdays afterschool with individualized lessons over 9 or 10 months.
Each family chooses where they would like to have the bar mitzvah. In the past they have been held at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, the Smith Conference Center, or in restaurants or people’s homes. They are always Shabbat mincha services.
Busansky praised Morse’s bar and bat mitzvah education.
“My oldest daughter’s bat mitzvah was three years ago and my son is now preparing for his,” she said. “[Alison] brings deep insights, joy, her love of music, and her understanding of this important ceremony. It was so wonderful to have Alison lead my daughter’s bat mitzvah after having taught her for several years and then tutored her for one more year. It made it very personal.”
“My son is preparing for a Bar Mitzvah in April and I have enjoyed seeing how she works one on one with the kids,” Swersky said. “That was a high energy group of mostly boys and Alison knew how to keep them interested, asking good questions and even combined some running around so they could focus on the lesson!”
A particular demographic of CJL this year is the formation of a K – 1 grade.
“When I started I didn’t think it would include kindergarten … But I just follow what is going on around me…each year it is a little bit different.”
She leads a Rosh Chodesh group from January through June, leads a Thursday morning meditation at CBI with Nancy Flam, and plans to begin a teen-parent circle as part of CJL.
Morse also has founded MOSAIC: Training for Social Change, an educational consulting practice that offers programs and services, including professional development, course delivery, curriculum writing, project management and evaluation, with an eye toward building more inclusive and responsive learning and working communities. MOSAIC uses resources from Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization that “engages participants in an examination of racism and prejudice.”
She also offers the StoryCafe for Adults, in which people tell their own personal stories in small, warm gatherings, with the goal of building community, which is a term Morse uses often.
Overall, she says, “Community Building is the common denominator to all of my endeavors.”
Afterschool students at Circles for Jewish Living.
Alison Morse, right, officiates at a bat mitzvah.