At a Hanukkah party on Sunday (Dec. 10) at the East Lansing Public Library, Margot Valles wore bright orange tights and a navy-blue dress with a rainbow of colored pencils printed at the hem.
“One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a student who said the way I dressed reminded her of Ms. Frizzle,” Valles said, referring to the beloved and quirky teacher from PBS’s “The Magic School Bus.”
The event was co-hosted by PJ Library, an organization that sends free Jewish children’s books and music to families across the world, and the Shtibl, a new organization through which Valles aims to enrich, connect and empower people in the local Jewish community.
As director of congregational lifelong learning at East Lansing’s Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Valles is a dynamic educator who seeks to be “involved in the adventure of learning.” For Halloween, she decided to lean into it. At the Shtibl’s inaugural Jewish Halloween party, she dressed up as Ms. Frizzle herself, complete with a blue solar-system-print dress and a curly orange wig.
The party was a test run for a series the Shtibl calls “Let’s Jew It Together!” — events that infuse secular get-togethers and celebrations with Jewish meaning.
The story of the Shtibl started in 2019, when Valles set out to “do some serious Jewish learning.” She enrolled in the Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary and took classes online.
According to Valles, pluralism means that “we are not affiliated with any movement or stream of Judaism. There is much to be gleaned from every form of Judaism, but none has all the answers or will work for everyone.”
When Valles began seminary, her goal wasn’t to start a new organization.
“There were so many things our community needed within the structures that already existed,” she said.
But she realized she needed to create something of her own during an independent study with Rabbi Patrick Beaulier on how to be a “clergy entrepreneur.” The aim is to complement, not substitute, other Jewish affiliations people may have in town.
“It’s very important to me that this is something that adds to the community and does not take away,” she said. Some of the Shtibl’s board members are also members, if not employees, of other local synagogues such as Kehillat Israel or Shaarey Zedek.
“The intention is not to be comprehensive. It’s to fill in the gaps,” Valles said.
These gaps became especially apparent to Valles during the holiday of Purim in March 2023. She only knew of one Jewish organization in town planning to hold a reading of the full Megillah, or Book of Esther, in Hebrew.
Valles decided to organize a Megillah reading at her own home. Three women — Valles, Naomi Glogower and Rachel Minkin — chanted the Megillah, with roughly 15 people in attendance. Valles said it was “life-changing” to realize that she could host an event outside of the synagogue that people would attend.
The Megillah is chanted in a special trope, or cantillation. Glogower, who grew up in an Orthodox community in Ann Arbor, learned the trope from her mother as an adult. Valles taught herself from an app created by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
It was from the success of this gathering — and this model of intimate community — that the Shtibl took its name. The organization’s website reads, “Shtibl means little house in Yiddish. We hope the Shtibl will be your spiritual home and space for Jewish community.”
Valles said she finds that intimate groups like this are missing from a lot of Jewish communal life. Institutional Judaism, she said, tends to obsess about “the numbers.” But numbers of members aren’t what builds community, or “repeat customers.”
“People need to become attached to each other,” she said. “Just as they do in successful yoga studios or CrossFit gyms.”
Another aspect of the Shtibl’s mission is to help people find their place in the Jewish community, or to “navigate the local and global Jewish scene.”
“I want people to find a place where they feel they belong in the Jewish community,” said Valles. “There are lots of different places that can be. It may not even be at a synagogue. It may be as a person who’s really involved in the (Greater Lansing) Jewish Federation or in MSU Jewish Studies, or it could be in Jewish ritual at home.”
It’s important to Valles that Jews don’t let the rules get in the way of participation. She said she has a strong regard for Halacha, or Jewish law, “but it can become such a barrier to actually having a good experience. If Judaism is going to be meaningful in people’s lives, there have to be rituals that speak to them and that they can get behind. Not because a rabbi told them it was the right way to do it.”
This kind of empowerment and help accessing Jewish ritual has traditionally been the bailiwick of Chabad, a prominent Hasidic Jewish organization best known for its outreach activities.
Chabad welcomes everyone, but it can’t always be counted on as a space where converts, women seeking egalitarian involvement in ritual, interfaith families, patrilineal Jews, Jews of color or LGBTQ+ Jews can be their full selves, Valles said.
For the Shtibl, by contrast, “Every Jew is Jewish enough” and “each person is a universe with endless potential.”
Valles hopes to attract people who are “Jewish, Jew-ish or Jewish-adjacent,” and are not already affiliated with one of the local Jewish congregations.
“When people leave or are unsatisfied with the options they’ve had locally, where do we want them to go?” she asked. “Are they going to go back into the world of the unaffiliated? Or could we give them another Jewish option that might speak to them more?”
For now, the Shtibl is working on organizing individual events, with plans in the works for tot Shabbats, a celebration of the Jewish holiday Tu B’Shvat and even a get-together on Christmas Day. Interested parties can stay in touch with the organization’s upcoming events at www.shtibl.org.
Valles originally came up with the Shtibl as a project to define her rabbinate after graduation. But as a representation of what her “rabbi-ness will look like,” the Ms. Frizzle costume is not too shabby.
“She doesn’t just chaperone the kids. She’s on the bus. I really hope that’s how people receive what I do,” Valles said.
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