Community Blog Woodworking My Way From Builder to Teacher

By Eugene Zeleny
woodworking class

I started woodworking 10 years ago, when my niece Mila was born. My motivation was simple enough—build toys and gifts to help keep her grounded amid the growing trend of youth cell phone culture. A tangential hope was that she would follow my footsteps in some sort of mechanical engineering, woodworking or otherwise hands-on trade or hobby. So 10 years ago I started building, and haven’t looked back since. These days, one of her favorite games to play when she comes over to my apartment is, “Did You Build That Thing?”

Other games I currently play with my friends are, “Can You Build This Thing?” or “How Can I Build This Thing?” or “Can I Come Over to Your Workshop so You Can Help Me Build This Thing?” What can I say? I like games. With enough engineering knowledge and enough self-taught woodworking experience, I’ve learned you can build damn-near almost anything. But I’ve also learned that being the only person in my community with this knowledge gets lonely. What’s the point of having all this empowering DIY knowledge, hand and power tools and piles of lumber if there’s no one to share it with (my niece still has a few years until she’s allowed in the shop)?

So I decided to join my two friends in starting Boston’s first RSJ (Russian-speaking Jewish) Moishe House in Brighton. Of the five to six events a month, I figured that fitting in at least one woodworking workshop would do the trick. The advantage is twofold—it gives my community members a previously unavailable opportunity to get their hands dirty and finds me more creative people to build stuff with. I’ve gotta tell you, seeing the joy and pride in someone’s eyes after they build their first dreidel or mezuzah is amazingly rewarding.

The workshops thing took off in a big way, actually. On average, our Moishe House has hosted one hands-on creative event per month over the past year, bringing in a variety of community members to co-teach the workshops with projects ranging from wooden Havdalah boxes, bottle openers, costume props, drawn comics, succulent planters, embroidery and so much more. The positive response to this concept of freely sharing knowledge and space has been wholesomely overwhelming.

There are plenty of maker spaces around the city, such as The Makery in Brookline and Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville (which is a wonderfully progressive trait for Boston to have), but there are still barriers to entry, like money and workshop-specific community support, which our Moishe House workshops hope to alleviate. When creating any sort of community maker space, the community has to come first. This is what Eser’s Maker Mishkan is all about—integrating text-based and hands-on learning in a dynamic environment for the local community.

My co-teacher, Sam Blumberg, taught the text side of things. I taught the woodworking, and between the two of us we engaged 15 people over six weeks to reflect on creativity in both a philosophical sense and a physical sense. Throughout the course our students learned about creativity and communal-building efforts found in Judaic text. They also learned how to use power and hand tools safely and effectively. They were given instructions on how to build dreidelsmezuzahs and menorahs, but also given the freedom to explore their own creativity and design their own. And in a short period of time, everyone came out having learned something more about themselves, their identity and their role in their community.

What did I learn? Besides how to teach a large group of adults basic woodworking skills in very little time? I learned there is a spectrum of Judaic experience and expression, and each person cultivates their little plot of Judaism in their own way. Watching each of my students find or design their own final projects based on their Jewish identity was fascinating. One student chose to make pomegranate coasters because they reminded her of Rosh Hashanah, an association which was beforehand foreign to me. Another student used beet juice to (successfully) stain her challah board, which completely blew my mind (in case you’re wondering, it dries hot pink!). All these little details are just a small part of what I experienced while in this creative learning community.

Whether or not you liked school when you were a kid, you’re always going to be drawn to the community it built for you. So when you’re presented with the opportunity, as a grown-up, to go back to school a few times a month with people you know and like and learn a new hands-on skill, well, what’s the downside?! Not everyone has a woodworking space in their basement or garage (and that’s OK!), but it was my decision to have one here, in this Moishe House. Why? Because it creates opportunities. Opportunities for learning, teaching, making and sharing. Opportunities that open up a community’s creativity, making space for art and discussion and growth, both individual and communal.

For me, personally, this means more teaching opportunities, because that’s the best way I see myself enabling my community to grow and flourish. I’ll be teaching art to elementary-schoolers in the fall at Minni Space, an after-school art program in the South End. I’ll keep teaching my monthly workshops through Moishe House. And maybe I’ll teach another Eser class. And I’ll do my best to keep my garage door open. Come on by sometime; you might learn something.

Eugene Zeleny graduated from Northeastern University with a BA in mechanical engineering and a minor in technological entrepreneurship. He currently works for the MIT Media Lab as a mechanical engineer in its OpenAg Initiative. A freelance woodworker since 2009, he focuses on creating functional art such as furniture, interior decor, humorous novelty items and fashion accessories. As a resident of Boston’s RSJ Moishe House, he hosts one hands-on workshop a month to inspire creativity in his community. He brings a love of crafting and free-form construction in a variety of accessible materials (but mainly wood) to the classroom.

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