Aspen teen teaches Hebrew School and leads services for her congregation

Jun 20, 2023 | Article, Newsletter

Aspen teen teaches Hebrew School and leads services for her congregation

Jun 20, 2023

Sophie Genshaft graduationShe plays five instruments (if you count the ukulele). She is in the International Baccalaureate (IB) Programme at her high school, where she is a leader of the Student Integrity Team, the Student Senate, the National Honor Society, and the award-winning Dance Team. She is also a school ambassador who leads tours of the campus, a peer tutor for middle schoolers, and a member of the Buddy Program, helping students who have extra academic challenges.

But all that wasn’t enough to keep this recent graduate of Aspen High School busy. For the past three years, she has taught Hebrew School to the youngest children of her congregation. Because the congregation has been without a rabbi in recent years, she has also volunteered to lead services, reading Torah and delivering sermons.

And Sophie Genshaft is just 17 years old.

The impact she has had on the children and families of Aspen Jewish Congregation (AJC) is incalculable. At a recent service, Sima Oster, the congregation’s Education and Community Engagement Director, based her sermon’s theme on the contributions of this remarkable teenager.

“You greet each child as if he or she is the most important person in the world, and they each feel that love in a profound way. You taught Torah stories, Jewish values, prayers, and Hebrew, all through a lens of deep love and respect for each child. I watch you with them each week, and I, too, learn from what you are teaching, and most importantly, how you are teaching. In this way, you have made all of us chazak. You have given us strength.”

‘I was still a kid!’

Sophie started Hebrew school when she was in Kindergarten, and when it came time to become a bat mitzvah she says she felt really lucky to have two wonderful teachers who made the experience special.

Sophie Genshaft of Aspen“I absolutely loved learning my Torah portion,” she says. “I loved the whole process.”

When her brother became a bar mitzvah, she put her musical talents to work, playing every song on the flute with her father accompanying her on the guitar.

In eighth grade, she was asked to be a B’nai Mitzvah tutor, right about the time that the COVID pandemic hit. She pivoted to Zoom teaching, sharing her screen with sixth graders during the eight-week program.

“I knew quite a bit about reading Torah, but I was never really trained,” she says. “I wasn’t a professional. I was still a kid!”

That year, one request led to another.

The rabbi asked her to read Torah for Rosh Hashanah. It was during COVID, so she had to record the Torah portion for streaming. In subsequent years, it became a tradition. Five years in a row, she sang the Torah for the high holidays.

And then, she says, “things really took a turn,” when Sima Oster took her out for dinner one summer night and made her a “big offer.”

‘The greatest gift I could have ever received’

Oster was relatively new to Aspen when she started looking for a teacher for the Kindergarten-Grade 2 students in Hebrew School. Even though she did not know Sophie, other people told her that she would be a great candidate.

“I was trusting other people’s guts, and they were right,” Oster says. “She was the first high school student that we have offered a job in the history of our program.”

For the next three years as the program grew, Sophie was on staff at AJC, bringing her musical talent and love of children into the classroom.

“I felt so honored to be asked—it’s easily the greatest gift I could have ever received,” Sophie says. “I have always wanted to be a teacher, so I loved coming up with lesson plans and creating a fun environment to give them best learning experience and opportunities.”

Perhaps most important to Sophie, the job meant developing deeper relationships within the AJC community.

“Families would send me letters of appreciation,” Sophie says. “One mom said her kiddo didn’t really enjoy regular school, but they can’t want for Tuesday and Hebrew school.”

For her IB Programme, Sophie was required to do a project demonstrating Creativity, Activity, or Service (CAS). Because she was a paid staff member at Hebrew School, that work did not qualify for her CAS project. She and Sima had another talk, and Sima suggested that, in the absence of a regular rabbi, Sophie should lead services. For many high school seniors, that would be a daunting challenge, but not for Sophie.

“Ever since I was little, I picked up the songs and prayers easily,” she says. “I love learning how to sing trope from the Torah. With my dad’s support on guitar, I said, ‘Yes, I would love to lead services.’”

“Most kids learn just enough Torah to become a bar or bat mitzvah,” Oster says. “She has learned the whole repertoire of songs and prayers and can lead an entire service. It’s incredible.”

In her final service, Sophie worked with all the students in the Hebrew school, teaching each class a different set of songs and prayers and then led the service with these students, ages 5-13, before delivering a sermon in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Sophie Genshaft‘It’s a big family’

Sophie is the third generation of her family at AJC. Her parents Ben and Alyssa Genshaft and grandparents Joyce and Chuck Shenk are all active members. Ask Sophie what her grandparents think of her involvement in the congregation, and she smiles. “They love it!” she says. “They always cry, and they never stop talking about it.”

It’s not hard to find people who want to talk about Sophie.

“She is adored by our Hebrew School students,” says Jason Schnissel, Executive Director of the AJC. “Kids just flock to her. Sophie lives her Jewish values and traditions, and everything she has done has deepened her involvement in the community.”

“She just shines,” Oster adds. “She has leadership qualities that make her stand out even among adults.”

To hear Sophie tell it, the joy of her involvement at AJC is all hers.

“What I love about our congregation is that everyone is so close,” she says. “It’s a big family and very genuine. I just love everyone there.”

After a summer working as a camp counselor in Maine, Sophie will head to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her mother’s alma mater, where she plans to major in elementary education. Perhaps, she will return to Aspen as a teacher. No doubt, her students will be eagerly waiting.