By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
Northborough/Westborough – The seventh grade students in Wendy Gonsenhauser’s cooking class at Westborough’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue are learning more than how to make traditional Jewish foods.
“We’re focusing on the history and diet of less typical Jewish populations,” she said.
At Congregation Beth El of the Sudbury River Valley, Gonsenhauser takes this to a higher level in her class for high school students, “Jewish Culture and Cuisine.” She challenges her students to identify unusual Jewish foods, document their history, and post recipes in Google docs. Her students plan to assemble the research and recipes into a book at the end of the term.
“My students discovered that there was a Jewish community in the Kaifeng region of China during the late 1100s,” Gonsenhauser said. “We plan to make dumplings. Maybe that’s where Kreplach (Jewish dumplings) came from.”
“They have made Pavlova, a meringue served with fruit that was a specialty of Australian Jews. It was named for a Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who toured Australia in the 1920s,” she added.
Gonsenhauser has been a Jewish educator since she was a teenager in Buffalo, N.Y. where her Jewish roots were formed. Her relatives were among the founders of Temple Beth El, where her mother was temple president, and a Hebrew school teacher.
“When I was in Hebrew School, we had double shifts. There must have been over a thousand families who were members… I ran the art program by the time I was 16. When I was a senior in high school, I was teaching third and fourth graders about the Bible, history, holidays and traditions,” Gonsenhauser said.
Gonsenhauser remembers when her mother and grandmother organized a group of ladies who baked 10,000 Hamentaschen cookies for Beth El’s Purim celebration. A student of art education at Buffalo State back then, Gonsenhauser designed and made aprons for the bakers.
Her mother, according to Gonsenhauser, was a great baker but had not learned to cook much before she was married.
“She was an only child and her mother cooked regularly but didn’t share a lot of that with my mom. My dad taught her a lot about cooking. It was my grandmother who shared her love of baking with my mom.”
After graduating from college, Gonsenhauser moved to Boston to earn a master’s degree in expressive therapies (art, movement, music and drama) from Lesley University.
She has taught religious school classes in synagogues and community centers in New York State, New Jersey, and here in Massachusetts.
In addition to Beth Tikvah and Beth El in Sudbury, Gonsenhauser has taught preschool at the former Boroughs Jewish Community Center and Beth Elohim in Wellesley.
As a teacher, she shares her joy of Jewish history, T’filah (prayer), Tikkum Olam (charity), Halacha (law), Bible, art, social justice, ethics and cooking.
From 1998 to 2008 Gonsenhauser was a lead teacher at Beth El in Sudbury, where she ran the toddler program, designed curriculum, taught classes, trained other teachers, and designed Judaic/Hebrew language curriculum to support the core curriculum.
She is currently a lead teacher at the Wellesley College Child Study Center, which is a laboratory preschool and research site for Wellesley College’s Psychology department.
Gonsenhauser lives in Northborough with her husband and two daughters; one is a recent college graduate and the other is a college student.