Irwin Slonin and the blessings of teaching

Be it a simple blessing over food or the trope melody of a Torah portion, Irwin Slonin enjoys teaching Jewish children of all ages.

Irwin Slonin and Lilah. Photographed by David Stuck

Be it a simple blessing over food or the trope melody of a Torah portion, Irwin Slonin enjoys teaching Jewish children of all ages.

Slonin, 60, a preschool and religious school teacher and bar and bat mitzvah tutor, is based at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, where he began teaching six years ago. Before that, he was on staff for nine years at his own synagogue, Shaare Torah, in Gaithersburg.

Slonin got his start in bar and bat mitzvah tutoring when Shaare Torah’s rabbi at the time, Jacob Blumenthal, announced he would be happy to teach anyone who wanted to learn to read Torah.

“I thought it would be a really interesting hobby,” said Slonin, who lives in Potomac. “I took lessons for five years before hearing there was a need for tutors. I thought I would love to be able to teach students to prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah.

He finds the tutoring rewarding. “What gives me particular pleasure is the fact that I’m helping them to prepare for the first thing in their Jewish lives that’s the most important to them.”

Students who seem to be uninterested in religious school get engaged for their bar and bat mitzvah, he said. “I’ve taught many students who seem to be there because their parents make them come. Then when I get students that I’ve known from the religious school, they want to be preparing for their bar or bat mitzvah. I’ve found they are much more bought into the process and I love watching them thrive as they prepare for their big day.”

The pandemic presented some long-term challenges to tutoring, he said. Bar and bat mitzvah students are coming in with inadequate Hebrew skills. “Online teaching wasn’t a very effective way for students to learn. That’s a challenge as I’m trying to teach them the tropes [notation system for chanting Torah] for preparation.”

For a number of years, Slonin and his wife, Sue-Anne, raised dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Their daughter Samantha, now 25, got them started when she decided to raise a service dog for her bat mitzvah community service project. Since then, the couple reared five dogs with Sue-Anne taking the lead. They stopped several years ago.

“It was rewarding in that we were doing something, training these dogs that will hopefully become companions for blind or sight-impaired individuals to help them lead their lives in a more normal fashion,” Slonin said. “It’s a really good organization to be a part of.”

The time invested — 18 months — makes it hard to say goodbye to a dog, but “that’s part of what kept us continuing. We’d finish one dog, bring it up to their headquarters in New York and then we would pick up our next dog.”

Originally from Langley Park, Slonin grew up in a Conservative household. His father worked for wholesale plumbing and electrical businesses. His mother was a stay-at-home mom. Slonin went to religious school at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah. Then the family moved to Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim.

Slonin’s first experience as a teacher came with his role as a stay-at-home dad. All three of his daughters attended Children’s Learning Center, an unaffiliated Jewish preschool in Rockville.

“I didn’t just want to drop them off, come home and go back to pick them up. So I asked the director if there was any way I could help out at school. Slowly, the amount of time I was helping grew and grew. A few years later, I got an assistant teaching position.

“I loved it. I mean I love children to begin with. That’s why I was happy to be a stay-at-home father. I loved working with kids in a preschool setting. In a Jewish preschool, I loved sharing what I know about Judaism and our customs and traditions.”

As his children transitioned to the public school system, Slonin had a decision to make. “Do I just stop working and go back to my old life? I found that early childhood is really the place I love to be.”

He then took a preschool position at Congregation Har Shalom. Two years later, in 2007, he switched to Shaare Torah. He was touring the facility when the religious school director asked if he wanted to also teach in the Hebrew school. “I said, ‘Sure, why not.’ My Hebrew skills were good, but I didn’t have the educational background and she said, ‘That’s OK. We need educators to teach prayers.’ I said, ‘I could certainly do that.’”


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