Welcome to our new series: Shule Teacher Spotlight! Throughout the year, we’ll interview as many of our Shule teachers as we can so the whole community can get to know them a little better.
Meet Mateo Rojas: Mateo Rojas (He/him) joined our teaching team in 2021. He has taught Giml (3rd) and is currently teaching the Shule’s Hey (5th) class.
BWC: Mateo, why don’t we start at the beginning. How did you find Boston Workers Circle?
Mateo: To be honest, the answer at first sounds a little solemn. It was four years ago after the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. I was invited to speak at the vigil BWC helped put together. When I was invited to speak, I did some research about what BWC was. So I knew what BWC was, and the rich culture and the rich community.
Learning about the Shule was a whole other thing that came many years later – it really came at the right time in my life. I became disabled a few years ago, only 3 months after graduating college with dual degrees and life took many unexpected turns and I lost a lot. My synagogue community really helped me through it.
I go to Temple Beth David in Canton and Bethany Basile and I have been friends for years. She knew that I loved working with Children – I had been a children’s choir teacher and worked in childcare settings, and I really missed working with children since I was primarily working with elderly people at the time. I was really excited – my heart leapt out of my chest when she said BWC was looking for Shule teachers, especially for third grade. This has been somewhere I can bring my whole heart int and brought so much joy back into my life and even more so.
BWC: Why do you choose to teach Shule, of all the other things you could be doing on sunday mornings?
Mateo: Honestly, there’s no other place I’d rather be. I think that it’s no secret that there have been so many public attacks on education in the last few years particularly, so I think it’s really important to have a safe space for kids to come learn about what’s going on in the world, and about history and embracing their heritage. To have that space where we can really celebrate that – where we can have the balance where we do talk about the oppression of Jewish people, but what we celebrate, embrace, and talk more about are the victories of the Jewish people, the blessings of the Jewish people, and the community that we have. It’s just the energy I need.
I always tell people that Sundays are my 18 hour workday. When I’m done with Shule and go to my other job, everybody wonders how I have so much energy because you think I’d be crashing but teaching Shule gives me the energy that I need – I get to see a lot of smiles, I get to see a lot of kids learning and a lot of growth. I see the students both physically and mentally grow in a lot of ways – I love getting to see how they really start to explore their identity and how they land at the end of the year, as well as seeing the bond they had with their families. So yeah, there’s no place I’d rather be on a Sunday!
BWC: You mentioned that you’ve gone to Temple Beth David for a long time. How does being involved in Shule impact your Jewish identity?
Mateo: It’s giving me a space where I get to explore Jewish culture. I am somebody who is very religious and that’s an important part of my life, and I love this job because it plants seeds in my own mind to go explore on my own. Like, okay, I’m learning about the material I need to learn to teach, but then I’ll go off and I’ll watch a documentary about the Bund, and I’ll go off the deep end about Ellis Island and it’s helped me learn things that I wouldn’t be exploring otherwise, because again, these are things we didn’t talk about in my mainstream education. And so it’s been wonderful for me to reconnect in that way, when I couldn’t explore that growing up. I’m also somebody who wasn’t raised Jewish, so it’s been a way for me to build that too.
BWC: What’s something that brings you joy outside of Shule?
Mateo: Oh, so many things! Tilly, my service dog, basically has become like our mascot for the Hey class – all the kids love her, and everybody loves her wherever we go. So whether I’m at the grocery store or with the elderly people I work with at my other job, everybody loves her and I enjoy playing with her and watching her.
I also am a part of the Massachusetts branch of Never Again Action. We organize for protection of undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts. A lot of that organizing gives me a lot of joy, but also a lot of activism like that comes from a place of anger – there are a lot of things that get you really mad, but at least it gives me something to do with my anger. It gives me something to mobilize, so at least I’m always doing something.
BWC: What are your favorite parts of the Shule curriculum?
Mateo: Oh my gosh, I sound like a little kid, but really it’s all of them! Last year, when I was teaching the Giml class, I really liked the unit where kids are learning about their own family’s history. It was interesting to see the beginning of the year, some kids were really into it, and some kids weren’t, which was totally okay – that’s where they’re at. But as they started to learn more about the history, they became a lot more curious. So it wasn’t just about like this metaphorical Ellis Island – it felt more real to them.
With the Hey class, in the fall we were talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire – how the disaster itself was horrible, and how the factory owners’ abuse of workers and neglect of the building made it so deadly. There was a lot of emotional response in the room, and we talked about how the unions and protests that came out of that disaster were really powerful, with 350,000 people marching in the streets, and that’s how a lot of the fire codes and safety regulations we have in buildings today came into existence. We talk about what justice really looks like and that it doesn’t come from the system, it often comes from the people; it comes from us! I saw that it was really empowering for students to reflect on how this can play out in their own lives. We talked about their values, and their stories about when they’ve seen things that were unfair and spoken up about it.
And so I saw that that was really encouraging for students to reflect on because the students brought up meaningful and powerful conversations about their values and their stories about when they’ve seen things that were unfair in their lives and when they spoke up about it.
Thank you, Mateo! We look forward to showcasing our other Shule teachers soon!