There are many ways to interpret the Torah, but for Momentum sister Sherri Quintero, a biology teacher, one of her favorite ways to study is to look for the wonders of science and technology woven into the texts.
The recent holiday of Shavuot, a celebration of the day the Israelites received the Torah at Mount Sinai, is a perfect example. It is written in the Torah: “The smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 19:19-20)
For Sherri, who teaches at the Kellman Brown Academy, a Jewish Day School in New Jersey, it was an opportunity to explore with her students: Is it possible to see sound? What is a soundwave? Why does smoke always rise? What causes earthquakes?
A call for change
The Shavuot lesson is just one way that Sherri is taking an innovative approach towards combining Jewish learning and science, an idea that started coalescing during Sherri’s MOMentum Trip to Israel in 2016. At the time, she was in the middle of her ninth year as a high school biology teacher at a secular charter school in southern New Jersey. Prior to the trip, Sherri had been thinking about making a change – but wasn’t quite sure about what to do.
Sherri was chosen to go on a Momentum trip specifically designed for educators and lay leaders who would bring renewed passion and innovative ideas back to their Jewish communities.
“The morning seminars we had on the trip were absolutely amazing,” Sherri said. “It was one of the first times I experienced real Torah study, and I definitely got the bug for studying Torah after that.”
It was a time of shifting priorities in Sherri’s life. Her family had recently joined a new synagogue, which felt more welcoming and meaningful than the synagogue in which Sherri grew up. She was also creating another close Jewish community with her fellow Momentum sisters.
“I remember thinking, I want this feeling of community in my professional life, as well,” she said.
Soon after she returned from the trip, Sherri told her principal at the charter school – and the rest of the world – that she was looking for a new opportunity. Through acquaintances, she found Kellman Brown Academy, a small Jewish Day School serving nursery through 8th grade. “It was just the perfect fit, and I’ve been there ever since,” she said.
From Sinai to science
“[At Kellman Brown Academy,] I have this wonderful opportunity to dig into the Torah, and find ways to connect science to the Jewish education the students are getting during half the day,” said Sherri. Five years ago, Sherri was involved in opening the Sarah Samson Jewish Community JSTEM lab at Kellman Brown Academy, which weaves together Judaic studies and STEM-focused learning.
The lab provides students with hands-on, tactile scientific experiences that more deeply connect them to Jewish rituals and traditions. When the fourth graders learn to read Torah, they are able to design and 3D-print their own yad, or pointer. The combination of 3D-printing and decorating the yad is a way of “beautifying the mitzvah” of reading Torah, Sherri explained.
During Tu B’shvat, a Jewish holiday that honors the beginning of springtime and the new year for trees, Sherri’s students dive into the critical issue of water insecurity around the world, and explore Israel’s water-related innovations like drip irrigation. Then, the students create their own inventions aimed at conserving water.
“This is a really perfect job for me, because I get to do science and Judaism together, and I get to be in a place where, everywhere you turn, there are people studying Torah,” said Sherri.
An award-winning experiment
In April of 2023, Sherri was honored with the Herman Fraint Memorial Award for Jewish Day School Teaching Excellence. “Sherri Quintero — technology guru, visionary leader, and extraordinary teacher — has been instrumental in bringing the future to KBA and ensuring that its students are prepared for the challenges of the 21st century,” the school wrote in their invitation to the award ceremony.
The prestigious award coincided with the five-year anniversary of the JSTEM program Sherri runs. To her, it was a wonderful feeling to see how much the community values her efforts to unite Torah learning and scientific investigation in engaging, creative ways.
Sherri knows that she received this award partly because of her Momentum experience seven years ago. Momentum provided the perfect opportunity to take a step back from her everyday priorities, deepen her connection with Judaism, and determine how she wanted to transform her life.
“The Momentum program was so spectacular because it really helped us dive into the question of what it means to be a Jewish woman, including what our responsibilities are to the world and to our families,” said Sherri.
Following her Momentum experience, Sherri was inspired to bake challah every week for more than a year after she returned and re-familiarized herself with Torah reading so she could mark the 30th anniversary of her bat mitzvah by chanting her Torah portion in front of the congregation.
She also became more involved with her synagogue – volunteering as vice president in charge of membership, publicity, and adult education – and even sent her husband, who is not Jewish, to Israel on an interfaith trip.
“This trip changed my perspective, and I got really involved in my synagogue and more connected to my family from a Jewish perspective. And now, I get to teach and study Torah alongside science, and that’s pretty incredible.”