By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon
A few days ago, I received an interesting phone call from a congregant who, star struck by another congregant, just had to let me know how special Rachel Siegel is.
As a disclaimer, I am not connected to the crafting world of stitching and quilting, and though I had a mandatory home economics class in middle school (in which I sewed a pillow adorned with cloth pretzels), my crafting expertise stopped there.
The congregant on the phone gushed to me, “Rachel’s a celebrity in this world! Her dress was on the front page of Threads magazine. It’s a big deal.”
The beauty of religious congregations is that although everyone is equal before God, everyone is unique when it comes to their area of expertise. And though Rachel is a Certified Public Accountant with Stanilla, Siegel and Maser, her family’s firm, her unique talents as a seamstress and quilter put her firmly in the winner’s block of a different category.
Notably, she won the Best of Show at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg in 2019, Best of Show in the Lebanon Area Fair in 2018, the Hoffman Choice Award for the Hoffman Challenge in 2017, and was named the National Adult Winner of the 2018 Make It With Wool Competition. These are incredibly prestigious awards and often take years of practice and honing of talents. The Hoffman Challenge, the Make It With Wool competition, and the cover of Threads Magazine receive national attention.
The Hebrew expression for this type of artistry is connected to the works of Betzalel and Oheliab in Exodus 36:36, whereby “Hakham-lev,” or “wisdom of the heart,” is used to describe the artistry involved with constructing the Mishkan. Anyone with the God-given ability to perform the duties of The Lord is encouraged to contribute to the literal dwelling place of God on Earth, the Mishkan.
While Rachel’s talents bring physical items of beauty into this world, perhaps her most meaningful contribution to the Mishkan is through volunteering as part of the 4-H youth program.
In the late 1800s, land-grant universities like Penn State began “Extension” programs to disseminate technical & vocational knowledge to the general public, especially to farmers and consumers. Extension continues to have a strong presence in the agronomy field, but two of its other programs remain especially well known by the broader public: Master Gardeners and the 4-H Program. Master Gardeners focuses on providing education and resources to gardeners, and the 4-H Program is devoted to teaching various skills to youth ages 8-18.
Though animal husbandry is the subject that the general public commonly associates with 4-H, the library of 4-H projects runs the gamut from life-skills like food & nutrition, baby-sitting, and money-management, to hobbies like photography, woodworking, hiking, and even computer science.
The program adheres to the motto “learn by doing” and teaches project-specific skills in equal measure with leadership, citizenship, and public-speaking skills. Most 4-H’ers also choose to exhibit their projects at County Fairs, which often have special categories reserved for 4-H’ers or other youth. Perhaps the most amazing part of the 4-H Program is that, while partially supported by the land-grant university (in our case, Penn State), the manpower behind the 4-H Program relies almost entirely on people like Rachel and her mother, Linda, to act as 4-H Leaders, a volunteer position.
In fact, Rachel’s passion for sewing (and teaching sewing) grew from intergenerational bonding, learning from her mom, who in turn learned from her mother. In effect, the whole distaff of her matriarchal line passed down sacred instructions for sewing and stitching. In The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary (2007), these home economic skills are testimonial proof to the equality in roles that women had in constructing sacred ritual objects, such as the fabrics included in the tabernacle.
Rachel, her mom Linda, and her family are part of that sacred tradition. And they give back to the community as volunteers. “Although I enjoy teaching in general, I particularly enjoy working with kids who are highly proficient at it,” Rachel said. “Some of them just have ‘The Touch.’”
And what exactly is “The Touch?” There’s a creative element of brainstorming a new pattern and artistic rendering of cloth. There’s a technical element of working with the materials by cutting and sewing them appropriately and accurately. And there’s a time constraint of actually making the work within the given parameters of the competition or circumstance. It's an engineering mindset of spatial geometry, taking a 2D fabric and making it a 3D item.
“Sometimes the fabric tells you what to do,” Rachel sums up her very own “Hakhmat-lev,” or wisdom of working with fabrics. Like the most beautiful artworks out there, it is a combination of God-given intuition and hard work.
If you’re interested in checking out some of Rachel’s creations, her student’s projects, or just want a fun day or night out with some tasty food, you can attend the Lebanon Area Fair, which runs from July 24th to the 31st. Located at the Lebanon Valley Exposition Center, you’ll see examples of iconic Americana and maybe even decide to learn a new skill. Be sure to stop by the quilting and sewing department and you may even meet a very special lady, the modest celebrity, Rachel Siegel.