When Nick Contino starts to talk about cooking and Jewish food, he sounds excited. Add kids into the conversation, and he gets positively effusive.

After years as a camper, Contino wanted to join the staff at the URJ’s Camp Coleman. He checked out the available openings and decided to become the Jewish cooking specialist. What he found once he examined the camp’s cooking program was “an opportunity for things to be more interesting.” Although he says he did not have any cooking expertise or skills when he first got the job, Contino clearly had creativity and energy. By the time he left, five years later, he had designed an experiential, hands-on curriculum and had renovated the kitchen.

Girls show off the baklava they made at JKG

To see what Contino did with the cooking program, check out this video, in which he makes muhallabieh, a Middle Eastern milk pudding, or this one, featuring DIY matzah. Although Contino laughs when describing the videos, he is proud of them and what they represent—both in his approach to cooking and the ways he likes to energize kids to connect to Judaism.

Citing Le Cordon Bleu as his inspiration, he helped design a kitchen renovation that included portable induction burners, new pots and pans and electrical outlets hung from the ceiling for ease of use. While the average college-aged staffer might not be focused on how to improve a camp’s kitchen, it makes perfect sense as something that Contino would embrace. After all, Contino says that when he was little, just for fun, he used to read cookbooks.

Given Contino’s Camp Coleman experience, perhaps it is not surprising that he was attracted to Atlanta’s Jewish Kids Groups (JKG). He has been a bartender, worked at Sur La Table and been a math teacher, but it is at JKG that he says, “I found my calling.”

An independent nonprofit organization, JKG provides Jewish after-school, Sunday programs and “School’s Out Camp Days” to several hundred students at four locations. JKG describes itself as a “more than just a ridiculously cool Hebrew School.” Seeking to build Jewish identity, JKG values “active hands-on experiential learning” centered on Jewish themes and fostering connections to the Jewish community.

A JKG student makes shakshuka

When asked about JKG, Contino describes how well it serves the needs of young families, especially those who appreciate Judaism but who are currently unaffiliated. He notes that JKG welcomes families with diverse backgrounds and those whose students have special needs. He is not alone in appreciating those aspects of JKG’s mission. One parent, whose Israeli and African-American family moved to Atlanta from New York calls JKG her family’s “kibbutz” and says, “JKG honors our family’s mixed heritage while also giving Naomi [our daughter] a creative and substantial Jewish learning experience. Through songs, games, cooking and holidays, she is embracing Judaism in the most creative way possible.”

Contino began at JKG as a teacher, but was soon promoted to director of the afterschool program, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade, with most of the participants in first and second grades. JKG encourages mentoring among students in the afterschool program, preferring to allow students of different ages to participate in activities together, rather than separate them by age.

JKG picks up students at their various schools in teacher-driven minivans. The program includes Hebrew learning through activities in which the language is used, rather than traditional, direct language instruction. For example, the students might play Dungeons and Dragons in Hebrew or do yoga-style stretching directed in Hebrew. In addition to homework and playtime, students participate in activities of their choice. Contino points out with evident satisfaction that students always fill the cooking class to capacity.

Even with his managerial responsibilities, Contino still participates actively in the cooking aspects of the program. Almost every Friday, students make challah. They braid dough prepared ahead of time and teachers carefully wrap the unbaked loaves, delivering them to parents at pick-up time for baking at home. JKG also does its own Shabbat celebration with the students on Friday afternoons.

Contino hopes that the JKG Shabbat-centered activities encourage families to practice Shabbat in their own homes. His goal in teaching cooking and in the entire JKG experience is simple—he wants to help families embrace the Jewish side of their identity.

When asked what he most loves about his job, Contino tells me about Alec. He calls Alec is one of JKG’s “greatest fans.” Recently Alec proudly brought Nick a plate of Legos on which he had constructed food items and given them their (proper) Hebrew names. Although Contino and I are speaking by phone, I can almost see his ear-to-ear smile as he tells me that he is having “the time of my life” at JKG.

Top photo: JKG students with the challah they made for Shabbat. All photos courtesy of JKG.