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Crocheting pays off in more ways than one for busy teacher

Answer: This bilingual third-grade teacher from Concord makes hand-crocheted kippot and recently competed in the “Jeopardy! Teacher Tournament.”

Question: Who is Jessica Dell’Era?

A member of Temple of Beth Abraham in Oakland, Jessica Dell’Era has been making kippot since her final days at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. “I found that the stress of finishing my thesis was partially relieved through crocheting,” she said.

Dell’Era originally learned the handicraft as a middle-schooler in Larkspur, where she was raised in a secular household by non-Jewish parents.

Jessica Dell’Era

During her years at Pomona College, her Jewish roommates introduced Dell’Era to Jewish life, and she felt so at home in synagogue that she eventually converted to Judaism. Recently, she was amazed to find out from her mother that some of their ancestors actually were German Jewish settlers during the California Gold Rush era. This news changed Dell’Era’s perspective on why she had converted; it wasn’t just a random choice. “My interest in Judaism was like shining a flashlight around in my own attic,” she said. 

After she converted, it dawned on Dell’Era that her crochet teacher must have been Jewish, too. “I didn’t realize it until much later, but she was actually making kippot when we, the students, were working on our own projects.” This inspired Dell’Era to get back into the craft.

She regularly reads Torah and haftorah during Shabbat services and always wears a kippah, like many of the women in her Conservative congregation. After receiving many compliments and inquiries about her kippah, Dell’Era discovered that she had an eager base of potential clients at Beth Abraham.

“I realized that this is a real skill I had developed. So now I take commissions and sell on etsy.com,” a popular craft retailing website, she said.

When she gets a commission, Dell’Era likes to thoroughly discuss all of the details of the design with her clients. “I have an intake process,” she said with a laugh. “I find what colors and styles each person is interested in, and then I create my own unique design.”

Most of her clients are women who buy kippot for their male family members. Each cap can take four to eight weeks to make, depending on the intricacy of the design, and her prices start at $47. Dell’Era says she makes up to eight per year, crocheting steadily in the evenings after teaching during the day.

Working out the patterns on special graph paper, she’s developed at least two signature styles. One incorporates lacy open work in the center, and the other is all solid stitching with names or parts of prayers around the perimeter.

Dell’Era developed her own process for stitching Hebrew and English letters. “I never consult any manuals,” she said. “It’s kind of a point of honor to figure out the designs, it’s like cracking a code.” Currently she is working out how to make Hebrew cursive script lettering, which she admits is a lot harder than Hebrew block letters.

One of Dell’Era’s signature kippot styles features a solid center with lettering around the perimeter.

Her diligence in figuring out solutions came in handy when she was selected to compete in the “Jeopardy! Teacher Tournament,” which aired Feb. 16. The aim of the tournament is to recognize the nation’s brightest K-12 teachers, and it premiered last year. Fifteen teachers are selected from around the country.

While Dell’Era didn’t win her round, she did receive a generous check for participation, as well as an electronic version of the classic “Jeopardy!” game for her classroom at Meadow Homes Elementary School. One of the video question presenters also visited her class to meet the students and film a segment that aired on the local news.

Many of her students coming from Latino immigrant families didn’t know what the famous weeknight game show was. “I had to explain the show to some kids and their parents, because it just isn’t part of their cultural milieu,” she said.

For Dell’Era, however, “Jeopardy!” was always part of her life growing up. “When I was a kid, my mom and I would get dinner ready and have ‘Jeopardy!’ on while we were cooking.”

All in all, “I’m really glad I did it,” she said of the competition. “I got my 22 minutes of fame and it was really great for my students.”