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Baltimore customs lawyer a teacher of valuable lessons

A Baltimore customs lawyer who teaches Sunday religious classes has been awarded The Jewish Women’s Archive’s first Natalia Twersky Educator Award for developing a lesson that compared women from America’s labor movement to women from the Jewish story of Purim.

Allyson Mattanah

Allyson Mattanah, 49, will receive an all-expense-paid trip to New York to accept the award, which includes $2,500 cash and $500 for Congregation Beit Tikvah’s Kesher School, where Mattanah teaches.

To be eligible to apply for the award, Mattanah had to create a lesson plan that included the voices, perspectives or both of American Jewish women, using primary source documents from the archive’s website, JWA.org.

Her 9- to 12-year-old students learned about Clara Lemlich Shavelson, Pauline Newman and Rose Schneiderman, three Jewish women who were influential during the labor movement. The students reviewed materials from the JWA such as photos, original letters, speeches and biographies, and were asked whether each woman was more like the Purim character Esther (who worked within the system), or Vashti (who defied authority).

Mattanah then had her students reflect on a 2010 factory fire in Bangladesh in which nearly 30 people died and more than 100 more were injured, and the continued struggles for workers’ rights around the world.

“The object was to end with the idea of ‘Who will you be in this story?’” she said.

Mattanah, who once worked for a plaintiffs’ employment discrimination firm, said she has always felt connected to the labor movement through her grandparents, who were garment workers in a factory in New York.

She now works as a customs attorney specializing in trade law for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, under the Department of Homeland Security.

Mattanah has been a teacher at the Kesher School for two years, and served as the volunteer chair of the Kesher School Committee for two years before that.

She said she does all the work for her Sunday class in her spare time on weekends.

“It doesn’t really feel like work,” Mattanah said. “And I have wonderful kids in my class.”

Mattanah suffers from a genetic neuromuscular disorder that was diagnosed in her second year of law school, causing weakness in her limbs. She said that having a disability is another reason she feels aligned with workers’ rights and equality.

Mattanah got her J.D. in 1997 from the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Before that, she worked as a nurse in San Francisco. She decided to get a law degree after serving on a negotiating team for the American Nurses Association/California (then called the California Nurses Association), and found that she was good at it.

“I loved it,” Mattanah said.

She moved to Maryland in 1999, and began working for Customs and Border Protection in 2000.

When she isn’t working or teaching, Mattanah said, she likes to read classic novels and attend her children’s soccer games.

Mattanah has two children, Jeremy, 12, and Nadia, 10, with her husband of 17 years, Dr. Jonathon Mattanah.

She will receive the award on March 18 in New York.