Beginning another year with COVID in Jewish education

In Short

We see across all sectors of Jewish education pride for the successes that have been achieved

By Paul Bernstein, Rabbi Rachel Bovitz, David Bryfman, Jeremy Fingerman, Anna Hartman, Mimi Kravetz, Susan Wachsstock, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

Introduction by David Bryfman, CEO, The Jewish Education Project 

As we begin another year in Jewish education filled with uncertainty, the latest contributions below from leaders in the field reflect a level of preparedness—and perhaps even confidence—toward the great unknown that is 5782. These leaders and the many educators and learners with whom they interact have been engaged in “pandemic-era education” for over a year and a half—through ebbs and flows, in-person and hybrid, fear and optimism. As a result, these insights are particularly rich and substantive. Leaders readily acknowledge the challenges that remain—need for social and emotional support of learners, having to plan for multiple scenarios, and more. But we also see across all sectors of Jewish education pride for the successes that have been achieved, and an understanding that this era presents opportunities to have genuine, deep, and enduring impact. After all, if an educator can demonstrate the value of Jewish learning experiences now, there is a “stickiness” to that moment for all involved.

We also see within these contributions a call for all of us to better value educators, to compensate them appropriately, and to ensure that their mental health and well-being is supported. Certainly these calls have gone out before—but there is an urgency and a consistent drumbeat that is new. Let’s heed, and act on this, in the new year. 

Shana Tova. 

Adult Education

Update from Rabbi Rachel Bovitz, Executive Director of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning

Adult Jewish Learning as we enter 5782

We are all looking forward to returning safely to the classroom and the face-to-face interaction we miss and need. But even once the pandemic is completely behind us (may it happen soon!), online adult Jewish learning is here to stay. Our experiences have created a fundamental shift in learners’ and educators’ conceptions of learning and community, fostering new approaches that will benefit adult learners for years to come.

Lockdown forced many who had shunned online classes to embrace them—to the advantage of their learning schedules. According to a recent study conducted by my Melton colleague, Rabbi Dr. Morey Schwartz, between March 2020 and March 2021, many adult learners not only replaced their hours of in-person learning with online offerings, but actually increased the number of weekly hours they dedicated to adult Jewish learning. Learners cited a need to continue their education and connect to a larger Jewish community. And when asked about their future plans, there was a clear indication that as a result of the shift to online learning during the pandemic, the majority of these learners are interested in making online learning a prominent part of their weekly adult Jewish learning.

Now, our job is to harness what we have learned to make these gains permanent. During their time at home, people re-evaluated what is important. They prioritized friends and family, growth, and self-enrichment. As the world opens up, we need to remind people that although dinner with friends over a night of Netflix is a good call, the time they have carved out for learning and exploration is something too valuable to give up.

Now that online learning has become ubiquitous, it will complement in-person offerings, even once face-to-face classes safely resume. A colleague in Pittsburgh told me that although classes may convene in fall and spring, never again will there be a reason to make people leave their homes for class on an icy winter evening. Going forward, effective adult Jewish education programs will offer multiple tracks, including a variety of hybrid and blended courses. To make online learning successful, though, we need to focus on the community-building that often occurs naturally in face-to-face classes. This is the element most people crave but that we have only now realized we can achieve online, albeit with effort.

Adult learning is moving from the past into the future, from the synagogue onto the computer, and adult Jewish educators can continue to take advantage of the richness and expanded global community that online learning offers. If we apply the pandemic’s lessons when shaping our programs, in the next year, we can expect to see participation continue to climb.


Update from Susan Wachsstock, Chief Program Officer, The Jewish Education Project

A Year of Challenges and Opportunities

For teens, and many of the youth serving organizations that work with them, summer 2021 provided a much needed respite from social distancing and an abnormal school year.  Teen Engagement experiences historically are centered around gatherings, as is appropriate and important for adolescent development. In this regard, summer 2021 was a much-needed gift for the 4000+ teens who traveled to Israel through RootOne and its partner programs. Gratefully, many teens have in person school this year, hopefully setting the stage for more normative social and programmatic experiences.

When we speak about teen engagement, we typically refer to high school aged teens.  Anecdotally, there is a strong indication from both teen travel and camp environments that these teens weathered the isolation of Covid fairly well (within the mental health context for this generation that preceded covid.) In fact, reports from this summer indicate that teens  continue to show high levels of confidence in expressions of personal identity (eg. Sharing gender fluidity and related requests for correct use of identifying language, coloring hair all hues of the rainbow, etc.) as opposed to a need to socially conform.  In this case, we are all positively surprised at the resilience and positivity these teens carry, likely due in no small part to the many efforts youth serving organizations, camps, congregations and others made over the past 18 months.

However, other anecdotes from this summer indicate that younger teens and tweens are in greater “emotional distress” than anticipated. This is an important wake up call for the Jewish community, and an opportunity and challenge in the new year. Despite efforts in recent years to build teen engagement programming for 8th graders, year-round Jewish experiences for middle schoolers focus largely on the bmitzvah experience. This tends to be “educational,” as opposed to offering “social-emotional” support.   As the new year begins, we can leverage teen engagement with this age cohort to both educate and provide other forms of support.

Teens today are particularly committed to changing the world around them; many challenges are apparent through the lenses of their multiple identities – as Jews, as citizens of the world, as activists.  As social media increasingly is used to spread antisemitic rhetoric, often tied into anti-Israel sentiment, teens want to know how to navigate supporting causes where antisemitism festers—and is not called out. Youth professionals, alongside parents, will be key partners in helping teens navigate this complicated reality.

Lastly, despite the leadership and achievements within this space, the youth serving landscape continues to grapple with systemic issues. Some are societally driven – such as the continued high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among today’s teens. To meet this challenge, field leaders are committed to embedding mental health training and resources throughout the teen engagement landscape.  Other serious challenges are driven by organizational history. In particular, a recently renewed focus on the historic and continuing hyper-sexualized culture within teen experiences is a jarring reminder of the critical work to do in the year ahead.  While policies have improved over the past decades and attention has been paid to this topic, the 5782 begins with an appropriate level of concern and a commitment among educational leaders to improve how youth serving organizations support adolescent growth and exploration while creating a healthier environment for our participating teens. 

College students

Update from Mimi Kravetz, Chief Experience Officer at Hillel International

How will we care for the Caregivers? 

Today’s Jewish professionals are tasked not just with feeding the minds of our constituents, but also supporting their wellbeing. Hillel student-facing engagers reported that this past academic year their conversations — by text, phone, Facetime, or on walks outdoors — were longer and deeper, asking “how are you, really?” Hillel’s data demonstrated that the students engaged in the 2020-2021 academic year were engaged significantly more times than in previous years; they’ve needed us more than ever. In this last year, amidst the pandemic, racial justice reckoning and rise in antisemitism, our Jewish professionals have stepped up their roles as caregivers.

Our approach to the fall is full of hope and joy as Hillel staff are effectively welcoming two new classes of students to campus. They’ve been excitedly designing festivals, retreats, barbeques and bagel brunches, and signing up students for Birthright trips and Jewish Learning Fellowship cohorts. It almost feels normal. 

The summer has also been spent hammering out vaccination policies, creating contingency plans, and wondering if, or when, it will all change. Every event signup is accompanied by the asterisk of conditional language. Last year was hard, but the task was clear: to create meaningful content and community during an unprecedented crisis. This year may be even harder. The energy we spent innovating and connecting has been depleted, as the chronic nature of the pandemic continues to take a significant toll.

This year’s Gallup Employee Engagement report suggests that workplace wellbeing is down across the board. Consistent with what we see at Hillel, while employees are finding meaning and support in their jobs, they are also burnt out and this is showing up in all aspects of their lives, including in our Jewish communities and at work. 

To address this phenomenon within Hillel, we’ve been taking steps towards community care, making structural and educational changes that allow professionals to be better supported, and set up to make choices about their self-care and well-being. We recognize that supporting our students means supporting our staff. 

Within our Schusterman International Center headquarters, we have increased time off, added in meeting-free break times, and allowed for flexible work schedules. Many local Hillels have adopted similar practices. Our central office has provided pastoral counseling to local Hillel professionals, and increased learning opportunities to meet the moment. This summer we launched Masterclass: Wellness, a cohort-based experience to empower professionals with skills to holistically support students. We also reinvented our Dwell programming as one-day in-person outdoor regional retreats, focusing on creating a space for rejuvenation, (re)connecting with colleagues, and Torah lishma, joyful learning for its own sake. And, we are continuing to consider how else we can support our professionals as they care for students during this period of uncertainty and new normal.

Our teams have risen to meet the needs of the moment, and we are now charged with ongoing care for our caregiver community, as they care for others. May we endeavor to meet these challenging times with warmth and humanity, and keep searching for ways to support our staff, and enhance our resilience. 

Day Schools

Update from Paul Bernstein, CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools

Jewish day schools, their faculty, and their leadership enter this new school year more prepared and with more experience of the flexibility needed to handle uncertainty and constantly changing norms than last year.

Prizmah recently released a report, “A Year in Review: Data and Reflections on Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivas.” The data show increased enrollment in day schools as well as positive development trends across North America for the school year ending in 2021. North American Jewish day schools saw an increase in enrollment of 1.8% on average, and a majority (62%) of schools increased admission numbers during the pandemic. It is clear that the particular challenges presented to schools during Covid only helped to demonstrate the value of Jewish day schools during even (and especially) the most difficult times. Similar upward trends in donor investment in Jewish day schools, on both individual school and communal levels, reflect the fact that it’s not only families that see our schools’ value, but that the Jewish community as a whole is invested in the success of our schools as a foundation for a strong Jewish future. We expect these trends to continue in the year ahead.

Though this year will undoubtedly require much pivoting and dynamic, changing safety protocols, school leaders have worked incredibly hard to prepare and to plan in the best way possible for the known-but-unknown. Schools have already laid the foundations for many kinds of learning models and safety protocols; they can lean on this preparation as local, state and national health mandates and guidance continue to change, to serve their school community in the most effective ways. This enables schools and the field to focus strategically on other key areas of investment, such as continuing to strengthen educational excellence, student and faculty wellness, and improved curriculum and learning around important topics, such as race and school culture and Israel education.

Just as our colleagues in Jewish camping learned from the 2020-2021 school year’s successes and challenges, Jewish day schools and yeshivas have been studying the 2021 summer camp takeaways. Partnerships within and between different North American Jewish communal stakeholders continue to strengthen as we work together to provide safe, nurturing spaces for Jewish children to learn and thrive.

Part-time Jewish education

Update from Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Ed.D. Director, Master’s in Educational Leadership Program, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Education

The educational leaders of our part time, Sunday, Shabbat, afternoon, and congregational educational programs continue to be the stars we have known them to be, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Early in the pandemic these Jewish educators learned that to create educative learning spaces online they needed to reexamine the fundamentals of good teaching and learning and consider how those apply to the complex online venue, all while still fulfilling visions and goals for Jewish education and while supporting the very real social-emotional needs of learners. As we begin yet another academic year with the pandemic directing how we live our lives, Jewish educators are reflecting upon those experiences, and making necessary adaptations. Their personal resilience and dedication to this sacred work is beyond laudable. 

Drawing from deep wells of creativity, and organizing brain trusts of colleagues asking similar questions, Jewish educators spent their summers thinking about how to renew and adapt their educational programs for their communities at this unique time. As Dr. Miriam Heller Stern wrote this past March, “Jewish educators are faced with a practical question: how do we be everything to everyone?” In addition to this question (which is near impossible to answer!) Jewish educators are revisiting educational goals for the year and considering how to structure programs to meet those goals. Under what conditions can we come back together in person?  How do we create outdoor spaces that are conducive to teaching and learning? What do we do when the weather forces us to go inside? Do we require masks, proof of vaccinations? What will our exposure protocols be? What about our younger learners who are not yet eligible for vaccines? While these questions seem tactical in nature, behind them lies two particularly resonant and very timely enduring dilemmas.

Consistency and flexibility.  After 18 months of living with uncertainty, children and families are craving a security blanket of consistency and predictability. Jewish educators are thinking deeply about how to establish consistent routines and structures for their learners.  Yet at the same time, we all know that we have not yet reached the end of this pandemic. Jewish educators have contingency plans. Many have not only devised a plan B, but also plans C, D and E, as they somehow attempt to anticipate evolving local vaccination policies and mask mandates as waves of the Delta variant roll through communities.

Reconnecting and distancing. The early summer months brought back the simple joys of play dates and outdoor dinner gatherings with friends. Learners of all ages want to reconnect with each other IRL ( in real life)  and teachers long to build classroom communities outside the two dimensions of the computer screen. So, Jewish educators are redesigning curricula and educational programs in order to bring learners together for meaningful and relational educative experiences, keeping in mind the S in SESL (social-emotional and spiritual learning).  Yet at the same time, Jewish educators are mindful of the very real health concerns, the tenuousness of the moment, and the Jewish mandate of pikuach nefesh, to protect each other from illness and harm.

At the heart of these enduring dilemmas are concerns for the learners themselves. Primary in the Jewish educator’s mind is the well-being, the emotional, spiritual, and physical health of the children and adults in their communities. So, they persevere, continuing to apply their creative talents to meeting the ever-changing public health protocols as well as the very real human needs of their communities.

Early Childhood Education

Update from Anna Hartman, Director, Paradigm Project, and Director of Early Childhood Excellence, Jewish United Fund

When it comes to Jewish early childhood centers, looking back at the first year of the pandemic gives us much to celebrate and much to focus on for the year ahead.

Parent satisfaction this past school year was high. Data aggregated across 33 Jewish early childhood centers in Chicago offers a glimpse into how parents experienced the year. The net promoter score among parents jumped, indicating that parents seemed to enthusiastically appreciate the value of their experience.

Areas for growth unique to this time period are what you might expect: parents with children in Jewish early childhood centers developed fewer friendships among the parent body than they would during a typical year, and they reported a more modest sense of connection with the Jewish community.

Now that parents are not entering the classroom or building, teachers and school leaders are finding their electronic and phone communications with parents to be more important than ever before. They know they need to tighten up their communications systems and bring their best empathy and creativity to the task of supporting families, nurturing community, and fostering Jewish family engagement. School leaders know this. There is just one challenge keeping them from focusing their time and attention on these vital tasks. And that time-consuming challenge is staffing.

With enrollment rebounding, Jewish early childhood centers are facing an unprecedented staffing crisis.

Low staffing levels means more work and less time off for existing staff, which leads to exhaustion. Unlike educators in other sectors, many of these educators did not have the summer off. As many recall with due bitterness the ways they were laid off during the pandemic and work without adequate compensation or breaks, more and more educators are determining that they cannot afford (mentally or financially) to stay in this rewarding but demanding field.

How can the Jewish community support centers at this time and how important is that support?

First, rabbis, executive directors, and lay committees can and should develop an immediate and ongoing plan to increase support for staff. This includes ensuring that centers do not admit more children than staffing levels can maintain. Every dollar that comes in as surplus should be given to staff—as a salary raise, cash bonus, support fund for teachers in need, a retirement contribution match, and/or an investment in staff morale. Think of every new dollar invested in staff as a down payment on the future survival of your center. If we make this change now, we will send a signal to educators that says, “We see you, we’ve got you, and we want you to make this place your home for the rest of your career.”

And second, anyone reading this article can pick up the phone and call your Congressperson and Senators to say the following: “I support a substantial federal investment in early childhood education; it is important to me, as your constituent, that this investment includes a mixed delivery system and pay parity for teachers.” Your voice matters right now as Capitol Hill writes legislation that will make or break the future of the centers we love and depend on.

Jewish Camp

Update from Jeremy J. Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp

We can finally now exhale collectively, with the successful conclusion of this ‘camp season like no other’.  In the face of continuous challenges and hurdles these past 18 months, the collective strength, resilience, and dedication of our camp communities also made this a ‘joyous summer of homecoming and renewal’.  

Campers, counselors, staff, and parents worked together to ensure that everyone stayed healthy and safe. To be sure, camps operated differently this summer, yet the many Covid-related protocols and non-pharmaceutical interventions (adopted from Day Schools and JCCs, among others) really worked. Camps provided a much-needed oasis – a vital dosage of joyous Judaism and, at least for a few weeks, a return to some sense of normalcy.

While we know the social and emotional benefits of camp for one’s healthy development and growth, this summer camps had to navigate through enormous mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health (MESSH) challenges facing their community members.

To better understand and learn from the challenges and experiences of this summer, we convened an End-of-Summer Mental Health Summit in conjunction with BBYO Center for Adolescent Wellness. We are still collecting and analyzing data from the field to determine further needs, trainings, and resources which will be most helpful in preparation for next summer and beyond.  We know we need to adapt to meet the new needs of this new generation and we look forward to sharing new learnings with our Jewish organizational colleagues.

At the start of 5782, we dipped apples in honey representing our hopes and prayers for a sweet new year.   We know the apples are already sweet on their own – honey only enhances the sweetness. In the same way, we have seen that Jewish camp is already so sweet, so important, so needed. This year, just returning home, only enhanced the experience. The professionals’ ongoing determination and “above and beyond” efforts to reopen camp anew, just made the summer even sweeter – but this achievement came at a cost.

We’re particularly concerned with the condition of the full-time camp professionals, who truly deserve much appreciation and gratitude. The disruption of this protracted crisis, combined with the exhaustion of this summer’s unique obstacles, has taken an incredible toll on them.  Their nonstop, heroic efforts serve as an inspiration and deserve our communal recognition. 

This acknowledgement and investment will certainly differ by individual, camp, and movement.  Some have approved additional paid time off – FJC and others have approved a mini-shmita in recognition of their hard work.  Others have awarded bonuses, tickets, or other financial benefits.  Many have discussed ways to help address the mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health needs – how can we tackle this together to ensure the retention of highly valued professionals and educators? 

“May it be God’s will to renew for us, a good and sweet New Year.”