Civic Engagement and Tikkun Olam in Times of the Covid-19 Pandemic
Lessons Learned by a Community School in Israel

Photo courtesy Leo Baeck Education Center

By Rabbi Ofek Meir

It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Pirke Avot

As the corona virus traveled from country to country and each country tried to “flatten the curve,” one by one they closed their borders, shut down commerce and sent all the students home. With schools closed, new ways of learning had to be created and classes went online. We also adapted, and are proud to share that we are providing 2,000 students with quality distance learning (only three grade levels and our students with Autism Spectrum Disorder have returned to school physically so far). We also succeeded in raising essential funds for laptops to enable online learning for those many families in need.

But what happens in a school, like ours, where educating students goes beyond learning and includes Tikkun Olam in the form of civic involvement, volunteering and making a difference in one’s community? How do these activities continue when everyone is sequestered in their own home?

Our founder, Rabbi Dr. Meir Elk once said:

There are two forces, two features in the soul of the youth we have to develop, not only by religious teaching and intuition in the narrow sense, but in regard to all the subjects of teaching and all forms of the youth’s life: I refer to the feeling of awe and the courage of responsibility.

Tikkun Olam is a strongly held value among the students and teachers of our school. Creating an online framework to engage the students in civic projects was a natural outgrowth of this belief.

How to create this online framework was the challenge we faced? Over the years, we developed a “Leadership Hub” at our High School where, besides teaching classes, a small team of teachers coordinate all of the extracurricular activities, the student council and the civic engagement program.

“What volunteer activities can be done from home?” We asked ourselves. We convened the student council and other interested students, online of course, and this forum became known as “the new leadership hub.” A bank of Tikun Olam activities that could be done from home, was created, so that students would have a choice of how they would like to contribute. Idan, head of the Student Council told us:

“The students were happy to take part in online activity, people I talked to said it was a great privilege to do good deeds from home, to be a part of something, even in these days of online projects.”

Not only was it important to create volunteer opportunities it was also important to support the Leo Baeck community of students, many of whom missed seeing their friends daily, some were dealing with anxiety, or even loss of their relatives. To this end the new leadership hub started an online daily newspaper (called “Leo Baeck-corona”) where students could share their feelings, get updates, celebrate birthdays, share recipes from home, crossword puzzles and more. In addition, open meetings were held online facilitated by teachers, where the students first got to know each other and then began to plan volunteer activities together. For example, the students recorded stories read aloud for preschoolers and sent them to the Battered Women’s Shelter. They called elderly who live alone and had conversations with them. An annual event of discussion circles around the subject of the LGBTQ community and acceptance of the other is also being planned in an online format. In order to strengthen the students’ abilities to plan and carry out projects, our school holds a leadership training course every year. This spring it was also adapted to an online framework.

During the time of the lockdown necessitated by Covid-19, two very significant national days of remembrance take place in Israel: Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers of Israel and victims of terrorism. Every school marks these days with appropriate ceremonies. We needed to find a way to mark these days even though all the students were at home.

At the initiative of the leadership hub, a strong coalition was formed of student organizations from around the country, and Brave-Together, on organization that holds a March of Bravery every year in which students and survivors and their families take part. Instead of a March a 25-hour interactive national event took place online that our school co-produced, something we had never done before. There were various activities offered such as: writing family stories from the Holocaust, discussion rooms, lectures, and movies. The event started with an online ceremony on Facebook Live, led by Leo Baeck, Haifa students, in which 18,000 people took part. A week later, to mark Memorial Day, the students interviewed families of fallen soldiers by phone and then shared these stories with our community by creating an online booklet for all to read.

To make the emotional transition from Israel’s Memorial Day to Independence Day, our representative musical ensemble chose to make this distinction – this “havdalah” – creatively, while each one of them was at home, with a song of hope to meet together soon, and of goodness. Here:

The day after Israel Independence Day, a group of students went to sing songs to seniors in elderly care facilities, bringing smiles to their faces.

Idan, head of the Student Council, summed up the experience of participating in Tikkun Olam in times of a pandemic:

Undoubtedly, volunteering in the time of the Corona Virus was much more significant than regular volunteering, mainly because of the difficulty of the situation. People who cared, rose to the occasion, even from home, and I was pleased to find that there were many. Of course, it is not always easy to do the work from home. Sometimes the Internet fails, sometimes someone has problems with the computer or the camera. We were prepared for any problem and tried to help as much as possible from a distance. In the end the difficulties did not bother me, since the results were amazing.

Looking to the future, we know that the number of families facing financial need in our community will increase significantly. But also, our teachers and Student Council will integrate the lessons learned from these online experiences into the school culture when things return to the new normal. We now see new volunteer and civic engagement opportunities that we never thought of before. In addition, if a student is home because of a disability or illness, these new online tools could help him or her to still be involved with the school community and still contribute and engage. Idan says that this online format made it easier for him to have time to study, volunteer, and still have time for himself. As he points out:

My junior year was supposed to be a difficult year, but I feel somehow, I managed to maintain my sanity, learn and succeed volunteer and make a difference.

Rabbi Ofek Meir is Headmaster and Managing Director of the Leo Baeck Education Center, Haifa.