COVID-Keepers: Jewish Education Leaders on the Possibilities Emerging from the Pandemic

By Benjamin Berger, Paul Bernstein, David Bryfman, Jeremy Fingerman, Anna Hartman, Miriam Heller Stern, Susan Wachsstock

Introduction by David Bryfman
CEO, The Jewish Education Project 

Almost ten months into this pandemic, here in America we live a dual existence. Cognizant of surges in COVID cases, we are hypervigilant about social distancing and facing thwarted Thanksgiving plans. We are simultaneously buoyed by the hope of an imminent vaccine. As educators, we are almost by definition an optimistic segment of the population. Our life goals include improving the lives of our learners and equipping them with the knowledge and skills necessary to them to build a better world. It is with that mindset that Jewish educators across the country have tirelessly and heroically done their part to ensure that our youth continue to receive quality Jewish educational experiences. The educators do this with complete faith that, despite moments of challenge, “gam ze yavor” – this too shall pass. 

It is within this context that Jewish educators are not just looking to life beyond the proverbial cave and the day after COVID, but are continuing to do what good educators do: reflect on their practice and learn from their prior experiences. From these adverse and confronting times, educators have begun to see pedagogic practices that will impact Jewish education beyond the pandemic. Some educators are bold enough to declare that from this great disruption will emerge tremendous innovation, that the new normal will look nothing like what existed prior to pandemic, or even just that technology has opened their eyes up to new potential and possibilities. Some of my colleagues and I have dubbed these new possibilities as our COVID Keepers – what we think might prevail when all of this is over.

We’re proud to share some of our thoughts on COVID Keepers below. You’ll see a few common themes that emerge:

1. Community and Connections Matter: Whether supporting someone during a crisis or helping to foster connection between two people during a mundane day, our work can play a vital role in people’s lives. We really can add meaning to someone’s life because we add people – community and connections – into those lives. 

2. A Little Creativity Can Remove Obstacles: Experiencing a challenge to your thoughtfully planned program? Find a way to work around it. We learned over the last eight months that we have more tools to deliver experiences than we ever realized. And we all have capabilities to design and to execute in truly creative ways. Think how much more creative we can be once the “normal” in-person option returns. We can combine that with all of the new boundary breakers we developed during the pandemic. 

3. There is Only the Whole Person: The field was trending in the direction of understanding people, especially youth, as their whole selves. The pandemic – and the havoc it did to some – accelerated almost everyone’s full acceptance of this approach. Jewish engagement and learning experiences must always reflect and take care to address that people are multi-layered with all kinds of lived experiences and complexities. Even when a global pandemic subsides, anyone at any time can experience their own personal version of a pandemic – where they feel lonely, scared, or unsure. Any offering based in reality, reflecting a desire to positively influence people, will speak to this whole person.

With this in mind, we again share insight below from each of our fields – Early Childhood Education, Part-Time Jewish Education, Day Schools, Jewish Camp, Teen Engagement and Education, and College Engagement and Education.

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

Early childhood education will take a few goodie bags home from this pandemic, whenever it ends. We will miss the small class sizes and the kindergartens that our preschools opened as a service to families whose elementary schools were remote. But we will be glad to keep our improved ventilation and time spent outdoors. We will continue gathering online for parent-teacher conferences and certain meetings. In addition, while we have always had working families and distant grandparents whom we saw infrequently, the pandemic has forced us to become more effective in our communications with those who cannot enter our schools each day. We will keep that as a new practice.

In the meantime, there is much to do. We spend our waking hours giving children the gift of childhood. At the same time, we have an eye on the speech and language delays our lifesaving masks are fostering in our children. We are packing our go-bags and booting up our virtual programming schedules for various 2-week closures. We are heroically keeping our doors open while mitigating the spread of disease. And we are praying to God (while preparing our financial contingency plans) that our governors don’t close our schools for any period.

Thinking about a post-pandemic world, a question hangs in the air. Will Americans remember how critical early childhood centers are to our society? This must be a public policy priority both for the United States and within the Jewish community. A silver lining in this unprecedented year would surely be coordinated funding and effective policy planning for secular and Jewish early childhood education, to secure this critical social good for generations to come.

Part-Time Jewish Education
Update from Miriam Heller Stern, PhD, National Director and Associate Professor, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Education

Teachers: Essential Workers and Eternal Flames

Ice-breakers and breakout rooms, Padlet and pods, taking learning outdoors and out of the box, sending boxes home, adjusting the schedule and tweaking the hours. Numerous eJP and social media blogs have been circulated to share these best practices. Jewish educators have found technical solutions, experimented, and shared the results throughout their educator networks. The networks have been critical safety nets and springboards for leaders to “fail forward,” try on new media, and reach audiences.

Which of these new trends will last? The new media themselves will continue to be updated and reinvented. We will one day look back on Zoom and all of our favorite go-to apps of 2020 like we now look back on the 80s mixtape, wondering how we ever taught in a medium equivalent to copying songs off the radio. It was the best we could do at the time.

The mixtape metaphor is about what is essential: the music, the intention, the curation of the mix, and the resulting emotional experience of listening and then creating the next one. Similarly, in part-time Jewish education, so much of our energy is spent figuring out what we can fit and in what order, how to convey beauty and richness through such a constrained medium. And yet, when it’s done well, the music still stirs something in us, reminds us of a moment in time, and the person who made the mix. It makes the music part of us. It makes us want to listen, sing and play our whole lives.

The “music” of part-time Jewish education is good teaching and learning. No matter the medium, as we assess what we really need to preserve, and families assess if they will register for this or that afterschool or weekend program, we can see plainly that good teachers are among the essential workers of Jewish life. They should be cherished and supported. They are our eternal flames during dark times. We must not burn them out. The lesson for tomorrow is that no matter what media we have at our fingertips, our true hope lies in multiplying exponentially the number of good teachers who can curate Jewish learning.

Day Schools
Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools

The COVID-19 crisis has, despite all the challenges, spurred incredible innovation, combined with an affirmation of what was already central to the success of Jewish day schools and yeshivas. Their strength in crisis stems from a commitment to a set of core valuesaround Jewish education itself, support for every child, and community.

Driven by their values, our schools are deepening what they deliver, through and beyond COVID. The crisis has highlighted what Jewish day schools do best – the whole-child mindset, the values-driven education inherent to Jewish learning, the warm and connected community–resulting in some cases in enrollment growth. Schools are working intensely to be accessible and affordable.

Now, and into the post-COVID future, all schools embrace the learning process that is nourished by the educator-student relationship. We are witnessing unprecedented educational experimentation. While this has pushed our teachers to work tirelessly as true “front line workers,” it has also revealed incredible ingenuity. For example, we recognize educational technology and social-emotional learning as essential to the learning process.

COVID has also emphasized the need to adapt to individual educational needs where a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Teachers are learning new ways to accommodate diverse learning styles, and schools are investing even more deeply in the relationship between student and teacher.

This December, Prizmah is gathering teams of professionals in a Leveling Up laboratory to leverage educational change, to uncover and explore the effectiveness of emerging models. Through this intentional process, we expect these lessons to last long after COVID is gone.

Summer Camp
Update from Jeremy Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC)

An immersive and highly social experience, camp offers kids a sense of physical and emotional wellbeing, a strong sense of belonging, and a safe space to foster and develop important skills like empathy, resilience, and independence. So, it’s no surprise that eight months of social distancing have us yearning to return to camp. While we are confident that camps will operate this coming summer, we’re grateful for the reminder of three basic hallmarks of Jewish camp that have carried us through this moment and which are more essential than ever before.  

1. Building community – creating connections and friendships

2. Fostering a sense of self – developing and refining new skills, including a  Judaism of one’s own

3. Making mensches – through role models, teaching what it means to live with Jewish values

Due to economic, logistical, and health demands from this crisis, camps that ran virtually as well as those that ran in-person programming this past summer were forced to go back-to-basics. And it became clear that, though the logistics behind these experiences might be complex, extraordinary experiences can also be born from simplicity.

 As we learn in Pirkei Avot:

“Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our forefather Avraham… a good eye [generous], a humble spirit [humility], and a moderate appetite.” (Avot 5:19)

We are disciples of Avraham. As we celebrate Thanksgiving and approach the end of 2020, we all seek a simple life of meaning and profound connection. Finding wonder and peace in nature and ourselves, expressing gratitude through generosity and compassion, and nurturing relationships that are stronger than the time and distance that separate us – these are the essentials that sustain us, and the back-to-basic lessons that camp teaches us.

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

Jewish Teens Have a stronger Sense of Self.”  

A few years ago, The Jewish Education Project released “Outcomes that Positively Impact the Lives of Jewish Teens,” what we now refer to as our Gen Now Outcomes.  Embedded in this framework was a belief that  the one immutable outcome of Jewish teen education and engagement was that these experiences would help a teen to develop a stronger sense of self; in other words, to ensure that our learners are emotionally whole. At the time, the idea of “mental health” as a critical measure for teen engagement success was met with some skepticism. 

Today, when we look at the teen education and engagement landscape, it is impossible to ignore the transformation of this field to one that focuses significant attention on teen mental health and wellness. This was not new with the onset of COVID but since March, it has taken on an even greater sense of urgency and priority. Virtually no teen experience today is planned or discussed without considering how the experience will be in service of supporting teens’ sense of connectedness and emotional wholeness. And, in this moment, youth professionals want to make sure that a teen experiencing loneliness or personal crisis is appropriately supported. If I reflect on COVID-keepers, I believe what will and should remain post-pandemic is this idea that our work is to help teens develop a stronger sense of self. That is the gold standard of our efforts.  

Other trends during this time are worth reflecting on as well. We are seeing a great deal of hybrid programming – balancing socially distant in-person engagement with virtual experiences. In some ways the in-person programming is planned more rapidly than a traditional cycle – resulting in pop ups that have drawn on a level of creativity and nimbleness not previously expected of youth professionals. Online, professionals are reflecting that there is more control of socialization. By using the tools afforded to them, youth professionals are pre-assigning break-out rooms to foster new connections and conversations among the teens, ultimately breaking the “clique-i-ness” that can happen when teens gravitate naturally to their friends. This proactive use of technology is leading to stronger group dynamics and another way that the “sense of self” for all teens is advanced. 

College Age Students
Update from Rabbi Benjamin Berger, Vice President for Jewish Education, Hillel International

I’m watching the yom kippur hillel livestream and a queer rabbi just said we were loved pls lmk why i wanted to cry.” This is perhaps my favorite reaction of many to the Higher Holidays, which Hillel and Reboot partnered to create this year. Higher Holidays was a massive effort to bring the high holidays to Jewish students wherever they may be – in dorms, at home, in pods on campus, watching a projection on the exterior wall of their Hillel… In the end, we had over 60k views of our Higher Holiday content from 57 nations, which included students, alumni, parents, and others seeking online holiday experiences. 

For me, a student expressing that they felt loved, when they werent expecting to, is what this was all about. Thankfully, that type of reaction was quite common. Participants felt invited, welcomed, and present – despite the distance, the pre-recording, and the impersonal nature of streaming content. This comment from the live chat exemplifies that spirit: “Enjoying this first virtual service for me too. I think it’s redefining “community” as we know it. In Temple, I feel I am with God. Here I feel I am also with Humanity. TY”

Providing meaningful content and connection in a world where so many are feeling dislocated, isolated, and disconnected is our number one challenge. The large scale experiences we’ve created through Higher Holidays and Hillel@Home speak to an incredible opportunity to open up the world to participants anywhere, at any time but at high risk of de-personalization, exclusivity and limited participation.

As we think about emerging from this moment, I dont see online services or events going anywhere anytime soon. The imperative to create content that sparks human connection and fosters community will remain more relevant than ever.