Facing a New Reality with Experimentation and Empathy

By David Bryfman

As we’ve all begun facing our new reality over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about one Jewish text that I recited perhaps more than any other when I was young. It was a text based on a verse from the Book of Isaiah, with a Talmudic interpretation that became the motto of the Australian youth movement that I grew up in, Habonim Dror: 

Al tikra lanu banayich ela bonaich – Call us not your children, but your builders.

In this unprecedented time, all of us are building. We at The Jewish Education Project are building new systems and new ways to meet the needs of Jewish community, engagement, and learning. That on its own, and the necessary innovation driving that, is inspiring. The fact that we’re doing this while we all build new family and work routines is astounding. In this environment, I’ve seized the opportunity to reflect on how the Jewish community is adapting and is thinking creatively in the midst of this crisis.

I’m struck by the nimbleness with which all kinds of organizations and people have responded and are mobilizing quickly. The Jewish community sprung into action as the changing reality became clear. Organizations, including my own, that over the years have been accused of being slow to innovate or slow to adapt, recognized the challenges that we would all face due to in-person restrictions. Community leaders matched the enormity of that challenge with a cando attitude defined by experimentation and empathy.

There is a palpable sense that community leaders and organizations are unafraid to try new ways to create meaningful Jewish learning and interaction – essentially looking to use nearly any tech platform that will help sustain, even strengthen, Jewish community right now. In many cases, educators are going out of their comfort zones to continue their work. Ellen Dietrick of Temple Beth Shalom, Needham, Mass, sums up a sentiment of many: I don’t love being on camera, but emergency times call for throwing all non-health related caution to the wind. This sentiment is particularly salient for veterans of the Jewish education field, who are learning new ways to reach students, in real time, often while their colleagues and parents can see them succeed – or fail. I wish them a sincere kol haKavod. They should all be admired and applauded.

As we dive into this technology that, for many, is new, our relationship with the technology itself is understandably changing. Shariee Calderone, Senior Educational Consultant for Early Childhood and Family Engagement at The Jewish Education Project shared this insight about how the current crisis is causing a re-examination of the concept of screen time.

Technology in the early childhood years was always a taboo subject and many educators would be able to recite a myriad of screen time warnings such as the one set forth by the World Health Organization advocating for limited or no screen time for children under 5.

Now, however, because of the coronavirus pandemic, using technology with young learners is the only thing my colleagues in the field of early childhood and family engagement can talk about. Educators are seeing video and live feed options through an entirely new lens; a lens opening the door for them to offer stability, community, routines, rituals, and the continued developmental growth opportunities that their students need right now.

Their new stance: if children are likely to have more screen time at home during quarantine and social distancing practices, then it might as well be the school community that breaks through the virtual walls and comes into homes, at least for 20 minutes or so a day.

This is an important development for Jewish learning. I have long made the case that as the world changes rapidly, Jewish education needs to adapt accordingly. Admittedly, at The Jewish Education Project we often think about this from a content and purpose perspective. Our efforts in Jewish teen engagement, for example, in essence focus on what kind of experiences Jewish teens find relevant and meaningful in their lives today.

Now, we are adapting the delivery of this content, in real time during a crisis. And, as our community innovates with new platforms and finds new ways to come together – virtually – organizations are sharing what’s working, and we’re learning together about what can be improved. The fact is we are seeing a level of empathy and care for each other and across organizations that is not always readily apparent. Organizations are rapidly creating new hubs for content and resources to help us all get through this challenging time. Taking it one step further, at The Jewish Education project, we’ve heard feedback that the one-on-one opportunities for people to ask questions on a very pragmatic level – how to use Zoom, how many 1st graders can join a video call together, and more – are incredibly helpful and appreciated. I know many other organizations are making time for these types of one-on-one consultations as well.

In this time of crisis, Jewish educators are compelled to think about what we do from a mindset of “proactive possibilities.” Jewish education has the power to change minds, to change lives, and to change the world. Our wisdom, values and tradition can help young people thrive and can bring deeper meaning into all parts of their lives. None of those sentiments fall by the wayside simply because we face unprecedented limitations to be physically in-person. In fact, in the midst of this sort of crisis is exactly when we can further embrace this framework for Jewish education. We are building a new reality for Jewish educational experiences because we are called to do that right now, in this unbelievably unique moment in time.

David Bryfman is CEO of The Jewish Education Project