Finding Ways to Thrive Outside During COVID-19

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By Zachary Goldberger

In 1933, Albert Schoolman created one of the first Jewish camps, Camp Cejwin, in the woodlands of New York. Camp Cejwin strived to get kids out of their classroom, create a learning environment without distractions, and find new ways to help kids embrace Jewish values and education. The Cejwin model could not be more relevant today, when kids are stuck in their rooms and often glued to their devices. With so many of our students Zoomed out, educators need to take kids away from their screens and into the outdoors – and there are safe ways to do this.

As a Jewish educator, I have experienced the challenges of Zoom during the pandemic, and I recently spoke with some of the impacted teens. “The stress from assessments and classes are present, but the support system from friends and teachers are more distant since we are not in person,” said an East Brunswick High School student. Another Piscataway High School student expressed a related concern. Pent up inside, mostly on Zoom, he worries about his relationships with his friends, with whom he can’t spend quality time or make meaningful memories.

Within this difficult situation lies an opportunity for Jewish educators who understand the importance of creating outdoor learning environments where kids can feel comfortable, explore identity and create lifelong connection during the pandemic. The need is greater than ever and I propose that our schools and synagogues take these steps wherever possible:

Create an Outdoor Classroom – We can no longer think of the classroom as a structure with four walls. Jewish educational institutions should use the outdoors to create a learning environment for their students. Parking lots are hardly full this year, so give that space over to students. Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan has started bringing its youth together for Hebrew high school and youth programs on their outdoor pavilion. “Teens need real connection – for some of them, it’s their only opportunity to talk to each other, to smile at each other, and to see their mentors in person,” says Rabbi Jennifer Lader of Temple Israel. “They are all exhausted by all of the online programming and can’t focus, no matter how great the opportunity being offered. We provide them with a safe way to get a taste of what they need to be healthy, happy, and resilient.”

Cultivate Local Partnerships – If your school or synagogue doesn’t have space or means to create a classroom, partner with a local camp and rent their campsite. The green space provides students with the feeling of camp they missed this summer and this is a way to support camps that were financially impacted by the pandemic. If there is not a camp nearby, call your local park or school. Make sure to follow your state-regulated gathering laws.

Develop Learning Pods – Our students are eager to be together and learn with their peers. One teen leader at Temple Israel speaks for many students who want to interact with their Jewish peers. “The ability to see my friends on Monday night in a safe and secure way is wonderful. I really think that being outside clears people’s minds and allows them to think. It has strengthened my Jewish identity, because I can continue to learn more about Judaism and become closer to those learning, too.” By creating small learning pods of four to six people based on geographic location, students cultivate their own classroom in their backyards. Schools and youth groups can send materials for activities or have them ready for pickup in a neutral and sanitized location.

Safety is of the utmost concern when it comes to our youth, and parents and teachers are right to be concerned about getting together during the pandemic. But, after speaking with Tom Daniel, a camp director from Lake of the Woods & Greenwoods Camp, I believe the safety of our youth can be assured. Camp Greenwoods had a healthy and safe summer, and being outside was a large part of their success.

Daniel emphasized four factors that helped: medically-informed campers, the disconnect their campers had with technology, outdoor space, and specific guidelines. These centered around providing the campers and staff with vital, updated information on COVID-19, explaining which areas of camp were off-limits, how to thoroughly keep yourself and your area clean, and what camp was doing to maintain a safe environment. A system of trust, Daniel said, was integral to the success of the summer and provided campers and staff with a level of responsibility they knew they could handle. These guidelines are easily transferable to our Jewish schools and synagogues seeking to create outdoor classrooms in a safe environment.

If the weather prohibits time spent outside, continue to plan for the spring and follow the safety protocols laid out by your state for indoor, small gatherings. The pandemic will have lasting impacts throughout 2021, so by taking the time to strategize with your institution and community, you will be ready and able to act when the time comes.

By shifting Jewish education outside, our kids will emerge from the pandemic without missing a beat in their Jewish education or losing their sense of community. By making this move, we will prepare them for the future while showing that Judaism is adaptable and can meet even the toughest challenges. As Jews, we have shown time and time again the ability to maintain a sense of connectedness and even in the direst of circumstances.

Zachary Goldberger is a first year student in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership graduate program at Brandeis University.