Hello From the Other Side

By Branden Johnson

As someone who has already completed two years in an online learning program, you might not think that I have what to say about the situation in which we find ourselves. But even I was surprised by the way my life has been affected by the current pandemic.

I was student teaching in a day school in Manhattan when the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States exploded. I was there as part of my program at Pardes, which requires each student to go to the States to teach for one month during the spring. I arrived earlier than the rest of the members of the program. As rosh mishlachat, the supervisor of our Israeli staff at Camp Ramah in Northern California, I needed to be back in Israel in late March to attend the Jewish Agency’s training institute. Before arriving in the city, I visited my family for a few days in Arizona.

I was only able to complete about two weeks of my assignment. Many of my classmates didn’t even get to start theirs, as their schools had moved all classes online before they arrived. As my school grappled with the possibility of a long-term closure, we had a two-day taste of what it would look like when the school closed during Purim because of fears that the virus had already found its way into the community. I still attended a Purim party in Lower Manhattan with some friends, but the virus had cast a pall over the celebrations. And this was when known cases there were still primarily confined to a few select locations.

When the decision was made to close the school for the foreseeable future, I had a series of conversations with my colleagues at Pardes, with my mentor teacher, and with my family. We decided to end my placement early, that I would visit my family for a few days, and then take my scheduled flight back to Israel. For me, not coming back to Israel wasn’t an option. The last class I had with my ninth-grade students was bittersweet. We finished the sugya in Masechet Brachot that we had been working on, and they understood. They comprehended what was happening in the text. But I would not get the chance to work with them on the next sugya, which would build on the work we did together.

By the time I arrived back in Phoenix, where my family lives, the assisted living facility in which my grandparents live had been closed to visitors. Restaurants were closing dining rooms, and toilet paper was a hot commodity. As travel restrictions spread, I worried about my chances of getting home. As a citizen, I knew I would be able to get back into Israel. The question was: Would I be able to leave the States?

I called the airline and moved my flights up by three days. I was now going to be back in Jerusalem just in time for Shabbat. I spent my two weeks of quarantine isolated in the apartment of some friends who were unable to come back to Israel. Since the end of Pesach, I have resumed my full schedule of online classes with Pardes. I also just finished another semester of my William Davidson courses.

As a student, my experience hasn’t been nearly as disruptive as it had been as a teacher. That being said, it is difficult. Long hours of sitting in front of the computer, listening to frontal-style lectures from a head floating among a bunch of other heads, is tiring and surreal. In an attempt to make classes synchronous with classmates who are in the States, we have class some days at 8:30 a.m. and again at 8:30 p.m., without a lot of options to fill the long hours in between.

As I write this, I’m listening to Haaretz’s Sunday culture podcast in Hebrew. The hosts are discussing several new television series, as well as perennial pop culture favorite Adele. The banality of the subjects is both off-putting and oddly comforting. But that’s the world in which we live now. A world in which the mundane aspects of the lives we lived PC (pre-Corona) are aspirational.

I still don’t have much clarity about the coming weeks and months. Will camp happen? If it does, what format will it take? Will my practicum in the fall take place in person? Will I be able to find a job as I wrap up my studies? One of my biggest takeaways from this experience has been the adaptability and creativity of our educators and institutions when faced with this existential crisis. I know that we will make it through, but that many challenges still lie ahead.

As long as we continue to work together, there will be an answer for every question, a virtual solution to every logistical challenge, and a new generation of Jewish leaders fortified to take on the next crisis. From generation to generation and from strength to strength.

Branden Johnson lives in Jerusalem. He is the summer director of programming and rosh mishlachat at Camp Ramah in Northern California (Galim), a distance learning student in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS, and an alumnus of the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

This is the THIRD in a series of articles published by graduate-level students at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. The student authors focus on their experiences as Jewish educators as they balance being both the student and teacher during this extraordinary and unprecedented time.