Jewish Day Schools – Resilience and Innovation in the Face of Coronavirus

By Paul Bernstein

In the days since the first temporary closing, and the move to virtual teaching of a Jewish day school due to coronavirus, I have been sad, yet privileged, to witness remarkable events. I watch my home community in New Rochelle step up, supporting those who are sick and quarantined, strangers and friends alike supporting each other. Our synagogues and communities are adjusting to fast-developing challenges, creating wonderful, joyous, alternative solutions for Purim and daily Jewish life. Countless other communities from coast to coast and around the world are, or soon will be, tackling these unprecedented circumstances. Support for the sick and vulnerable, and the rapid adaptation to slow the further spread of the virus are extraordinary to witness, and bring out the best in our humanity.

Jewish day schools, their students, families, leaders, faculty, and staff, have been flung into the front line of the crisis. I watch my 16-year-old daughter with awe adjust in her first few days of online learning, launched as soon as her day school moved from in-person to virtual. It is still an evolving, rapidly improving experience, but how incredible it is to see students continuing to learn in a new domain, thanks to the rapid innovations of the educators in their schools. Classes meet by video, small group work takes place in break-outs, homework is assigned, and in the margins, friends figure out how to continue their social lives virtually, despite the loss of the physical surroundings of school.

It is often said that the education system is slow, and resistant to change. Yet, I am consistently inspired by the leaders, faculty, and staff of each Jewish day school that finds itself making these rapid and radical changes. This is the leading edge of educational innovation, and, as our schools learn and adapt continually to improve the learning experience, they are a model for educators everywhere. Because of the location of the outbreak, Jewish day schools and yeshivas have been among the very first to close and move to virtual learning, and they are thriving in the most unsuspected ways. As one school leader said to parents after the first day online: “Our learning was not perfect; it was inspiring for its fearlessness.”

I am proud to have the opportunity, through our work at Prizmah, to see so much of the incredible endeavor of our schools. Prizmah is the network for Jewish day schools. We exist to support the efforts of each school and community, their leaders, and educators. Prizmah is privileged to activate and harness the power of the “brain trust” of shared problem-solving and learning throughout the day school field. We see our community come together, in peer-to-peer conversations, leveraging shared expertise and resources. We seek to empower schools and communities through the Coronavirus crisis, through six areas of focus:

  1. Curating and disseminating critical information to school leaders, via dedicated online resources, webinars and other media;
  2. Serving as the network for sharing of information between school leaders, through vibrant, active Reshet network groups;
  3. Identifying and addressing common questions that day school leaders face;
  4. Serving as a point of contact with North American leaders in infectious disease, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and resources from Canadian leading experts who are guiding schools in Canada;
  5. Negotiating discounts and arranging field-wide learning opportunities with virtual learning providers, and sharing of remote learning experiences among schools; and
  6. Supporting local Federations and Boards of Jewish Education to craft unified community messaging.

Too often, people are quick to find fault with their schools, missing the beauty of learning, and the values, as well as the social and emotional strength, that schools foster in their children. Right now, we see our schools at their very best, dedicated to their students and families, delivering the best possible learning in adversity. Our day schools are leading the field of education with their innovations, which we are proud to share within our community, and beyond. They continue to offer a remarkable blend of secular and Jewish education, cultivating the brilliance of the next generation of vibrant Jewish learners, leaders, and community members. And, as any great school does, they are sensitive to the social and emotional needs of the children and their families during this vulnerable time.

As we fight through this global pandemic, we are grateful to those who dedicate themselves to our health, and our safety. Please join me to say a special thank you to our children’s teachers, to the administrators, to the support staff, and to the volunteers, who ensure our schools are the beating heart of Jewish life. And let us wish refuah shleimah/speedy and complete recovery to all those who are suffering and ill, as well as strength and good health to our communities as a whole.

Paul Bernstein is CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.