Jewish Learning & Engagement During the Pandemic is Robust and Meaningful

By Kim Bodemer

One of the features I appreciate most about Facebook are the memories. I love looking back to see what I was doing, who I was with and how I was feeling at this time in years past. It’s amazing how much insight I have about something with time and space to reflect. Recently the memory of our Chanukah celebration popped up. It was a reminder of how life was before COVID. The past nine months have been strange indeed. When we left the temple building on March 12, 2020, little did we know that we would not be returning for the rest of the school year. In the first weeks when we were “safer at home” the Learning and Engagement Team turned our attention to creating opportunities for connection. We quickly moved our Hebrew learning online followed by spirited weekly gatherings for our K-5 families and daily check-ins for our middle schoolers. 

As it became clear that the pandemic would greatly affect day to day life into the school year, our team brainstormed what our families would need during this tenuous time. Giving our families support rose to the top of what was needed. Families needed to be listened to as they navigated an ever-changing reality. In response to this need, Temple Shalom launched our “Guide Program.” Every family in our K-7 cohort was assigned a staff liaison – a guide, who checked in regularly. Our check-ins were not only about how children were accessing our programs but about the health and well-being of the family. These conversations provided comfort to families and allowed us to forge a meaningful connection with our members. The information we heard during this time has played a key role in our decision-making and influenced our offerings.

One thing we heard over and over again was the desire to return to normal and be together in person. Often in the very next breath, we heard the anxiety that would come with that. The decision about when and how to be physically together is not a simple one. Families have different reasons for the choices they make, and we respect and support them.

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.” As a “glass half full” person, this is the frame I take when considering how to move forward given our current circumstances. Supporting our students and families is our priority and we have had to rethink how we do that. COVID has given us the opportunity to boldly experiment with new learning models that empower students and offer maximum flexibility. We are proud to offer a robust array of options that are meaningful and fun. Here are five silver linings from the changes we’ve made:

  1. Deeper Connections – Our Guide Program has offered us a unique entry point into people’s lives. The relationships we are forming will outlast this pandemic and continue to inform our work in important ways.
  2. Increased Flexibility – Families have more choice than ever when scheduling and this has translated into more consistent attendance (up 15%) than we’ve seen in previous years
  3. Multigenerational Learning Opportunities – Many parents join with their children during their learning and have enjoyed the chance to learn and explore together
  4. Empowering Teens – Our Madrichim (teen learning assistants) have taken on more responsibility in the zoom classrooms. They lead breakout room discussions; connect with students over shared interests and work with teachers to develop community building opportunities.
  5. Impactful Learning – With less instructional time, our professional team has developed a keen ability to identify priorities and craft engaging experiences for our learners that honors their time and interests. 

As we read about the trials and tribulations that our biblical ancestors endured in the book of Genesis, we know that they came through changed because of what they went through. May we too have the courage to face challenging times, learn from them and be blessed as we emerge transformed ready to meet what comes next.

Kim Bodemer is the Senior Director of Jewish Learning and Youth Engagement at Temple Shalom of Newton, Massachusetts. She is a serial innovator and committed to ensuring that Judaism not only survives but thrives through COVID-19 and beyond.