value proposition

Marking one year of COVID in Jewish education (part two)

Introduction by David Bryfman

With all of its devastation and challenges, the past year shone a light on critical issues that many believe will, and should, deeply inform Jewish education beyond the pandemic. As continues to be evident from the contributions in this eJP series from leading figures, understanding our learners as whole people who need the benefits and support that good education offers remains a high priority for Jewish education. Whereas once many educators may have declared that the purpose of Jewish education was to make people more Jewish, we now hear that for Jewish education to be successful it must help to make individuals stronger versions of themselves and more integrated and influential members of the communities in which they live. What the following contributors emphasize is that whether it’s in classrooms, campsites, conference centers, or online, we are witnessing a Jewish education sector that has risen to the occasion of this pandemic, and in doing so also begun to pave a way for thriving Jewish education into the future.

Part-Time Jewish Education

Update from Miriam Heller Stern, PhD, National Director and Associate Professor, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Education

Between the Existential and the Practical: Evolving the Why and How of Part-time Jewish Education

Jewish educators have done everything in their power to “be there” for their learners this year. This is a trajectory we were on long before COVID. For two decades or more, the sociological impulse to “meet learners where they are,” and “guide individual Jewish journeys,” has urged us to provide each learner with relevant learning and personal meaning. In the spirit of providing for everyone’s needs and wants, as we face emergent and uncertain health guidelines for the coming year, many directors of education in Sunday, Shabbat and weekday afternoon models are considering “hybrid” options. Will you be online or in-person? Many are saying “both.”

As we seek to please everyone and recapture enrollments, Jewish educators are faced with a practical question: how do we be everything to everyone? When learners and their families seek increased flexibility and choice, we might look at systemic approaches to support hybrid or HyFlex practices. This will require new resources, human and financial, for technology, teacher training and user support as institutions strive to meet the varied needs of families. Some parents will swear off screens while others will swear off commuting or gathering. Some parents will choose online content. Institutions designed to meet the practical needs of families (e.g. childcare) will continue to attract those families. Institutions with a more abstract purpose will not be able to take enrollment for granted.

How do we be everything to everyone? The practical question is also an existential one for educators. With reduced resources and mounting pressure on our educators, we must consider the human cost of attempting to meet every educational need flexibly, reliably, and with high quality.

Perhaps if we think creatively at a systems level we can face these existential and practical questions. We are beginning to see new experiments in these areas. We might consider:

  • Creating more partnerships and consortia for course offerings, so that every institution doesn’t have to offer (and duplicate) everything.
  • Playing with the calendar, offering quads or trimesters to have some in-person choices and some online options.  An institution might gather its learners in person once a week (perhaps for Shabbat or Sunday), and offer communal or cross-communal online learning on other days.  Additional immersive activities could balance the asynchronous learning.
  • Recruiting and deploying teachers in new ways: We could share teaching talent by creating communal positions and cultivating teaching assistants for breakout groups (like the model of college lecture with sections – learners get “the good teacher” plus a discussion section with an enthusiastic young expert-in-training). We could recruit talented parents and grandparents to teach short courses in niche areas of interest. 
  • Expanding opportunities and incentives for virtual professional development and communities of practice.
  • Extending our family education programming to build a scaffold of relationship, ritual, storytelling and learning across generations. We must think beyond “the school,” “instruction” and even “experiential education.” Now more than ever, families need the rituals, events and programs that they associate with warmth, comfort, connection, reunion, pause, wholeness, joy, and mutual support. How might we creatively build intentional learning into the activities that speak to our deep Jewish and human needs? 

As we explore the possibilities of “how,” let us stay focused on “why,” and continue to provide what families need, existentially and practically. A place to learn Jewish stories and sensibilities. A chance to wonder and ask questions. Creative, nourishing Jewish spaces. Caring, connected community for daily life and life cycle. Instruction, tutoring and enrichment in curated Jewish content and Hebrew. Childcare. Wellness. Ritual.

The world of part-time Jewish education is like a bin of Legos collected from Lego sets accumulated over years. Some institutions have a full-themed set, and some institutions are building with disparate pieces. Perhaps it is time for every community to reconsider trying to build their own spaceship to the Jewish future with the limited pieces they have. What could we build if we put our pieces together? What if we created more meaningful partnerships and frameworks for learning not only across part-time institutions, but with camps, JCCs, youth movements and day schools? What new outcomes might we achieve across the system?

A collaborative spirit is alive on the social media groups where Jewish educators gather, giving each other advice and sharing resources generously. Their sleeves have been rolled up all year long, and at the one-year mark, they are looking forward. They need clergy, lay leadership and funders to get behind putting their creativity to work.

If we pool more of our unique Lego pieces together, what castles, rockets and new inventions might we build for the “next normal?”

Summer Camp

Update from Jeremy Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp 

Making Mensches in Summer 2021

When people think about camp, they often recall favorite activities or experiences—tie-dye, campfires, conquering the ropes course, swim instruction, song sessions, or playing cards with new friends. But at its heart, Jewish camp provides a place for campers and staff to feel safe and uniquely empowered to embrace their whole selves—and to grow into their best selves, mensches.  

Long before COVID-19, Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) recognized the evolving and growing complexity of mental, emotional, spiritual and social health (MESSH) in our society. To continue to deliver our intended Jewish educational outcomes and character development work, we needed to help Jewish camps enhance MESSH staffing and training at all levels.  

With a visionary gift from The Marcus Foundation, based on our earlier work with UJA-Federation of New York – Neshamot Fund, FJC launched Yedid Nefesh, meaning “beloved soul” in reference to our understanding of the need for a multi-faceted, whole-person approach to wellness as individuals and as a community. This program provides financial and programmatic support, including the addition of over 30 experienced mental health professionals to the field. We believe that with proactive and substantive MESSH support, we can build stronger, more inclusive, and resilient communities. 

And then 2020 came, and we all realized how critical it is to invest in strengthening caring Jewish camp communities. While camp is not therapy, it is built on a foundation of caring for each and every child. Only upon this sound MESSH foundation can we embark on the work of making mensches.

Part of building caring communities that see people holistically is creating environments that cultivate soft skills, promote personal growth, and allow for experimentation around self-actualization. In furthering this work, FJC recently received its first-ever grant from the prestigious John Templeton Foundation. The initial one-year planning grant will enable FJC to lay the groundwork for a proposed three-year expansive research project to explore how camps deliver character-building education to campers and staff and how this programming impacts their moral character development. Together with camps and other academic partners, FJC will develop a new set of research tools, resources, and curricula to help camps better implement character education during the summer months and year-round to their campers, staff, and communities. 

Jewish camp in North America has a great history of making mensches, but that is not enough. We plan to look critically and explore the metrics of character development. Surfacing and sharing best practices will ensure we are making our best effort to raise new generations of thoughtful, resilient, caring, community-minded individuals. The world needs more mensches now, more than ever before.


Update from Susan Wachsstock, Chief Program Officer, The Jewish Education Project

Loss and Hope

Prior reflections highlighted the substantial losses the pandemic caused for teens.  Developmentally, teens should be at home less frequently, with their friends more often, testing boundaries more, learning to take safe risks, and learning to balance fun with the pressures of college preparation. The pandemic robbed them of this. Teens missed out on college visits, first dates, first kisses, proms, homecoming, Israel trips, final summers at camp, graduation, etc. The loss for this population is incalculable.

At the same time, the professionals who engage teens did everything they could to help the teens that they work with try to thrive through national tragedy.  Over the last year, the teen engagement field focused intently on mental health and wellness. For a generation with higher incidents of anxiety, depression and suicide before Covid, attention to teen wellbeing was, remains, and should continue to be a critical area of focus for teen activity. During the last year, programs prioritized activities that focused on social emotional health above all else. Moving forward, the centrality of this work in the teen engagement landscape will endure. The loss of life moments and developmental milestones cannot be replaced; no one “gets back” a year as a teenager. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and the individual experiences delays or gaps in their natural identity development.  

Did someone say digital?

Being digital natives sometimes obscures that teens are social creatures by nature.  So, with the loss of in person experiences, teens discovered new ways to meaningfully connect with each other online. The rise in Esports, Discord and gather.town are examples of how teens leaned into the new socially distanced universe. They leaned into their interests, whether a TV show (has anyone else heard The Office and Friends on an endless streaming loop in their house?) or an interest in politics, culture, geography, etc. Teens are fully comfortable seeking social, cultural and knowledge-based experiences online. This comfort and tendency will not go away just because the pandemic ends. In fact, teen professionals are preparing to assist in the transition back to face-to-face interaction since this may result in an increase in social and separation anxiety. In the post Covid universe, teen engagement programs will be more focused on what can best be achieved in person – that is human connection, face to face dialogue/questioning and shared exploration, volunteerism and activism, and immersive moments that provide teens space to step away from their day to day lives to learn and socialize deeply and wholly without distractions.

Teens continue to lead by example and seek to build a more just world

Three years ago, teens organized, rallied and defined the need for gun control regulations following the Parkland tragedy. Youth professionals were not surprised by this response and they are not surprised now that despite all the pandemic has wrought on their lives, teens are rallying, self-organizing and responding. Teens are  volunteering to help older adults navigate the vaccine appointment system.  Teens are developing and managing apps such as HereNow to provide peer-to-peer support. Behind most teens is an adult providing support and encouragement—a youth advisor, a teacher, a parent or grandparent—but it is the teen that is leading the charge.  

Even though Jewish educators reached their maximum workload and mental capacity, teens rightly expected them to help them engage in learning, conversations, and action about race and Judaism in the context of national events. So, teen professionals worked to educate themselves to help teens make meaning of these complex matters.

Teens are ready to move forward – to a summer of togetherness

While teen professionals rose to the occasion last year, they also know that teens desperately want to be with their friends and have fun. This summer will—we all hope—provide a reemergence of the immersive Jewish teen experience.  Perhaps no data is more telling than enrollment for teen Israel travel this coming summer.  5213 teens are enrolled in 2021 teen Israel programs through the RootOne Voucher Program—an increase of 59% over the summer of 2019.  Immersive teen experiences were on hiatus; now they represent one of the most palpable and visible ways  that teens and teen engagement professionals will mark the end of the pandemic.   

College Age Students

Update from Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, Director of Content Development for the Center for Jewish and Israel Education, Hillel International, and Leah Siskin Moz, MSW, Director of the Center for Engagement, Inclusion and Wellness, Hillel International.

Covid One Year On 

One year in, it’s clear that the pandemic has presented new challenges and opportunities to those of us in Jewish education. More than anything, like any stressor on a system, this crisis has served to magnify the strengths, needs, and fault-lines present in our communities and institutions. Nowhere is this more clear than in the crisis of mental health facing our community. This mental health crisis is not only one of individuals in distress, but also a Jewish communal crisis about our ability to meet the diverse needs of those in our community. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase in mental health challenges of college-aged students was reaching epidemic proportions. According to the American Council on Education, 80% of university presidents in 2019 said that student mental health had become more of a priority than the prior three years and  6 in 10 students were reporting feelings of overwhelming anxiety in the National College Health Assessment. It was not surprising when national data shared staggering rates of college-age students describing themselves as experiencing depression, sadness, or suicidality in the first six months of the pandemic. Like the broader community, young Jews are lonely, isolated, anxious, and afraid.  

But today’s crisis is also an opportunity to better define the role Jewish education can play in supporting young Jews. There are tools within Jewish learning environments that can promote known mental health protective factors, which are factors that reduce the impact of negative mental health risk factors. Connecting to something larger than oneself, building meaningful peer relationships, supportive interactions with adult mentors, and feeling part of a community are just a few. The charge is how we craft educational institutions to meet a reality where understanding mental health needs are embedded in the fabric of adolescent development.  With this outlook, how might we train our professionals to meet, teach, engage and educate a generation whose mental health is as important as their physical health?

We, the Jewish people, are meant for moments like the one we face. We have well-tested traditions, rituals, and technologies for bringing people together and providing them leadership and hope in times of crisis. We understand that mentorship matters, that purposeful content inspires, and that community fosters life. 

Building on Hillel International’s efforts over the past three years to promote student and staff well-being through training and resources, the Hillel movement is striving to continue to meet the needs of this year.  In communities throughout the world, Hillel is working to bring sources of meaning and connection to students. Through initiatives like the Jewish Learning Fellowship, WinterFest, and Hillel@Home; through local efforts to provide meals, care packages, and socially distanced gatherings; and through mental health support training for our staff, Hillel is focused on supporting students through these challenging times. This included launching, just ahead of the pandemic, a virtual mental health training that has now reached two-thirds of our Hillel staff teams to help them recognize warning signs of distress, to prepare to approach students they are concerned about and to strengthen their relationships with campus or community referral resources.

But to meet the challenge our communities face, we will have to go beyond our traditional frameworks and dispositions. Our professionals and leaders must be trained to meet the changing needs of those we serve. Ultimately, we will need to look beyond the Jewish community to think and transform the societal structures, supports, and transformations that will enable the flourishing of young Jews and ultimately of all young people. 

Without a doubt, the period following the COVID crisis will test us further. The losses, stresses, and strains will take their toll on our society broadly, manifesting in ways we cannot yet imagine. Our role as educators is to create spaces, communities, and institutions, where we can all flourish. In the coming years, this mandate will necessitate a continued transformation about our approach to mental health, making it a core feature of everything we do. As those already engaged in this work know, this is not an easy task, but to paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon, “The day is short, the work is great, the reward is mighty, and our obligation remains.”