silver linings

Marking one year of COVID in Jewish education

By David Bryfman, CEO, The Jewish Education Project 

Although no one is bold enough to predict the future, Jewish educators have found that in the adversity and challenges of the past year, their eyes were opened to possibilities in Jewish education that might have enduring value beyond the pandemic. Across all settings of Jewish education and among different age cohorts, talented leaders adapted and infused their content and delivery methods with creativity to not only maintain Jewish education—but in many cases to elevate its place in people’s lives and to support people in deeply profound ways. 

This installment from Jewish educators–covering adult education (for the first time), day schools, and early childhood education—serves as both a reflection on the last 12 months in Jewish education, as well as a moment to pause and imagine what the future of Jewish education might look like moving forward. In many ways it is this challenge that has embodied the heroics of Jewish educators in the last year—being on call to serve the immediate myriad crises that the pandemic presented on a daily basis, while simultaneously, or at least in parallel, ensuring that the “new normal” of Jewish education would be an enhanced and improved version of its pre-pandemic state.

Adult Education

Update from Rabbi Rachel Bovitz, Executive Director of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning

On the one-year anniversary of COVID- trends in adult Jewish education

Organizations of all sizes have seen an increase in the number of adult learners in their online programs during this year. Adults recognize that Jewish learning can offer them spiritual nourishment, intellectual stimulation, and social connection during this time of isolation and restriction. The virtual classroom allows these devoted learners to invite friends and family from across the world to join them. Virtual classrooms also allow learners to take classes with gifted educators from near and far—it makes every scholar “in residence.” 

The ability to learn from home has largely been freeing for adults. They don’t have to contend with traffic, and they can dress comfortably, sip a cup of coffee, or slowly eat their dinner while learning. If they are muted, it doesn’t really matter if spouses, pets, or children amble into the room during a session. In fact, learners usually respond warmly when they get a glimpse into their fellow learners’ lives. Classes feel more integrated into life because we feel (and are) at home, and we go from learning to our next daily activity in a matter of seconds.  

The relaxed aspect of a home setting also effortlessly accomplishes something that adult educators usually work hard at—creating an atmosphere in which people feel comfortable sharing. Classes truly become spaces to explore, reach out, and be heard. Even when learners are muted, the chat box offers a new way to share, ask questions and even offer support. The element of interaction is more important than ever these days.   

While we know that some adults look forward to learning together in the same physical space again, we do not yet know how many adults will gravitate back to local in-person learning, and to what extent. The fact that learners now have online access to master lecturers, international experts, and educational experiences with high production value, can feel threatening to smaller programs of community-based learning. But I am not worried — there will absolutely be a desire to return to face-to-face interaction. And there can be a fusion of the two: Zoom providing a much more affordable way to host a guest scholar, for example, used as a meaningful launch for smaller, in-person group discussions. 

It seems to me that the most beneficial way to think of adult learning post-pandemic is using the “yes and” philosophy we have assimilated from the world of improv. Yes, adults do want to hear a talk by a leading scholar from the comfort of their homes and they want to study with their rabbi with whom they have an important personal relationship. Yes, it is thrilling to learn alongside 800 people from around the world and we feel more connected in our communities when we deeply get to know the dozen people with whom we discuss the weekly Torah portion.

Adult Jewish learning may turn out to be one of the strongest silver linings of the pandemic, re-invigorating a multiplicity of ways for us to share our engagement, curiosity, and discovery, and build together a stronger Jewish future.

Day Schools

Update from Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools

During the last year, Jewish day schools were among the first to close our buildings, the first to go online, and some of the first to be back in person or hybrid. Yet, while it may sound strange, Jewish day schools in March 2021 look an awful lot like they did before March 2020. Our schools are still doing what they do best—inspiring and educating our kids, preparing them for a vibrant Jewish future. 

In many ways, the pandemic has shone a light on the best of Jewish day schools–the trust between schools and families, the passion and dedication of teachers, and the determination of leadership to respond incredibly well to the needs of students, faculty, and families.

In no small part, this is possible because most schools were already “hardwired” for resilience, particularly in the ways they create, cultivate, sustain, and contribute to supportive communities. This takes place on multiple levels: individuals contribute to a vibrant school community; schools themselves are centers of the local Jewish community; and the broader community makes a difference in the life of its schools.

On an individual level, school leaders—educators, board members, professionals with all types of responsibilities—have this past year leveraged the strength of the communities they have been building all along. Networks like Prizmah’s 22 Reshet Communities have enabled peers and colleagues to connect and find support.

For example, many months before COVID was a part of our world, Prizmah had begun an intensive  training and peer support program for Jewish day school counselors. So, when the serious social and emotional components of COVID became all too apparent, this peer community leaned on one another and on the experts leading the group, and subsequently created a summer workshop where over 100 administrators were trained in mental health support. In the last few months, this peer community more than doubled in size, and they are creating tools for schools to use to assess the mental health needs throughout their school community—including adults and professionals.

Schools have always been an important locus of community for students and families. Lifecycle events both joyful and sad have traditionally been a part of the school’s realm of influence, whether through a school’s chesed committee or with other “official” practices. This past year, we have seen countless examples of how schools have gathered and supported their community, keeping them informed and connected as families faced uncertainty in the COVID crisis, offering weekly Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdalah zooms, and developing warm and inclusive ceremonies for virtual graduations and traditional milestone events like first siddur celebrations. Even the innovative ways new families are welcomed reflects this sense of connection and the desire to be inclusive in the most inviting ways possible.

We have also witnessed the tireless ways schools guarded the health and safety of their community, with no better evidence than when school testing found few positive results even when rates of infection were spiking in the region—it was apparent just how much the community cares, in their efforts to protect each other.

More broadly, in the past year we have seen the way schools and the other Jewish institutions in their area have bonded together and made sure all members are supported, emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually. Kol yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh, all Israel is responsible for each other, our schools teach, and this past year that value has been practiced in myriad ways. I salute the efforts of community institutions in supporting their schools, such as the Jewish Federation of Broward County in Florida, which this week will be delivering Shabbat dinners to approximately 430 teachers and families at the 11 day schools in their county. Community means knowing when and how to say thank you to those who need it most.

The achievements of the past year and the return of so many schools to in-person or hybrid learning—even the enrollment growth Prizmah has measured–directly result from what existed in Jewish day schools long before we ever heard of COVID. Awareness of the power of community and investing in that key capacity—for individuals, for the school, and more broadly—has deepened schools’ core capacity for resilience.

Early Childhood Education

Update from Anna Hartman, Director, Paradigm Project, and Director of Early Childhood Excellence, Jewish United Fund

Truths are revealed, communal leadership opportunities present themselves, a bold future emerges

To borrow from the Adon Olam prayer, the splendor of early childhood education is most clearly seen when we examine the past, the present, and the future.

Looking back, what did we learn?

In the last year, many preexisting truths came to our attention with an exclamation point. Here are a few such reminders:

  • Teachers are heroes.
  • Parenting is incredibly challenging; and rewarding. And isolating; and community building. It takes a village, and yet we do not live in villages.
  • High quality early childhood education improves the lives of children both in the short- and long-term.
  • Access to early childhood education enables women’s empowerment.
  • Early childhood education is essential to the economy.
  • Jewish early childhood education positively impacts the Jewish engagement of families.
  • Supporting access to high quality early childhood education for all children is a moral and strategic imperative for the Jewish community.
  • Early childhood education requires a combination of federal funding and philanthropy in order to be accessible for all and to compensate teachers properly.

What can we do now to get ready for next year?

As schools plan for the year ahead, the moment calls for continued boldness. What can community leaders (lay people, executive directors, CEOs, philanthropists, Federation professionals) do to aid schools in bridging the past and a post-COVID future?

  1. Help schools develop testing practices. As adults get vaccinated and wish for things to return to normal, children will still not be vaccinated any time soon and therefore schooling will continue to be complex and expensive. Schools could benefit from access to regular testing for children in order to minimize spread and closures. Most schools will require community coordination or support in order to realize this approach.
  2. Increase staff compensation for FY22. Teachers have given a great deal to our society this year, and they feel the exhaustion of the pandemic more than most. We cannot risk them burning out. Not only do we love and care about them, but we are also aware that replacing them is almost impossible. This is an inopportune time for onboarding new staff, and the shortage of qualified teachers in early childhood cannot be overstated. In recognition of all this, boards and host institutions can prioritize increased compensation for staff beginning this fall. Many organizations are receiving PPP grants because of lower revenue from their early childhood centers; these dollars can be reinvested in the staff that are making the magic happen. A gesture such as instituting matching funds for retirement or giving a blanket raise to all staff will go a long way toward showing staff that they are appreciated and retaining these teachers for the long haul. Increasing starting salaries across the board has also been shown to be a modest gesture that makes a big difference in retaining newer teachers in the long run. Finally, some of the mental health challenges facing today’s teachers could be mitigated with improved labor practices, such as paid time off, a living wage, and increased break time. 
  3. Be patient (and generous) as rebuilding enrollment takes time. As women have dropped out of the workforce and older siblings have been home, enrollment in early childhood education across America is down 30-40%. This is going to take years to rebuild. Schools can focus on prudent financial practices such as 100% collection of fees (either via tuition or scholarship funding), maximizing capacity utilization in each class, and diversifying revenue streams. But cost-cutting by combining classroom pods or enlarging class sizes may backfire by decreasing consumer confidence. Now is no time to be acting like the pandemic is over! School leaders need the support of their boards and executive directors to continue to offer the safest possible protocols, despite the costs.

What might the future hold?

Many people have long believed that access to high-quality early childhood education should be a right for every child in our country. What has changed in the last year is that many more of us now believe that this must and will happen. Getting there is going to take federal funds, philanthropy, public policy changes, a lot of organizing, and time. There is every reason for the Jewish community to get involved in this process. Together we can plant carob seeds so that our grandchildren, all children, and our society will reap the rewards.

Next week’s update on the field will cover teens, camp, college students, and part-time education.