Recognizing the Resilience of Jewish Educators

By Dr. Shira D. Epstein

As we stood six feet apart at 7 p.m. on Saturday evening, waiting for the daily New York City clap for essential workers, I considered the words we would recite during havdallah moments later – words about choosing hope and strength over fear and despondence. I also thought about the Jewish educators across North America who made the choice to step into leadership.

From the very first days of this crisis, our William Davidson School alumni have shared, through emails, check-ins, and messages, what they and their colleagues have accomplished. We are hearing from synagogue school educators, camp directors, early childhood specialists, and classroom teachers who showed up at the start of social isolation, on the front lines of remote learning – educators who had to switch their curricula overnight to remote engagement with virtually no guidance, and then went on to serve as examples for others whose institutions would follow suit as social distancing guidelines expanded. I asked myself, “Do these Jewish educators feel that their efforts are recognized, that what they have collectively accomplished to carry our communities through this disruption is understood? How can we cheer them on?”

I also thought about what the citywide clapping, this outlet for gratitude and joyful recognition, might bring for all of us, as I realized that the only other time I have heard such exuberance in NYC is in the cheers across the 26.2 mile route of the autumn marathon. Just as the collective cheering and positive energy sustains runners throughout, and most especially when they feel they cannot go one step further, we need to find ways to let Jewish educators know we see and appreciate them in this marathon of a crisis. When I ran the NYC marathon and felt weak in my knees and spirit at mile 22 this past November, I was buoyed by a spectator who held up a sign that read, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

We need to remind ourselves that here, too, those who serve in the dual roles of educational and spiritual leader, guiding young and adult learners alike, need to hear that we know they are weary and depleted. We see what they are doing in the midst of this crisis to persevere in keeping our communities whole. And they deserve recognition, not least because most are learning as they are teaching.

The conversation about educators being underappreciated is not a new one, but now more than ever is the time to place them high in our priorities, to redouble our efforts to affirm their work. A well-worn cliché all runners know is that marathons are different from sprints; while sprints can be sustained by an all-out energy burst, marathons require a slow and steady burn. Our Jewish educational leaders are resilient – but they know that things will look different on the other side, and this awareness of what comes after can feel just as scary and lonely as the present crisis. As a community, we need to figure out how to bring our educators through this marathon so that they will come out strong on the other side. We need to collectively assert: “We are here for you and will not let you fail” to those who demonstrate resilience, creative thinking and flexibility – not just because this is what this time demands, but because of who they are in spirit.

In this time of crisis, let us think of how we will bring hope, support, encouragement, and promise to the educators and leaders who have seen us through Jewish communal life. They will be there for us on the flip side of this pandemic. We, in turn, need to be here for them now.

Shira D. Epstein, Ed.D, is dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary.