Saying “Yes” in a Pandemic: Removing Barriers to Jewish Life and Learning

By Rabbi Sarah Mack, Rachel Mersky Woda, Carl Shulman
and Joie Magnone

Five years ago, we began a process that led to the transformation of our youth and family engagement programs. Three years ago, we shared in the process we went through to transform our school by “Creating a Culture of Yes.”

… we decided that we had every reason in the world to make our school a place where we say “yes” whenever we can. In doing so, it was our hope that our congregation could be a place that helps busy parents by modeling how Judaism can fit into our contemporary lives.”

The response was incredibly positive. Our school grew by 1/3 and families increasingly voiced that their children enjoyed coming to Temple. Saying “yes” did not bring the lack of depth or long term degradation of learning that some predicted. We didn’t “break” Judaism or Jewish continuity and commitment. On the contrary, families felt as though we were part of the solution – a haven of joy in a world where parents and children are often overburdened.

We were beginning to reflect and evaluate as we witnessed what worked well for small group Hebrew and primary grades and what needed tweaking for older students. Covid-19 has now provided a silver lining opportunity to reflect differently upon the essence of our work.

We can no longer gather as a community as we have been accustomed. While we currently cannot hug, sing, dance, pray, compete, or even learn the aleph bet in person, we have not turned away from the goals of joy, community and accessibility. We decided that it is important to say “yes” in a moment when there are so many more no’s.

We asked, “how can we lower barriers even further, enhance accessibility and offer Jewish education that can happen ‘virtually’ everywhere?” Our leadership decided it was time to extend our ”yes” even further. Families will incur a nominal fee for b’nei mitzvah preparation, while other costs for youth and family engagement will be rescinded.

Community remains a central value to our congregation and our school. Members continue to be asked to connect to our congregational life. It is essential to us that Jewish education move away from being a transactional relationship and become one that is authentically relational. Our vision is predicated upon the understanding that a community is responsible for investing in the next generation to perpetuate the scared chain of tradition.

At a time when budgets are tight and anxieties run high, this may seem like a counter intuitive decision. Temple Beth-El prioritizes living our values, knowing that affordability will affect accessibility for many members. We believe that it is the entire congregation’s responsibility to provide a joyful, communal and accessible space for us to engage in lifelong Jewish learning. Youth and family engagement is an investment in our present, and our future.

We see the current pandemic as an opportunity to write the next chapter of our story. We are changing the paradigm to reflect our new normal. We endeavor to meet families and students on common ground, while supporting our joyous and positive learning environment. Perhaps this liminal time is an inflection point as a base for evolution.

In the Midrash our Sages teach that the Torah was given along with three things: fire, water and wilderness.  “The giving of the Torah was marked by these three features to indicate that just as these three are free to all humankind–so too are the words of Torah free.” (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7).  The word “free,” in Hebrew has its root in the term “chen” or grace.  The Torah is evidence of God’s grace and the wilderness is the perfect location for this gift. Sharing our learning opportunities freely and graciously affirms our institutional and Jewish values at a moment when each day feels like the wilderness anew.

Rabbi Sarah Mack, Rachel Mersky Woda, Carl Shulman and Joie Magnone make up the Ed Team at Temple Beth-El in Providence, Rhode Island.