By Rabbi Eddie Shostak
Dearest Fellow Educators,
Over the last 6 weeks, like most, I have felt a whirlwind of emotion – from sadness, fear and grief to empathy, joy and hope. Sometimes these feelings are felt on their own, but usually they come all intertwined. Even though this is certainly normal for these extraordinary times, it doesn’t make it any easier.
A new emotion popped up recently – a feeling of guilt. While I am certainly grateful to still have a job, unemployment has been a critical mass casualty of this crisis. I watch as friends and colleagues face the most acute challenges of the pandemic with great courage and bravery – whether medical professionals on the frontlines, clergy performing unimaginable types of funerals, community volunteers bringing people who are isolated meals, and the like. And so I ask myself, what am I doing professionally? How am I contributing?
Are you, my colleagues, and I, sitting in the comfort of our homes, essentially asking young people to get off the couch and their screens, only to tell them to sit back on the couch and get on a screen? Are we a digital babysitting service for the young and a fancy means of keeping teens out of trouble? Are we “virtually” teaching or are we “actually” teaching?
But of course, while there is value and some truth to those aspects of our work, keeping the young busy so that the acute essential services can run smoother, we are doing and accomplishing much more than that. And I hope we are learning that ours are also essential services, albeit in a different way.
I worry deeply about the impact this crisis will have on our students, now and in the long term, on so many levels – spiritual, emotional, psychological, physical. My hope, of course, is that they, and we, all emerge healthy and safe, AND one foot taller – ever changed for the good.
I recently had a breakthrough discussion with our high school Seniors. Since the beginning we knew they would be the most intensely affected group from our student body. While they may sometimes mask and try to numb their distress, as they watch all of their most anticipated senior year events cancelled one by one, their heartbreak is there nonetheless.
We discussed the difference between maasim (deeds) and middot (character), in the context of study of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) – essentially the central Jewish character guide book. We spoke about the distinction between BEING Jewish and DOING Jewish.
While deeds and character may be interdependent, they are often mistakenly interchanged. For example, a person can perform a kind act (deed), but that doesn’t necessarily mean his kindness is refined (character). Similarly, a person can perform an unjust act (deed), but her sense of justice (character) can be quite upright. Who we are is not always analogous to what we do.
Together we re-discovered who the Seniors ARE. As painful as it is to have had senior trips cancelled, special events moved online, and other experiences remaining in limbo, that doesn’t change who they are. They are High School Seniors. That can only be refined, or, God forbid, can degenerate. What the Class of 2020 events and rituals look like may be influenced by COVID-19, but who they look like when they emerge as High School Graduates is up to them.
I believe this lesson is applicable to all aspects of our identity – whether as individuals, as a people, as parents, as children, as spouses, as professionals. It is especially important now.
Yes, our classrooms have moved to uncharted platforms, our textbooks are nowhere to be found. Our shared experiences have become almost unrecognizable: We have no Batei Midrash, no resource rooms, no libraries, no gymnasiums, no yards. We have been banished from our staff rooms, our offices and our common spaces. Our student-teacher interactions don’t look the same and clarity of what is to come seems ever elusive. Yet, we remain educators and it is very much in our hands to make our “virtual” schools very real.
We are still educators. That can only be refined, or, God forbid, can degenerate. What our teaching looks like may be influenced by COVID-19, but who we look like as educators when we emerge and when we return to our beloved schools is up to us.
In short, thank you for being you.
Thank you for your courage to show up and be part of society’s essential services, shepherding a generation of young people through these challenging times with professionalism and creativity, with care and compassion, with empathy and patience, so that they can emerge one foot taller from this extraordinary experience.
Thank you for being educators.
B’vracha (with blessing) ve’ahava (and love),
Rabbi Eddie Shostak serves as the K-11 School Rabbi at the Hebrew Academy of Montreal. He is a graduate of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education (JTS) and is a current member of Federation CJA’s Passport to Jewish Life Fellowship run by M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education.