On Covid’s Jewish Frontlines: The Pandemic Classroom

Rabbi Ari Schonfeld
By Steve Lipman

Two days after Covid forced Yeshiva Beis Hillel of Passaic to close its doors, Rabbi Ari Schonfeld went online. His eighth-grade class at the northern New Jersey day school missed “one day, maybe two,” before he resumed teaching on Zoom. A week after the school closed, Rabbi Schonfeld went national.

A native of the Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood of Queens, the rabbi, who has lived in the Passaic-Clifton area for several years, founded “Night Seder America,” an online program for boys in junior high school to  enable them to learn gemara in the evenings despite the pandemic. First, he reached out to his network of friends, former or current students, and one-time campers at the local day camp he runs, Camp Eeshay. Soon, word of mouth quickly expanded his program beyond his original modest expectations, all while he was still teaching his online day school classes to sixth, seventh and eighth-graders.

“I had never heard of Zoom,” he says. He was a quick learner. He taught himself the intricacies of this Internet form of communication that became a lifeline for millions of people during the pandemic. During Night Seder America (NSA) sessions, he would sit in front of a pair of large monitors in his office, toggling among eighty galleries of faces that each contained twenty students. And he incorporated security measures to prevent NSA from being interrupted by hackers. “I saw a need for an online Torah platform,” says Rabbi Schonfeld, grandson of the late Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld and son of Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, who succeeded his father as rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills.

Some 300 junior high school students, mostly from Passaic and a few communities and neighborhoods in nearby New York City, took part in Rabbi Schonfeld’s first night on the program. The number of participants quickly grew to 1,500, hailing from across the United States, as well as from South Africa, England, Israel and other countries; a separate Night Seder Europe eventually developed. “I exceeded my wildest dreams,” says the rabbi. “NSA went viral.”

Each hour-long NSA session featured a Gemara shiur by Rabbi Schonfeld, beginning with Masechet Tamid, as well as lectures by prominent rabbis and scholars, often prerecorded, about the then upcoming Pesach holiday. Quizzes and contests, such as an online version of “Simon Says,” “That’s My Psak,” and “Best Chol Hamoed Trip without Leaving Your House” earned raffles and prizes to pique the students’ interest. For Lag B’Omer, he ran a virtual version of his camp’s Neighborhood Day competition, pitting teams from New York City against “out-of-town” competitors.

Wednesdays became “Pshetl Night”—boys with a bar mitzvah that week reserved a slot, sending in recordings of their bar mitzvah speeches; even if their synagogues weren’t closed, they had a bigger audience than they might have gotten normally.

While NSA was among several popular online Torah study programs that flourished in this country during the height of the pandemic, Rabbi Schonfeld considers his initiative the only one of its scope aimed at filling the time and minds of pre-teen boys. Other online offerings were mostly “entertainment,” like talent shows and singing competitions, says Rabbi Schonfeld; he wanted something more serious. Some parents shared that their sons, who were often uninspired by traditional in-person Talmud classes, would get up early to prepare for that night’s Zoom session.

For Rabbi Schonfeld, NSA became a family affair, with his wife Esti, his sister Malki Goldberg and his children contributing various roles. He became a self-taught fundraiser for the program; the $40,000 he brought in paid for prizes and for NSA’s high-tech requirements.

The lesson he learned from NSA’s success? Friends had told him he was “nuts” when he started. “I learned that you don’t sell yourself short when you’re about to do something big.”

Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.

 

Rabbi Leonard Matanky
By Sandy Eller

It was on the morning of March 13, 2020, that Rabbi Leonard Matanky, dean of Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy, informed his parent body that while the yeshivah would be remaining open until further notice, he had taken the precaution of having Zoom installed on every student’s iPad, just to be safe. Little did he know that just hours later, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker would issue a surprise announcement closing down all schools statewide.

Rabbi Matanky was driving home from school when someone called to tell him that Ida Crown was officially closed, news that he was sure at first was a joke. But a text a few minutes later from another person telling him to turn on the TV and watch the governor’s press conference had him realizing that the situation was anything but funny.

With Shabbat coming shortly, Rabbi Matanky sent his second email of the day to the parent body, apprising parents of the latest developments and explaining that additional information would be forthcoming. Wasting no time, he arranged a Motzaei Shabbat Zoom meeting with his staff, and by Sunday, a remote schooling plan was in place.

“We had an in-service day on Monday for teachers to review the technology and discuss strategies for successful distance learning,” recalls Rabbi Matanky. “We did it in shifts so that we could limit the number of people and invited students to come pick up their textbooks and other belongings.”

By Tuesday morning, less than ninety-six hours after Governor Pritzker’s bombshell announcement, Ida Crown’s high schoolers were learning on Zoom. The modified academic schedule had shortened days Monday through Thursday, with Friday classes held only on alternate weeks.

“One of the challenges our teachers faced was determining what skills were absolutely necessary for students to move on to the next level,” says Rabbi Matanky. “There was a lot of trimming, but we did it and were able to complete the core curriculum.”

When it became clear in mid-April that school would remain closed for the year, special programming was added to the calendar including a Yom Ha’atzmaut concert with Ishay Ribo, town hall meetings for students and parents, and mental health workshops to address the stresses of the pandemic. With Covid numbers rising as the school year went on, graduation was postponed until August and held on the school’s soccer field.

“All the graduates came with their family pods and were able to march down the aisle, walk across the stage and get their diplomas,” says Rabbi Matanky. “It was somewhat regular, although the biplane carrying a message ‘ICJA Class of 2020’ was a little fancier than graduations of the past.”

Just days later Ida Crown reopened for the new academic year. Because the school building is only five years old, it has an updated HVAC system, MERV 13 air filters and 75 percent outside air coming into the building. Strict protocols included mandatory social distancing and one-way traffic in the hallways, with students permitted to remove their masks only for fifteen minutes during their lunch period, based on CDC guidelines. Having been ahead of the curve when it came to remote schooling, Rabbi Matanky was grateful for the opportunity to be able to share information with other heads of school, giving them the security of knowing that education could continue, even during a pandemic.

“Our teachers are heroes. Our students are heroes,” says Rabbi Matanky. “Things are slowly opening up, and to our great joy, we haven’t been closed a single day and, please God, we won’t be.”

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients.

 

Sarena Schwartz
By Steve Lipman

Like many day schools in the United States, Bais Yaakov of Baltimore stopped in-person classes shortly after the pandemic began. For most of the teachers at the 1,500-student, K-12 school, this largely meant education via Zoom.

For Sarena Schwartz, a decade-long instructor in computer programming and STEM, this meant Zoom classes, Skype, phone calls and other creative approaches to her work. Before Covid arrived, her schedule had always been predictable—a few classes each week with a total of some fifty students in tenth through twelfth grades. After Covid arrived, her schedule was completely unpredictable. “We teachers were on call all the time”—including constant questions from students by phone, email or text, she says, sometimes even after midnight.

Schwartz says she and her fellow teachers faced similar challenges when the school—which reopened this past September—initially closed its doors: Zoom fatigue, attention issues and limited Internet access in students’ homes. Schwartz, who teaches students about innovation, had to be innovative. To sustain the students’ interest, she created a series of twenty-minute videos that students could view online at their convenience. She reduced the amount of material she normally tried to cover and taught her lessons more slowly. She also reduced the homework load. In order to physically get some of the curriculum requirements to the girls without compromising their safety, she’d leave material for assignments in the trunk of her car for students to pick up. Sometimes she worked in her pantry. “It was the only place I could find that offered quiet and privacy.” Her efforts bore fruit, she says. Considering the inherent limitations of the unfamiliar virtual environment, students continued to learn and to submit assignments.

Back in the classroom for much of this past academic year, Schwartz says she was able to introduce some of her online teaching successes into her in-person classes. “There are lots of [new] techniques that I’ve been able to incorporate.” These include increasing her flexibility when it comes to students’ ability to concentrate and other individual needs, and truncating the length of learning units.

What prepared Schwartz for her new role? “Nothing could have prepared me,” she says simply.

 

Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe
By Barbara Bensoussan

“If you told us last summer our school would be able to stay open in person without a single shutdown from September to Thanksgiving, we would have been happy,” says Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe, dean of Jewish studies at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts. “If you told us we’d keep going through the end of December, we would have been overjoyed. But if you told us we’d still be in school in person by Purim without a single shutdown, we would never have believed you!”

As of March 2021, when this article was being prepared, the school had logged over a thousand hours of in-person class time, and not a single student had gotten ill with Covid at school. Rabbi Jaffe attributes this to guidance by physicians, the collaboration among the Jewish schools in Boston, the diligence of parents in following school guidelines, and siyata d’Shmaya.

“Boston was lucky in March [2020],” Rabbi Jaffe says. “The earliest Covid clusters were in New York, not here.” But a number of concerned physicians affiliated with the major Boston medical schools and hospitals appealed to the Jewish community to close schools and shuls as a precaution before a big spike in cases last spring, and they made themselves available to advise all Jewish day schools for the twelve months following.

Since the Jewish schools closed earlier than the public schools, they needed to communicate their rationale to the town of Brookline. Fortunately, a doctor affiliated with Harvard Medical School stepped up to the plate and served as a liaison. The Jewish Federations of Boston (CJP) convened a medical advisory board as part of their day school initiative. The board worked with all of the day schools in the area, giving advice on the latest guidelines to families from every stripe of Judaism.

Since the Covid rate dropped during the summer (with some day camps operating but Modern Orthodox sleepaway camps mostly canceled), Boston’s day schools decided jointly to open in the fall. Many schools opened up even before Labor Day to increase the days when outdoor instruction was possible. While the public schools remained closed to in-person instruction, the Jewish schools and non-Jewish parochial schools needed to establish close communication with the township to once again explain that they were imposing slightly different guidelines that would allow them to be open in person even if the public schools were not. For example, even though the desks would be slightly less spaced apart than the six-feet standard, the day schools imposed a stricter policy about waiting to send children back to school if the family had traveled anywhere out of state. Parents were asked to keep children with fever home, and each day, parents had to attest that their children had no Covid symptoms. If a child developed fever at school, the parent was expected to immediately come pick up the child.

Parents were also asked to sign a “School Community Covid-19 Commitment,” created in collaboration with other day schools, in which they promised to wear masks outside the home, socially distance, wash their hands, sanitize responsibly and follow state guidelines.

The end result was that the day schools stayed open with 90 percent of the children in attendance, and the remaining 10 percent (for example, students with family members suffering from autoimmune conditions) learning remotely. “Maimonides’ CEO, Scott Mattoon, invested incredible hours in creating transparent, clear communication between the schools and our advising physicians,” says Rabbi Jaffe. “Our parents have been super careful, and in the end—here truth really is stranger than fiction!—we’re still open after all these months.”

A long-time Jewish Action contributor, Barbara Bensoussan is the author of Pride and Preference, a novel re-imagining Austen’s classic in today’s Orthodox world.

 

Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield
By Leah Lightman

How does a head of school described as an “inspired and optimistic educational leader” navigate the challenges of Covid?

Head of school at Houston’s Yeshiva Torat Emet (YTE) since 2010, Rabbi Yerachmiel Garfield, Ed.D, handled Covid as he handles many other decisions that he needs to make on a daily, weekly and monthly basis: he conducts research and consults experts. Often there are conflicting sources of information. Together with his board, faculty and administration, as well as the parent and student bodies, he makes decisions knowing that each one will be pleasing to some while unsatisfying to others. Lots of communication to the school community follows. If some disagree with a particular decision, dialogue within an atmosphere of total respect for the other person’s point of view ensues.

Shalom is a core Torah value that we have instilled into the foundation of everything YTE does,” Rabbi Garfield explains. “Not everyone is going to agree about everything, including Covid. Because of shalom, we make room for individuals to voice opinions without judgment or character assassination.”

Born and raised in the Philadelphia area, Rabbi Garfield explains that Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Levin, grandson of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, zt”l, impressed upon the Garfield family that shalom precedes everything else in life. Rabbi Garfield still consults with him for advice.

A few of the endless issues generated by Covid were: To mask or not to mask? To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? If vaccinating, which vaccine? And so on. “The spectrum of opinions about Covid and other issues is limitless,” Rabbi Garfield explains, “and that’s okay. As long as there is communication, we can address and solve anything.”

Several YTE faculty members preferred not to come to school at different points during Covid. After discussing their concerns, arrangements were made for teaching remotely. YTE staffed the classroom so students could best focus on learning.

“There was a child at home with Covid who was disconnected from Zoom and missed some schoolwork. The parent called because the student was agitated about falling behind. We talked it through, and I wrote a letter on official school letterhead, exempting the student from schoolwork and tests for one week. The child calmed down. The parent calmed down. Our teachers did all this b’shalom, fully supporting the child,” says Rabbi Garfield.

“We communicate openly about doing what’s best for our students, and we explain how we do it. This has created a culture of trust, and within this culture, we adapt as much as possible to each individual situation,” Rabbi Garfield says. “Covid has not been an easy journey, but our teachers are dedicated and ready to do anything to foster a child’s development. YTE celebrates its teachers in many ways—car washes, appreciation luncheons, gift certificates. Our parents value our teachers and step up to express it. Hakarat hatov goes a long way.”

Undoubtedly, Covid will cast a shadow for years to come. Yet the culture of shalom that Rabbi Garfield has built will certainly carry YTE and its family members far.

Leah Lightman is a freelance writer living in Lawrence, New York, with her family.

 

More in this Section:

Leadership During Covid

Of Rabbis and Rebbetzins

Women Who Took Charge

From the Medical Trenches

The Final Chesed

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This article was featured in the Summer 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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