Innovative Jewish learning keeps kids united during separating times

Jewish schools in Chicago are pivoting to provide the best pandemic experience for their students.

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During the School Day Program at the Jewish Enrichment Center, children come onsite all day for remote schoolwork support, play, socializing, and special projects.

For many children and families, Jewish learning helps forge a connection to Jewish life. During the pandemic, synagogues and religious schools are doing their best to keep their pupils engaged, even at a distance.

Anshe Emet's teachers and professionals have built a unique "hi-flex" model through which online and socially distanced, in-person classes take place simultaneously.

"Families have so many variables to deal with in this time, we felt it was important that parents, students, and faculty were able to make the choices that work for their own set of circumstances while continuing the highest level of Jewish education for our community," said Laurie Goldberg Orenstein, Religious School Principal for Anshe Emet Religious School in Chicago.

Moriah Congregation in Deerfield is working with a similar hybrid model of virtual and in-person learning. "We were looking for something that would meet the needs of our learners and community that was thoughtful and took Jewish education seriously," said Lori Kramer, Moriah's Director of Education. This included brainstorming creative ideas for adapting their traditional study methods like chevrutrot (study pairs), and finding educational programs that work well in person and online.

For in-person learning, much of which has been taking place outside, Moriah staff have drawn inspiration from camp activities and materials, like using pool noodles and hula hoops to help with social distancing. At home, students work with classroom materials delivered by the school to every child.

"When all the children have the same materials, that fosters dialogue among the children, as they can share ideas about how they're using the materials," said Rabbi Rebecca Milder. She is the Founding Director of Jewish Enrichment Center, an independent school that also distributed classroom items to students. Collaboration like this has been a major focus of the Jewish Enrichment Center, whose educational model is to "raise the child's voice in Jewish life."

"That can happen whether we're in person or online," said Milder, who has worked hard to ensure students have a place to share their ideas. While bulletin boards work in person, she has found solutions online, including virtual whiteboards and Zoom chat during lessons. Students can also share art projects and other non-electronic work by uploading pictures of their creations, and get inspired to make more crafts with weekly ideas provided on the Center's website.

Innovating online learning has also been a crucial part of the religious school at Am Shalom in Glencoe. Like at Moriah, Hebrew learning has pivoted to one-on-one, and Am Shalom has added supplemental classes to help students connect. At a weekly Tefillot Dance Party on Zoom, students do activities that are difficult to complete in a one-on-one setting and play games with their peers.

For Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, Director of Congregational Learning at Am Shalom, the pandemic provided many opportunities to create programs beyond the traditional curriculum. This includes the " La'Briut : To Our Health and Wellness" program from the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland that Sommer helped to develop. With La'Briut , families learn "how we can take our Jewish values and traditions and use them to help us find meaning during these times."

JUF is supporting all these schools and many more with technological platform training, curriculum design, mentoring faculty, and other resources to "move congregational education to a current-needs scenario for the modern family," said Rabbi Scott Aaron, Associate Vice President, JUF Education.

With the modern Hebrew school system "designed with a different set of social and cultural assumptions about what the community is from the mid-20 th century, as the years go on, it gets less effective and relevant to modern families, so we're really pushing to create innovation and systemic change," he said. "Because of COVID-19, everyone got thrown into the pool together. That's been a great benefit because they're realizing that while they were hesitant before, they have to change now, and they're more capable than they realized."

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