When Ismar Schorsch retired as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, he noted in his farewell speech a major flaw of the Conservative movement’s decision to allow people to drive to shul on Shabbos and Yom Tov. He observed that being able to live far away from the synagogue makes creating a real community, a kehilla, a tzibbur, almost impossible. Those who live within walking distance of a shul can more readily develop the kind of relationships that build and foster a strong sense of community.
Obviously, any group that shares similar values and kindred affinities can also form a community. So, for example, day school parents form their own community by virtue of their children attending the same school and ostensibly having similar values. This communal, shared aspect of synagogue membership and school parents’ associations has been disrupted by the current pandemic.
Many shul members can no longer attend services and their interaction with other members is limited to Zoom services, except for Shabbos and Yom Tov, and Zoom shiurim. There is no socializing at a kiddush, and social distancing at outdoor minyanim also limits interactions. Some practice socially distant backyard visits. But it’s not the same, and the circle of friends is of necessity limited. Day schools are either utilizing a hybrid educational model to start the year or going fully remote. This also affects parents who are no longer able to meet and interact in person as they normally would. Chatting at school functions, meeting at school programs and other opportunities to meet have been eliminated.
We cannot underestimate the importance of personal, face-to-face contact in building a community of shared values. The current situation represents a challenge to normal community building. Shul members who haven’t seen their friends in months, as well as day school parents, want and need connection and engagement now more than ever.
Although current health and safety measures employed in our schools are somewhat restrictive of necessity, the children can at least see each other and interact with friends and teachers (at least in those schools that are still open). Faculty meetings are not the same, faculty lounge interactions are curtailed and parents, especially, miss the direct contact with teachers and administrators. The current situation is much worse than multiple snow days or active shooter drills.
Parent associations are the gateways for parents, faculty and staff to unite as one family that revolves around the children. Energetic and committed parents complement the work of educators to enhance students’ overall educational experience. Funds raised go towards the purchase of items or renovations that help augment the school’s materials or facilities, and towards the sponsorship of many co-curricular programs, events and activities. By engaging parents in its chesed projects throughout the year, the parent associations help bolster the schools’ key values and offer families a special way to get involved.
When schools moved to distance learning in March, much of this activity went by the wayside. Some parent groups created message boards. These groups are instrumental in facilitating parental groups’ connectedness. It is also crucial for them to stay informed during a very challenging and ambiguous time. Parents can share resources, coordinate virtual playdates, receive tech support and feel connected to their school cohort while being apart physically.
We understand the reluctance to download yet another app or learn a new platform. There’s already a torrent of daily emails in parents’ inboxes. This problem has been worsened during the pandemic. Whatever platform is used and however it is tailored to meet the needs of each school and parent association, the important thing is that there needs to be meaningful communication. Parents and teachers can share stories from their kids, innovative mask ideas can be presented, new parents can be welcomed and creative ideas to thank teachers can be generated.
We cannot currently duplicate a normal school year. However, parents need to stay connected and receive support from their peers as we traverse the challenging and unparalleled pathways of parenting through a pandemic. We need to nurture involvement that represents the connectedness of our day school community.
Rabbi Wallace Greene has had an extensive career as a Jewish educator.