The Jewish people are consistently notable not only for their ability to endure difficulties and withstand trauma, but for their capacity to thrive and flourish even during disruption, insecurity and tremendous challenges. The current pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives as students, teachers and parents. It has generated heretofore unimaginable challenges which, in turn, have of necessity created extensive and swift modifications to our school lives.
Students of all ages need structure. The structure, expectations and predictability of school was dissipated this past year. Almost overnight, students, teachers, parents and administrators became immersed in the complete renovation of the educational experience. School was no longer the school they knew.
Jews have survived the millennia due to their responses to the challenges thrown at them. Despite shutdowns, and with a variety of innovative protocols in place, students and teachers have continued the tasks of teaching and learning. The Azrieli Graduate School of Education of Yeshiva University has issued a series called The Azrieli Papers which focus on the ways in which COVID-19 generated an evaluation of Jewish education, including practices, theories and basic educational philosophies. The essays in this and the following two volumes seek answers to what we have learned in these difficult times and the educational opportunities we have uncovered.
Each essay starts with a discussion by educators “in the trenches”—sharing their experiences and thoughts. These reflections are then coupled with a parallel piece by an Azrieli or YU faculty member, offering their take as well as providing data, references and other materials to expand on the topic.
This first volume is about teaching and learning, i.e. the classroom experience for teachers and students. The first essay reflects the current interest in student-centered teaching and mentoring driven by COVID-19 which may achieve more prominence and acceptance in the future. Then, a team of educators from Yeshiva University High School for Girls shares the innovations engendered by their far-reaching flexibility, elaborated upon by an Azrieli expert in pedagogy. Then there is a discussion about rethinking assessment, and alternative models of evaluating student learning. Following that comes an article discussing the ways in which COVID-19 impacted tefillah and the implications for Jewish education.
We recognize the critical role of the teacher. Programmatic and professional development needs and opportunities are presented and discussed. We (should) acknowledge the passion of Jewish educators to inspire and connect with their students, despite the challenges presented. Exploring various thoughts on basic Jewish educational truths rounds out this series of 12 articles.
Combining practice and theory, front-line teachers and professors works. This kind of collaboration should continue. Coming soon, other volumes will address additional aspects of Jewish education.
The next volume will focus on leadership. It will deal with the unique issues confronting school principals and other school administrators, especially in a constantly shifting reality. The final volume in the series will contain essays on funding, families and community. It will explore the ways in which COVID-19 has changed how we visualize and fund Jewish education, and how we establish connections and relationships to families and communities.
The Azrieli faculty has observed the stress and the exhaustion as well as the dedication and creativity of our Jewish educators. Dean Rona Novick has dedicated this special volume of the Azrieli Papers to them.
“To every Jewish educator who Zoomed to their students, who masked or behind
partitions imparted words of Torah, who spent hours redesigning teaching and learning to meet ever changing needs, even as they struggled to meet their own needs and those of their families, we offer our admiration and our sincere thank you.”
There is no doubt that the creative efforts discussed in this volume—along with the multitude of innovations and bypasses during this past year—that were created and utilized by hundreds of Jewish educators in Jewish schools, will contribute to continued growth in the field. As we look back on these dark days and see this energy and passion, we can observe the true light Jewish education was, is and will always be.
Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a day school teacher, principal and administrator.