Thursday, June 24, 2021

Last year, in the pre-COVID-19 times, I vividly remember sitting in a leadership team meeting discussing an upcoming yeshiva shabbaton. We were into the second hour of our discussion, wrestling with such minutiae as the Shabbat lunch table arrangements, tish song lists and which ice breaker activities the freshmen should experience. I asked my colleagues: “Can you imagine when we were in high school, if our administrators and rebbeim would sit for hours on end planning and debating just so that we would be happy and have a good time?” We all chuckled.

Yeshiva high school has certainly changed over the years. It’s not that our own school leaders didn’t care about us. They loved us deeply and were invested in our growth. But the idea that school should be a place that was also fun, where a myriad of leadership opportunities awaited each student, was not the norm.

While we are incredibly proud of the variety and scope of the student activity offerings at MTA, some might ask the question: Why? Why do we invest so much time and resources into items that are not part of the regular educational curriculum, and indeed some items that are not even educational at all in the traditional sense of the word? After all, these are serious times, and competition for college spots, honors programs and university scholarship dollars are fierce. Shouldn’t we stay in our lane and just focus on the curriculum? Not to mention those extracurricular costs that add up in the budget and make tuition an even bigger strain on our families?

Of course, there are numerous well thought out reasons for why we invest in student programs the way we do. A line item in a budget is a statement of values, and we feel passionately that student activities are a crucial element of our program. First and foremost, when our kids find their passion, that activity, skill or program that really speaks to them, it often creates a “halo effect” of sorts, in which shining at Model U.N. can translate into a more energized and enhanced investment in every other aspect of one’s yeshiva experience, including educational and spiritual growth.

Additionally, extracurricular programs serve a vital purpose in bringing talmidim together around shared interests. We serve 12 distinct communities in the tri-state area, not to mention our talmidim from all over the world, and the opportunity to work together on the robotics team or in the photography club provides a setting for new friendships to flourish. Student activities likewise provide a low stakes training ground for our talmidim to practice leadership skills like consensus building and goal setting, which will prove vital in successfully navigating adulthood. Finally, we firmly believe that a yeshiva high school in 2020 must serve as a second home for its talmidim. Our boys spend more waking hours in yeshiva than at home, and creating an environment that is fun, exciting and warm is crucial.

Back in March, as we joined the rest of the world in a rapid pivot toward operating remotely, I shared some reflections on how our yeshiva had adapted to the pandemic. While most of those changes focused on simply ensuring the daily functioning and educational rigor of our yeshiva in a remote learning environment, what followed was a redoubling of our efforts to continue extracurricular programming for our student body that was fun and engaging. From Zoom grade trivia nights to special online workshops with entrepreneurs and community leaders, from an online senior dinner to what was perhaps our most successful Color War ever, we maintained our commitment to programming even when we could not be together. And now, as we have been blessed to be able to resume learning in person this year, we have continued to push forward with our student activities. The restrictions are, of course, always present, and literally every program we run requires significant adjustments in order to ensure the safety of our talmidim and staff. But despite the hardships, our passion for student programming has remained. This, of course, reflects the clarity of our mission and the desire to continue to advance the goals outlined above. But we have also discovered that in the age of corona, our programs carry so much more weight.

Here’s why:

1) A sense of normalcy: Besides the obvious and terrible loss of life and health brought on by the pandemic, many of our kids have spent time over the last nine months mourning the loss of normal life they previously enjoyed. We as adults may view the return to the classroom as a crucial step towards normalcy. However, from our kids’ perspective, things can only start to feel normal when they can hang out with friends and enjoy doing things together, when they can simply be kids.

When we can create a grade night in yeshiva with activities such as “Glow in the Dark Dodgeball,” cholent making contests, and Madden tournaments, even while masked and distanced, our kids can start to feel a little bit normal again, and it allows us as an institution to make the powerful statement about how much we value our students’ right to a return to normalcy. Our incredibly creative and indefatigable Director of Student Activities Rabbi Danny Konigsberg recently shared with me that our students have been approaching him in his office asking if we doubled or tripled our student activity budget this year, as there have been so many programs happening. The truth is that we haven’t. But in being creative in trying to bring a wide variety of programs precisely because of the challenges wrought by COVID, we are pleased to be able to demonstrate this value that we share.

2) Partnership: At this stage of the pandemic, even the most compliant rule followers are experiencing some form of “COVID-19 fatigue.” Mask wearing, the constant reminder to distance, daily shifts in schedules and locations, all of these changes are exhausting. When there is a concerted effort to continue to make school fun, whether it is a lunch time yeshiva-wide knock hockey tournament, a gradewide trip to Top Golf, or the introduction of guest DJ Music Mondays, our boys appreciate that while we obviously follow our medical guidelines for everyone’s safety, we are not just about rules. We are invested in our talmidim and in their ability to experience warmth and fun in their home away from home. This builds trust among our talmidim, and in doing so, makes the hard experience of “COVID rules” that much easier, while creating a true sense of partnership and feeling that we are all in this together as one yeshiva.

3) Attitude of gratitude: A general trend that has emerged during the pandemic is a sense of appreciation for the things that we may have taken for granted before. Student activities are no exception, and we have noticed sky high levels of gratitude among our talmidim. Whether it’s the many emails from students and parents thanking us after another exciting event, or even the outstanding attendance at so many of our programs that run outside of regular yeshiva hours when kids could otherwise go home, there is an enhanced sense of gratitude and appreciation that has become part of our culture.

4) With constraints comes innovation: One of the most challenging parts of school administration during corona is that there seems to be restrictions on everything. There is literally nothing that we run that has not had to be retooled in some way in order to comply with vital safety regulations. While conventional wisdom might point to decreased creativity as a result, we observed a phenomenon that was described in Harvard Business Review (Nov. 22, 2019): “When there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path of least-resistance–they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas. Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or business processes.”

Our student leaders have responded to the restrictions by doubling down on enthusiasm and creative problem solving. Whereas in the past there may have been more of a reliance on the direction of the staff, our students have now stepped up even more. They have worked tirelessly to reimagine what it means to meet as a club during corona, helped plan trips and have even come up with new games (ask your local MTA student about corona roller hockey). While the pandemic will, God willing, eventually come to an end, we know that our commitment to student programming as a vital part of our yeshiva experience will continue.

Rabbi Dov Emerson is the director of teaching and learning at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA). Dov can be reached via email at [email protected] and on Twitter @dovemerson.

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