When Temple Shaaray Tefila physically closed because of COVID-19, my first thought was, “I’ve never run an online school before. I don’t have expertise in that, and my teachers don’t, either.” I wondered what we were going to do to get the school online and successful, and get our students learning. How was that going to look?
By chance, the Religious School was scheduled to be on break right when Temple Shaaray Tefila closed its physical doors and our community moved online, so we had more than a week to prepare. We spent the first 10 or 12 days of quarantine learning how to use Zoom as an educational platform, giving our teachers every possible idea and option for what they might be able to do as online teachers. We trained them about anything we could possibly think of that they might need to know. Because we had time to prepare, we were in good shape to go live.
On March 22, a week before our Religious School online launch, we had a check-in with many of the students. The kids logged onto Zoom, and it was the first time we got to see their faces and hear their voices since we’d closed our physical doors. We asked every single student to tell us where they were, how they were doing, and to share something interesting or new they’d done since quarantine began. I had 75 or 80 kids who all shared something. To me, it felt like we were really on our way to creating what would be our new community online, instead of in person.
That first check-in call on March 22 was so sweet. For me, it was a highlight of the quarantine so far. Suddenly, we had a sense the kids were generally okay. Nobody had mentioned that anybody in their family was really sick. There was a lot of fear in those first weeks, because we didn’t know who might get sick. The kids were saying they were okay, and that their families were okay, and we felt so much relief.
As we logged on for our first class on March 29, I was shaking. I wondered what would happen, how it would go, and hoped the tech would work well. We had some glitches here and there, and we learned new things as we went, but every single session we’ve had now has gone better than the last one. Our kids are learning. They’re happy to see each other. And if this is the way they’re going to be able to see their temple friends, then at least they get to see their temple friends.
Our students need each other. They need reassurance that their community and their friends are still there. We’re providing a religious school experience with education, Hebrew, prayer and music, and all of that. But I really think the most important thing we’re doing is providing them with an opportunity to be with each other, to talk with each other, see each other, and hang out in a virtual space.
Here’s some exciting news: We’re planning to continue our virtual community opportunities even after May 17, when Religious School was originally scheduled to end. I did a little survey of the third, fourth, and fifth graders last week to ask them if they’d be interested in doing something like Fun & Games with Rabbi Sharon after Religious School is over, and so many kids said, “Yes, yes, yes!” It made me proud that they want to stay connected to their friends and their community. They know this is their reality for now, and they want to continue with their online community until we’ve closed this chapter of our history.
We might not be doing formal classes after school technically ends, but we’re going to continue to create opportunities for the kids to be in community with each other. We’re going to play games together, we’re going to sing songs and do story time and music, maybe an online scavenger hunt, or even Kahoot or Jeopardy. The kids won’t need to learn certain Hebrew vocabulary, or complete a project. Instead, we’re going to just create opportunities for connection so our students can see their friends and be together.
I do a service with the kindergarten, first, and second graders every Sunday morning, and now it’s on Zoom. I love it when littler kids are almost trying to reach through the screen to see and touch their good friends. They’re like, “Oh look, there’s Stephen!” or “Oh look, there’s Melissa!” and their faces just light up. It’s the best part of my week. Just being on Zoom all day could be exhausting, but when the kids are on, it’s so inspiring.
During these services, we do something called the “wow” moment, and I ask the kids to raise their hands and tell us something “wow” that happened to them in the past week. I get anything from, “I lost a tooth,” to “my grandma called,” “I had a birthday,” and things like that. But to me, to see those kids reflecting on what has been “wow” for them — it’s awesome. It blows my mind every week to hear how they are reflecting on this time.
One girl and her family left Manhattan to live with her grandparents on Long Island during quarantine, and she learned how to ride a bike out on the street in front of the house. She was so proud that she learned how to ride a bike, and she said, “I never would have been able to do that in New York City!” I just think it’s amazing that these kids are able to make lemonade out of all this. The resilience of these kids shines through all the time.
I hope all of our kids and their families are safe and happy when this is over. That’s the most important thing. I also hope our kids continue to feel connected to each other and their temple community. My staff and I are making every effort to help that happen. There’s no conflict with soccer practice or baseball or a concert or other things. Kids are signing on, and we’re having record attendance for every single class. I hope our time together is something that feels meaningful for our kids and their families.