Congregations adapt to the pandemic to ensure young people can grow and thrive Jewishly.
Drive-in Havdalah. Programs in the park and on driveways. Teaching in tents. Camp-style learning in an actual camp.
Detroit’s religious school educators are pulling out the stops on creativity to engage their students in the age of COVID. While several have opted for all-virtual programming, others took advantage of Michigan’s mild autumn weather by holding classes and other educational programs outdoors as long as they could.
Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy has gone primarily online but kicked off its school year with an in-person, drive-in-style Havdalah program with camp crafts and songs. The program also gave the community a good opportunity to meet their new rabbi, Alicia Harris, in person.
Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield used its spacious outdoor William Saulson Pavilion for several pop-up programs, with participants appropriately distanced.
Temple Israel in West Bloomfield put up a large tent over the summer and planned to use it through October. “Students and parents were thrilled that we were offering safe options to be together in person, and everyone was so happy to see one another,” said Rabbi Arianna Gordon, director of education and lifelong learning.
In the JEMS (Jewish Education Matters) program at The Shul in West Bloomfield, instructors visited pods of children on their home driveways, with lessons that engaged the whole family.
Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield was one of several schools that offered families a choice of in-person and online programs. For the in-person programs, they used the fields and shelters at the Jewish Community Center day camp.
“A number of years ago, we moved to a camp-style model of programming. Walking down the gravel road at the JCC has made our program feel even more like being at camp,” said Rabbi Daniel A. Schwartz, who expects the outdoor programming to continue until Thanksgiving and then start up again in early March.
Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township offered families a choice of weekly online sessions or a series of six in-person workshops held outdoors under a tent. Students can choose to enroll in both tracks. “The in-person programs have been more popular, especially since so many of our students began the year doing their secular schooling exclusively online,” said Deborah Morosohk, director of education. More than a few have chosen to do both the virtual and in-person programs.
Like public and private schools, religious schools had to scramble when COVID shut down all but the most essential services in the state in mid-March. Administrators and faculty started planning then for what they would do this year.
Yachad, the joint school for Congregation Beth Shalom and Temple Emanu-El, both in Oak Park, decided to delay the start of the school year so that families could settle into their new secular school routines. The school offers two options, one with Zoom classes and one where students learn in small pods, said Abi Taylor-Abt, educator rabbi.
Melissa Ser, director of education at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, said she started working with her faculty in mid-June to develop best practices for online teaching. Administrators opted for online-only classes after realizing their students came from more than 50 different schools, making the potential for community spread by meeting in person just too high.
Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield started planning in spring and initially developed a hybrid program, with learning online on Wednesdays and in person on Sundays. “In light of changes with COVID numbers and decisions by local school districts, we then chose to be totally online,” said Gail Greenberg, director of lifelong learning.
Greenberg is also educator director at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield, which is continuing its program of individualized learning for students and their families — only now, all sessions are online. Saturday morning classes at the synagogue have been canceled for now.
Aiding Schools and Teachers
Schools have been helped by support from the Hermelin Davidson Center for Congregation Excellence, which set aside $100,000 to help congregational schools adapt to the new COVID reality.
The center paid for all members of the Metro Detroit Board of Jewish Educators to attend the month-long virtual NewCAJE conference for Jewish educators over the summer. The Hermelin Davidson Center also awarded technology grants of up to $550 per congregational classroom to help schools cover the cost of computers, software, subscriptions and learning platform memberships, said Brian Rothenberg, director of planning and agency relations for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
Professional development for religious school educators this year has focused on technology, especially getting teachers familiar with new platforms and apps. “An educator cannot simply teach how they taught last year, just on Zoom,” said Lisa Soble Siegmann, senior director of development, innovation, collaboration and education at the Jewish Community Center.
Curricula, whether in person or online, are flexible, with students, and often their families as well, having choices about subjects ranging from prayer and holiday observance to Jewish history, Jewish values, social justice and community service, Israel, art, music and more. Several of the schools, including Shaarey Zedek, Shir Shalom, Temple Israel and Yachad, offer one-on-one instruction, especially in Hebrew language, in addition to group programs.
Overall enrollment has slipped a bit since last year, but many schools reported new registrations well into October.
“Pandemic or not, our children still need to learn, grow and thrive Jewishly. Pandemic or not, directors and educators have learned how to pivot to meet the needs of their students,” Siegmann said.