Opening Shul Youth Programs During COVID

One of the more challenging decisions that a shul faces at this time is what to do about its youth program.  I think most people in our community understand that our children attending Yeshiva day school in-person is an essential activity.  Therefore, we are committed to safely try to ensure that school operate in a safe manner and we feel that the advantages of opening schools outweigh the risks.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen an uptick in COVID cases in local communities and we have witnessed numerous school closings and grade closings within various schools.  At the same time, we persevere as we try to ensure that the students follow the social distancing rules so that schools can remain open.

A shul youth program obviously is not as significant as a school.  Some have argued that shul youth programs should remain closed until after the pandemic is effectively over and certainly not during an uptick.  I understand the fear and the anxiety.  A complete assessment of all the risks is beyond the purview of this article.  However, any discussion must start with an understanding of what there is to gain by finding ways to safely bring our children to shul.

This past Shabbat, we held our first junior congregation/teen minyan in six months and I delivered “Shabbat Shuvah” drashot to the 6th-8th graders and high schoolers separately in the afternoon.  All of these programs were done safely, with all parents and kids at the minyan and all kids at the afternoon drashot sitting socially distanced from each other and masked.  I believe that not only was it great to have kids see other kids in a shul setting from a social perspective, but I believe that the youth who attend shul during this pandemic can gain what many adults have gained throughout this pandemic at shul.

I have posted previously that these months of socially distanced tefilla is a tremendous opportunity to focus only on our relationship with davening.  There are no kiddushim.  There is no socializing.  You just go to shul, daven, hear a drasha and go home.  A number of people have told me that over these past few months they have witnessed a change in the culture of tefilla in our community.  Yes, some people who are more interested in the social aspect of the shul don’t feel that shul davening during COVID speaks to them.  However, for many people, there is a greater appreciation and seriousness for tefillah and tefillah b’tzibbur.  This reminds me of the year in Israel phenomenon.  Why do so many kids “flip out” in Israel?  I believe that one primary cause is that they are placed in an environment with little distractions other than Torah.  After experiencing this new Torah environment for a few months, they find this new lifestyle deeply satisfying and they develop an interest in spiritual growth and increased Talmud Torah.  Of course, we hope that students maintain that feeling even after a year or two of study in Israel.  Similarly, we hope that the culture of increased seriousness and focus in our shuls that currently exists will continue even post-pandemic.

I think we can do the same thing with our kids.  Many kids associate their simcha, their joy in shul with receiving candy from the candymen, playing games and socializing.  It’s all good.  However, as Rav Soloveitchik pointed out, true Simcha is “lifnei Hashem,” when we feel that we are in the presence of God, in the Beit Hamikdash.  Now during the pandemic, we can create the same atmosphere of real “Simcha” in our Mikdash Me’at, in shul.  Having learning opportunities and minyanim for our children in a safe manner in effect creates an environment where our children associate shul as a true Mikdash Me’at, a place of tremendous spiritual growth.  Instead of a Sukkah hop this year, we plan to send our children with their parents to individual homes of homebound people to greet them and wish them a good Yom Tov.  We want our children to associate shul with chesed, as well.

We must remain vigilant in ensuring that we don’t let our guard down in our fight against COVID and we must continue to practice social distancing and masking.  Additionally, those who do not feel comfortable sending their children to shul for health reasons are certainly justified.  Nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable if they would rather stay at home than go to shul.  But make no mistake about it.  This time in which we find ourselves is a golden opportunity for a paradigm shift for how we view shul – for men, for women and I would argue for our children, as well.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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