Todd Berman

The Jewish educational miracle of 5781

Nachmanides divides miracles into two categories: great public ones and those that occur in our everyday lives. Public displays of Divine providence such as the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and the theophany at Mt. Sinai function as symbols of the more mundane constant miracles of life itself. I would add to his formulation a third category – the miracles we make happen. Indeed, this year, the Jewish educational world gathered to create, with the help of God and the various branches of governments and health professionals, a miracle of our own.

COVID restrictions and an expired passport prevented my regular trips abroad to various countries. During a typical year, I visit high schools, college campuses, and meet with rabbis and educators recruiting, raising funds, and meeting with alumni and rabbinic colleagues. The inability to travel limited the scope of my knowledge to what I gathered through news outlets, social media, and of course, Zoom.

Many colleges in the US often moved to online courses, and many public schools could not host in-person classes. I know that many Jewish schools throughout the US enabled students to learn live. The financial and emotional energy of Jewish teachers and administrators changed the paradigm. As noted in numerous publications, instead of seeing a decrease in enrolment, Jewish schools saw an increase in attendance. If we can find a silver lining to the horrendous pandemic, Jewish education experienced an unexpected bump. I often spoke with senior administrators of New York area Yeshiva High Schools. Despite what many believe to be a failure of leadership on the local and state level, they worked tirelessly to keep the flame of Jewish education burning.

Many worried that Jewish institutions would collapse during the pandemic. Yet funders and foundations pulled their ever-dwindling resources to offer emergency funding to non-profit. Not only did institutions stabilize, but they grew and increased programming. Increased funding and hard work enabled more people than ever before to access Jewish programs, online synagogue events, and to participate in Jewish education. A veritable online Jewish renaissance took place under the dark shadow of the pandemic.

Israeli Gap-Year programs remain my primary experience and vantage point. In the humblest of terms, we rocked it! Last March, COVID forced many of the Israeli programs catering to students from outside Israel to close. Like our counterparts in other countries, we did our best to create large online footprints and offer a maximum of content. Often, educators taught without being paid by their host institutions. The pandemic and loss of revenue by various funding streams, including the Israeli government, forced us to lay off our entire faculties temporarily. Teachers felt a sense of obligation to the students who returned home and were often locked in their homes. We volunteered to teach even late in the night or early in the morning here in Israel. Educators infused with a deep sense of purpose offered courses around the clock to enable students throughout the world the opportunity to continue their Jewish education.

By mid-summer, we lacked guarantees that we could re-open our doors. The Israeli government vacillated on whether it would allow international students to enter the country. We did not know if the extra funding needed to pay for quarantine and physical changes would arrive. Parents became nervous and asked for assurances that we would begin classes on time. Even the airlines were unsure if they would be able to fly our students to Israel. By the end of July, we still did not know. We planned, worked, and prayed to be able to offer the best Jewish educational program possible. And we succeeded!

The Israeli government invested in ways to ensure public health safety. We invested in hiring medical and mental health professionals to support our students throughout the challenging year. New joint organizations galvanized to help navigate ever-changing medical rules and realities. Legacy Jewish organizations such as World Mizrachi and MASA suddenly became involved in working out student Visas. The mechanics of bringing students to Israel in a safe way were simply colossal. Fundraisers went into overdrive to help cover added costs.

Masked students and faculty at the beginning of the year.

Yeshivot, seminaries, and other Gap Year program facilities had to be physically changed. We built partitions out of plastic and wood to separate students and teachers. Older, more vulnerable faculty prepared to remain in their homes and teach online, if at all. We prepared for quarantines and possible outbreaks. We needed to think about offering new types of exciting programs when visitations of religious sites such as the Kotel (Western Wall) and hikes would be impossible. We learned to be flexible and change routines developed over the years. We even approached alumni and friends to pitch in during the year. And we prayed for a vaccine.

In the end, the students arrived, and the educators went into overdrive. Vacations and free Shabbatot typically punctuate the calendar; this year, faculty remained to teach, giving our students the support they needed. Students remained on campus for the holidays and almost every Shabbat and the Yeshivot had to cover the additional, significant cost. Because travel was impossible, fundraising and recruiting happened online. The inability to travel offered the benefit that educators and administrators remained in Israel to be present for our students in an unprecedented manner. Whereas universities worldwide often offered courses online (while retaining high tuitions), we Jewish educators increased live classes. We logged more face-to-face hours with our students than ever before.

Eretz HaTzvi, remains one of the few to have had no cases of COVID and no faculty or students who tested positive for the virus. A combination of strict precautions, following medical advice, and Divine help allowed us to remain COVID-free the entire year.

To be sure, despite incredible efforts, COVID took a toll on many institutions. Many yeshivas and seminaries had to deal with sick students and faculty. Those programs where infections occurred worked tirelessly to manage the multiple health concerns, and they did so valiantly. My yeshiva, Eretz HaTzvi, remains one of the few to have had no cases of COVID and no faculty or students who tested positive for the virus. A combination of strict precautions, following medical advice, and Divine help allowed us to remain COVID-free the entire year. We take pride in our faculty and students’ adherence to our zealous precautions. We had excellent medical and mental health professionals on-staff and on-call who helped us navigate this perilous year. Every institution, teacher, and administrator deserves recognition for balancing a robust Jewish educational program and Israel experience with the complexity of running an institution during a pandemic.

By mid-year, Israel offered vaccines quicker than any other country. By March, most of our students and faculty members already had two vaccinations. Ironically, had our students remained in their host countries, they would not have received vaccines as soon as they did.

After the Passover break, enabled by the success of Israel’s vaccination program, we crammed in many of the trips that would have usually occurred throughout the year. The calamity in Meron on Lag BaOmer and the fighting surrounding Yom Yerushalayim at the end of Ramadan challenged us just as we thought we could catch our breath. With the tragic deaths in Meron and during the battles between Israel and Hamas, we tried our best to help our students cope with events. This year has been an emotional rollercoaster.

By the end of the year, everyone was vaccinated.

With the arrival of June, thousands of students are returning to their home countries. They are vaccinated, experienced a productive yet emotionally charged year, and learned Torah in a manner that learning through a computer screen cannot duplicate.

Every educator, administrator, donor, and believer in the Jewish educational project which triumphed this year deserves appreciation. This year was truly a miracle that the entire Jewish community and Israeli community made happen.

With thanks to the Divine, we look forward to seeing the fruits of this labor of love come to fruition in the years to come.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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