If there is anything I have learned working as a teacher in New York City during COVID-19, it is how vital Jewish education is. The school I teach in, the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School in Manhattan, performed phenomenally throughout this crisis, but we were not the only ones. Following Jewish day schools’ responses to the coronavirus compared to others, I am overwhelmed by how well day schools responded to the pandemic, and how indispensable their work is. Unquestionably, looking forward to September, many parents — and communities as a whole — will be doing worse than they were doing a year ago, something that will surely make Jewish education more difficult to pursue. And yet it is essential.
Here is the case for Jewish education during the age of the coronavirus:
My school’s last day of in-person school was March 5th, while New York City only made that decision beginning Monday, March 16th. When every day was a matter of life and death, Jewish day schools were making wise decisions early on. Having a child in a Jewish day school was saving families much risk. While public school teachers had to threaten with a strike before schools closed, Jewish day schools acted fast and in an informed manner.
It did not just begin there, though. A week before we started seeing cases in New York City, when so many were unsure of the nature of this virus, our school director, Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky, put several hand sanitizing stations at the entrance to the school and asked our security not to let anyone into the building unless they had undergone mandatory hand sanitizing. Elevators were disinfected several times a day, buttons were sanitized regularly, hand sanitizer stations around the building were multiplied and students were informed about cautionary measures they should be taking. Safety and our students’ wellbeing were our most important, and only, concern. Sending a child to a Jewish day school was turning out to be not only a matter of education but also of a safe and healthy environment.
By Wednesday, March 10th, we were having all our classes online. Since then, we have not missed a single day of school. Dedicated teachers worked overtime to adjust to online learning and stayed on the phone with one another until 11 PM figuring the various tricks and features out. Materials were put together to maximize online learning efficacy and standards. The benefit of this was multifold. As the world watched everything come to a grinding halt in horror, and as fear and uncertainty were rampant, our students had an anchor of stability, continuity and productivity even in the most chaotic of times.
Parents who suddenly needed to work from home could focus on work; their children were engaged in a full day of learning from 8:15 AM until 4 PM. And, of course, the most obvious benefit: students could progress with their studies and continue covering the curriculum, growing their minds. I can only speak to the specifics of my own school, but this was enacted by other Jewish day schools as well, to varying degrees.
In her must-read book, The Spiritual Child, Columbia University researcher Professor Lisa Miller highlights the critical role faith plays in a child’s life in reducing stress, anxiety, loneliness and suicidality by double digits — in some cases by more than 50 percent. As America faces tectonic shifts and uncertainty like we have not seen in more than a century, now more than ever is the time to give children the gift of stability, emotional health and a strong community; Jewish day schools are well positioned to provide exactly this structure and connection. When speaking to parents of Jewish day school kids during this time, I am constantly hearing, “Never before have I been so happy my child is in a Jewish day school.” Now more than ever is the time to fight for Jewish education.
However, with a grim economic forecast, many parents are finding themselves in a far worse financial situation than they have been last year, and day schools often aren’t cheap. Now is the time for schools, synagogues, federations, philanthropists, and communities to step forward to make our Jewish educational institutions our top priority. Schools must do more to accommodate families’ financial situations, philanthropists must prioritize Jewish education, federations must step in to support and parents must take an active role in advocating for the affordability of Jewish education.
A great example of success in this field is Maury Litwak and his team at Teach NYC, who have been lionhearted warriors in this field and have secured many millions of dollars in government funding for everything from food programs to STEM funding to iPads for students, all with unprecedented and unparalleled success.
Now is the time for school administrators to think harder than ever how to make their schools more competitive, relevant, and supportive than ever before. Jewish day schools must be the most appealing option by leaps and bounds, and parents must know they are getting the best education out there.
When my grandfather, Rabbi Bernard Poupko, met Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, she told him: “Next to the security and the support of the State of Israel, I consider the all-day Jewish school as the most vital concern of American Jews. Only this type of education can and will guarantee Jewish survival and Jewish continuity — without it our hopes are uncertain.”
In a time with so much uncertainty, we cannot allow ourselves to gamble with our most treasured future. Day schools have proven themselves overwhelmingly successful in dealing with a rapidly changing world and apocalyptic pandemic. Now more than ever is the time to make all-day Jewish schools our number one priority — for children’s sake, and for the future’s sake.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City and is the president of EITAN – The American-Israeli Jewish Network
This essay originally appeared in the Forward. To sign up for the Forward’s free email newsletter, click here.