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  • Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy

The Need For Jewish Educational Continuity

Hebrew has two ways of posing one of the most basic questions we can ask – “why?”  One is מדוע  (madua) and the other is למה (lama). Madua, shares the same root as the word for “science,” implying a more empirical response. Lama, can be read as ל-מה  (l’ma) – towards what end, asking what we are meant to learn from that which we are asking about.


During the COVID-19 crisis, public health officials are crucially asking the first question: madua? They seek to understand the cause of the virus in order to slow its spread, develop a vaccine, and prevent its recurrence. This is the essential first response.


However, while living with this different reality, many who are not healthcare workers cannot help but ask the second question: lama? What lessons can we learn from this pandemic? While not a reason for the occurrence, is there some collective meaning we can take away which will serve us beyond these uncertain times?


On an individual level, I have seen quite clearly how much I take for granted: the joy of human interaction, the freedom to travel; even the little things like routine meetings, playing with the family in parks, and spontaneous visits to and by friends. I have come to realize the incalculable value of human connection.


Our children are learning a similar lesson about shared experience. School by Zoom is fine... for a short period, but it is no replacement for the close personal attention that educators and peer interactions provide in real school. Nothing can take the place of genuine eye contact, an encouraging high-five or warm greetings and conversations between classes in the halls and during recess.


How does this moral apply on the level of our Jewish community? Here too, we know that human connection and shared experiences are the basis of transformative education and encounters.


Countless studies have shown that day schools, youth groups, service-learning programs, summer camp, and peer trips to Israel play a vital role in helping teens strengthen their Jewish identities, build their Jewish knowledge base, forge connections with peers, and develop a lasting relationship with the Jewish people and Israel.  All of this takes place at a formative time in a child’s development – and at a time when Jewish engagement can otherwise be in decline. 


Today, forced isolation is strangling much of this activity. The privileged minority who have had these experiences know the acute toll that COVID-19 will take as this summer passes and can never return.

So, how do we use this time to lay the groundwork so that all Jewish teens have the opportunity to engage through meaningful experiences in their local communities, immerse through summer camps and service programs, or travel to Israel as adolescents? How do we ensure that these encounters become a rite of passage at an earlier stage for more and more? And how do we help parents prioritize these experiences knowing the robust pace and multiple obligations in teens’ schedules today? 


Continuum. The Jewish world needs to think and act through the framework of a continuum.  Single, one-off, and stand-alone experiences have value, but a continuum of experiences is far greater than one-offs or even the sum of its parts.


For example, teen travel to Israel cannot be thought of only as a multi-week journey, but rather as a year-plus experience with programming and education leading up to and following the meaningful time spent in Israel. Teens will be better prepared prior to the experience so that they appreciate the beauty, vibrancy, and complexity of our homeland when they are in Israel, deepening its place in their own lives.


And this deeper Israel experience needs to also fit into a larger context that includes youth activities, summer camp, service-learning trips, and more. With this broader approach, there needs to be seamless connections before, during, and after each opportunity, viewing them as an end in and of themselves as well as a means or stepping-stone to the next experience.


There are those in the Jewish world who are thinking along the lines of a continuum approach, and we want to foster and deepen this dialogue. With the reflection opportunity and inflection point that COVID-19 has provided, now is the time to think how we can rapidly multiply the number of young Jews enjoying these milestone, immersive experiences in the fullest and most interconnected way. We need to leverage our collective financial resources, expertise, and wisdom to ensure today’s teens have the opportunity to encounter Jewish living authentically before early adulthood.


As public health officials and citizens join together to preserve life, I believe one of our sacred tasks is to introspect and salvage lessons rather than letting them, like time, pass us by. For what higher purpose, l’ma, can we use this unprecedented time for Jewish immersive experiences? Less young people will be traveling to Israel, going to camp, or engaging in communal experiences this year than ever before in our lifetime. We must consider how to marshal the necessary resources so that immersive educational experiences are a natural part of every Jewish teenager’s formative development. This is one idea we can prepare for, so that when COVID-19 is history we have prepared for our destiny.Hebrew has two ways of posing one of the most basic questions we can ask – “why?”  One is מדוע  (madua) and the other is למה (lama). Madua, shares the same root as the word for “science,” implying a more empirical response. Lama, can be read as ל-מה  (l’ma) – towards what end, asking what we are meant to learn from that which we are asking about.


During the COVID-19 crisis, public health officials are crucially asking the first question: madua? They seek to understand the cause of the virus in order to slow its spread, develop a vaccine, and prevent its recurrence. This is the essential first response.


However, while living with this different reality, many who are not healthcare workers cannot help but ask the second question: lama? What lessons can we learn from this pandemic? While not a reason for the occurrence, is there some collective meaning we can take away which will serve us beyond these uncertain times?


On an individual level, I have seen quite clearly how much I take for granted: the joy of human interaction, the freedom to travel; even the little things like routine meetings, playing with the family in parks, and spontaneous visits to and by friends. I have come to realize the incalculable value of human connection.


Our children are learning a similar lesson about shared experience. School by Zoom is fine... for a short period, but it is no replacement for the close personal attention that educators and peer interactions provide in real school. Nothing can take the place of genuine eye contact, an encouraging high-five or warm greetings and conversations between classes in the halls and during recess.


How does this moral apply on the level of our Jewish community? Here too, we know that human connection and shared experiences are the basis of transformative education and encounters.


Countless studies have shown that day schools, youth groups, service-learning programs, summer camp, and peer trips to Israel play a vital role in helping teens strengthen their Jewish identities, build their Jewish knowledge base, forge connections with peers, and develop a lasting relationship with the Jewish people and Israel.  All of this takes place at a formative time in a child’s development – and at a time when Jewish engagement can otherwise be in decline. 


Today, forced isolation is strangling much of this activity. The privileged minority who have had these experiences know the acute toll that COVID-19 will take as this summer passes and can never return.

So, how do we use this time to lay the groundwork so that all Jewish teens have the opportunity to engage through meaningful experiences in their local communities, immerse through summer camps and service programs, or travel to Israel as adolescents? How do we ensure that these encounters become a rite of passage at an earlier stage for more and more? And how do we help parents prioritize these experiences knowing the robust pace and multiple obligations in teens’ schedules today? 


Continuum. The Jewish world needs to think and act through the framework of a continuum.  Single, one-off, and stand-alone experiences have value, but a continuum of experiences is far greater than one-offs or even the sum of its parts.


For example, teen travel to Israel cannot be thought of only as a multi-week journey, but rather as a year-plus experience with programming and education leading up to and following the meaningful time spent in Israel. Teens will be better prepared prior to the experience so that they appreciate the beauty, vibrancy, and complexity of our homeland when they are in Israel, deepening its place in their own lives.


And this deeper Israel experience needs to also fit into a larger context that includes youth activities, summer camp, service-learning trips, and more. With this broader approach, there needs to be seamless connections before, during, and after each opportunity, viewing them as an end in and of themselves as well as a means or stepping-stone to the next experience.


There are those in the Jewish world who are thinking along the lines of a continuum approach, and we want to foster and deepen this dialogue. With the reflection opportunity and inflection point that COVID-19 has provided, now is the time to think how we can rapidly multiply the number of young Jews enjoying these milestone, immersive experiences in the fullest and most interconnected way. We need to leverage our collective financial resources, expertise, and wisdom to ensure today’s teens have the opportunity to encounter Jewish living authentically before early adulthood.


As public health officials and citizens join together to preserve life, I believe one of our sacred tasks is to introspect and salvage lessons rather than letting them, like time, pass us by. For what higher purpose, l’ma, can we use this unprecedented time for Jewish immersive experiences? Less young people will be traveling to Israel, going to camp, or engaging in communal experiences this year than ever before in our lifetime. We must consider how to marshal the necessary resources so that immersive educational experiences are a natural part of every Jewish teenager’s formative development. This is one idea we can prepare for, so that when COVID-19 is history we have prepared for our destiny.






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