Just before Rosh Hashanah, the heads of 23 yeshiva high schools around the United States and Canada — all of them leading schools that have reopened, at least partially — signed a letter that began by acknowledging the “sense of community and meaning” that in-person learning gives, and went on to urge readers to follow the guidelines meant to keep them safe, particularly over this month of holidays.
Those guidelines — none of them new or surprising, but all of them demanding repetition and adherence — include the mandate that gatherings are always to be masked, socially distant, outside, and small; that sleepovers are forbidden; that students remain in their own communities over the holidays, even for Simchat Torah, when that mandate will be particularly onerous, and that anyone under even precautionary quarantine must stay isolated.
Of the 23 schools represented in that letter, six are in northern New Jersey, others are across the Hudson but draw many students from this area, and even more are from the metropolitan area.
The letter mentions community, but talks about it as being more or less internal; the community, the source of meaning, friendship, learning, and love of Torah, is what students get in school. But in conversation, the local heads of school talk about how they see their schools as part of the larger community, and they define that community both narrowly and broadly. They see the actions of each part of the community as affecting the whole.
The letter at first was seen as being local, a logical continuation of a similar letter signed by heads of elementary and middle yeshiva day schools in north Jersey. But “the reason I not only signed it but pushed hard for it to be a North American initiative is because we want to be sure that we are open for in-person learning, and that is only possible if everyone is in it,” Rabbi Shlomo Adelman, who heads the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, said.
“We recognize that the best way to educate our students — academically, socially, emotionally — is if we are all in the building together. It is hard, with the pandemic swirling around us, so we have to all be in it together. It is critical that we take these actions so that we can stay open and educate our students in the most optimal way possible.
“We are all in this together. Obviously, for selfish reasons my concern is for TABC, but I also feel the power of numbers. If all the schools speak the same language, if we all agree that these guidelines are absolutely critical for all of us to follow if we are to stay open, then we are sending a powerful message as the community of yeshiva high schools.”
But it’s not as if TABC students — it’s an all-boys high school — live in a vacuum. They live in families — often with sisters, and with siblings who are not between 14 and 18 — and those families live in communities. “We have students who overlap with students in Frisch or Ma’ayanot,” Rabbi Adelman said. Beyond that, many local students go to school outside New Jersey — many go to SAR, and others to MTA, and others travel farther.
The letter’s “gotten a very positive reaction, at least from what I’ve been hearing,” Rabbi Adelman said.
TABC’s been doing fairly well, he said; the junior class will finish a quarantine on Friday, but no one’s been sick, and the grades are separated so thoroughly that the other grades remained unaffected. “Everyone thank God is okay,” Rabbi Adelman said. “And all of our teachers are in school. None of them are Zooming. And very few of the students are remote.
“Thank God,” he repeated.
CB Neugroschl is the head of school at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, also in Teaneck. “I think that there’s a huge investment, on the part of everybody in the community — schools, shuls, businesses — looking for how, in this new environment, we can really provide the fullest kind of experience that we need,” she said. “The schools really went to great lengths to put in safety protocols, and we realize that nothing that happens in a school really happens in a bubble. We felt that we should act in concert.”
Like Rabbi Adelman, Ms. Neugroschl is keenly aware of how much institutions intersect. “There really are very few barriers between one school and another,” she said. “In my own family, we have kids in three different schools right now, and I am in a fourth school. It is very important that parents and families see all the schools working together.
“We realize that free time for our teens is challenging, and it often is hard for them to make decisions consistently. But if I ever say, ‘Oh, I’m doing just this one thing’ — well, if everyone compromises on just one thing…”
School is going well so far, she said. “There is such an enthusiasm for being in school now. There’s all this energy there that had been missing for six months.”
She’d worried about how difficult it might be for her students to be masked constantly, but that worry was unnecessary, she learned. “It is becoming normal,” she said. “The reality is that the ability to be physically present is stronger. So wearing a mask is a little sweaty — it’s getting cooler out anyway.”
This is Ms. Neugroschl’s first year at Ma’ayanot; all the standard challenges of starting a new year as head of a new school are on steroids now, but she’s managing. “I’m just getting to know these kids, and I only see them masked, but I am recognizing them. I look, and I see eyes, and I think, ‘I know those eyes…’”
If there is any good to have come out of this pandemic, it is “that when you don’t have something for a while, you realize how much you took it for granted,” Ms. Neugroschl said. “School is very regulated now, and still the kids are happy to be here. They want to be in school, even wearing a mask, even taking their temperature every morning. It’s getting colder, but they don’t mind being outside. It’s thrilling. These kids want to be in school.
“We’re very lucky to have the resources and the support to put these measures in place, and to be able to be in school,” she added. “Everyone is working very hard; we have really important partnerships. And our kids are very lucky to have the opportunity to learn in person.”
Tikvah Wiener heads the Idea School in Tenafly; it’s a co-ed high school. “It’s amazing to be back in school in person,” she said. “Everyone wants to be back in school in person, and there is no question that the only way we can do it is if we don’t have covid in the school. Everyone has determined what the level of covid in the school can be; for us, as a small school, if one person in our school tests positive, we shut down 14 days, and possibly longer.
“We are trying to pre-empt that. There obviously are no guarantees, but we do know how important masking and social distancing are. They drastically reduce the spread of the virus.
“I feel that this letter, and the way the community has responded to the epidemic, show the positive power of faith-based communities,” Ms. Wiener continued. “We saw where the scientific evidence was and we shut down early on, before the state shut down.
“Not just the high school principals, but also the elementary school principals pushed for it early in March. The RCBC” — that’s the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the Orthodox group that has been active from early in the pandemic, far before almost any other group, in advising its members to follow the science, first mandating that they shut down their institutions and then advising a very slow, careful, and thoughtful reopening — “pushed, and we all shut down as a community.
“It really was the best example of a faith community using the scientific evidence and activating the community, because we are so closely bonded to each other — and taking action to keep us safe.”
It’s hard to follow the guidelines, Ms. Wiener acknowledged, but it’s necessary. “We have gotten used to the routine of being in school, but it might be that over the holidays, our natural inclination is to socialize. It’s hard to spend the yamim noraim” — the holidays — in isolation.
“We all want to be with our friends and families. It feels very counterintuitive and unnatural to continue to isolate ourselves in this way, but if we do not, it will not be good for us, for the community, the state, the country, or the world. And we will have to close our schools again.
“Every day is a gift,” she concluded.
Rabbi Eliezer Rubin is the head of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School.
“One of the unexpected outcomes of the coronavirus was its unifying effect,” Rabbi Rubin said. “Our school communities made a joint statement and put a lot of emphasis on the common responsibility that we all share, and the commitment that we have to make to one another. Since safe practices of infection control are all about how we relate to one another, that letter, signed internationally, underscores our responsibility as a greater community
“The Jewish community is unique because it has no borders,” he continued. “The schools may be in a limited geographic area, but students’ and families’ social reach is much broader. The way students and family behave in one town can have a significant effect on students and families in other towns.”
We should learn from very recent history. “Just as the numbers of cases in New Jersey and New York have declined somewhat, and the immediate panic is not in the air, we still are not out of the woods. We have been seeing in colleges, and in Israel, how our use of time and resources and energy can be undermined by the actions of just a few people. So we are concerned.”
It took just about a week for the letter to be written, circulated, signed, and released; had there been more time, more heads of school would have signed on, Rabbi Rubin said; it’s been signed only by Orthodox institutions because those schools are closely networked through sports and academic competitions and gap year programs and legislative concerns, but all Jewish schools would have been welcomed, had there been enough time to find them. Their absence among the signers “was not exclusion,” Rabbi Rubin said. “It’s just our universe.”
In fact, he added, the letter “really does demonstrate what we always knew, that the Jewish community is completely interdependent and interconnected. That is what gives us our strength and vibrancy. Our individual schools — all of them — are part of a larger universe of Judaism.”
Kushner’s been doing fairly well so far, Rabbi Rubin said; “fortunately, in August we just finished a 10-year capital campaign to enhance the campus with a six-acre recreation field.” That allowed the school to buy tents and canopies and set them up outside; if necessary, the whole school can fit there.
“We also initiated something that’s unique not only in the yeshiva world, but in the university and public school world too. We have initiated a population pool testing.” That’s when groups of swabs are combined and then tested. If no one who contributed to that group is infected, the entire test comes up clean; that saves the time and money necessary to do all those individual tests. If one person is positive, the testing shows it, and then all the people in that group are retested individually. It works efficiently in places where the infection rate is low.
“We are screening all the pods in the school Mondays and Wednesdays, by pod,” Rabbi Rubin said. The pods are classes. “All the teachers who aren’t in a class then come to the testing area.
“That won’t eliminate the threat, but it will limit the exposure.”
So how is the school doing so far? Rabbi Rubin paused and sighed. “It’s like being on the Cross Bronx,” he said. That so-called expressway is rutted and in a constant state of ill repair. It’s always clogged with trucks, and many of them shed tires and mufflers as they thud into potholes. Tailgating is as frequent — and arguably as necessary — as breathing. Accidents are frequent; you never know when the huge tractor-trailer just in front of you might stop dead.
But it does take you where you’re going. By far most of the time, with a combination of skill and luck — never underestimate the importance of luck on the Cross Bronx — you’ll get where you’re going, and you’ll be in one piece. But you must never ever stop paying focused unblinking attention on what you’re doing.
That’s the rule for behavior during covid, Rabbi Rubin said. Pay very close attention to the rules, do it right, understand that it might not work out anyway, and keep going.
As they head into Yom Kippur, then Sukkot, and end with what normally is the in-person exuberance of Simchat Torah, school leaders hope that if everyone follows the rules, they’ll be able to keep up the in-person education that furthers community.