Dr. Norma Brecker Blum of Paramus has an idea about how to make things better. And you could be part of it.
Dr. Blum, an organizational psychologist by trade, came to her idea out of her concern for Jewish education. As the pandemic sent students home for virtual classes, as parents lost their jobs in the pandemic depression, she realized that “We’re living in unprecedented, difficult times. The question that really frightened me is how are we going to continue jewish education? How are our children going to the core values that Jewish education gives them when the earth shifts underneath us? Are people going to be pulling their children from Jewish education?’
As she thought about the problems facing Jewish education, she also thought about the resources that are available but aren’t being used.
“We have a lot of people who can help support the Jewish educational system,” she said. “We have a lot of people who are not retired. We have people who have less to do because of what happened in the economy.”
Dr. Blum realized that these people — a group that includes her — can be a resource to help the students. “We can be a learning resource and help support them,” she said. “Parents are spread more thin. Students can use more support.”
Dr. Blum took her idea to Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, principal and head of school of the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, where two of her three children had studied. Together, they built the idea into what they’re calling the Jewish Educational Mentoring Alliance — JEMA is the inevitable acronym.
“The idea of JEMA is to pair a person in the community with a student at Yavneh, and help support them with tutoring or mentoring across a wide variety of subjects,” Dr. Blum said. “It could be a student whose parent has five children and can’t be there all the time to help. Or a student who doesn’t have parents around all the time, and it’s really nice for them to virtually do a FaceTime with an adult and say, ‘Do you want to look at my homework’ and have that sort of connection.
“I have five grandchildren. I see that children thrive on this one-to-one attention.
“With the support of the Yavneh teachers guiding us in terms of the curriculum and topics, with parent support in being able to connect with the students, students will thrive in this very difficult environment.”
Dr. Blum believes that this will help present Yavneh students — and help maintain Yavneh’s enrollment.
“In such turbulent times, there will be people who can’t always afford Jewish education, and who will say they have to pull their kids from the school,” she said. “I don’t want to lose a Jewish child. We need to rally as a community to keep kids in this Jewish world. If we can offer free tutoring as a free resource, it will help.”
The program began this week, as Yavneh announced it to its parent body, sending prospective tutors a link to sign up at an online form. They can choose what ages they would like to work with, what subjects they feel competent in, what times of day and days of week are good with them. Dr. Blum will lead a team to screen recruits.
“You can say you’re only going to teach math up to fifth grade. That’s fine. As a volunteer you’re allowed to say what you’re comfortable with.”
The tutoring, it almost but not quite goes without saying, will be virtual.
“The way I look at it is that it essential for schools to think creatively about other ways they can provide meaningful opportunities and services for families at this time,” Rabbi Knap said.
“The intergenerational piece is a win-win component. It’s tapping into the wisdom that exists in our community, allowing it to benefit the children in our community. People have so much untapped talent. If there’s a way to harness it for the benefit of the broader community, that’s an exceptional step for all of us.
“Professional tutors will continue to exist for those students who need more intensive academic support. This is not looking to supplant and replace those services,” he added.
Dr. Blum recently got a chance to bring up her idea with two friends she ran into on a walk.
“Both are actuaries,” she said. “One is retired; one is furloughed. They’re brilliant people, talented mathematically, who would be wonderful tutors. They were very excited. They said, ‘We’re bored out of our minds. We feel we’re locked out of what we can do and we’re looking for meaning.’
“We all want to add meaning to our lives. We want to think we add value and we want to do something valuable and future focused that gives our lives meaning. You can say you made a difference, you helped a kid feel better.
“I don’t think it gets to a higher level than that.”
To sign up for JEMA, go to bit.ly/YavnehJEMA.