Director’s Reflection: Building Jewish Identities In Our Virtual World

headshot of Stephanie Tankel

For the first time in the history of Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Religious School, none of our students and teachers are gathering to learn in person. There are no rooms to set up or special treats to distribute as families enter or leave the building. We really miss seeing people each week – spotting new haircuts, braces coming on and off, or growth that happened over the summer. As a huge lover of animals of all types, I also miss greeting pets at drop-off and pick-up. There is so much that is new, difficult, and challenging this year.

And yet, our core mission remains steadfast: to help each child build a Jewish identity. We believe that Judaism can and does imbue our lives with meaning. We believe that community shows up even when that means logging into Zoom. We know that milestones should always be honored and celebrated. We believe that learning can happen in creative, exciting, and meaningful ways. We know that Judaism’s role—Washington Hebrew Congregation’s role—is to help us face life with resilience, strength, and heart. Our tradition empowers us with a long history of overcoming adversity. With dedication, we can do hard things.

In Hebrew, “Hanukkah” and chinuch (education) have the same root. Both are connected to the idea of dedication. In the instance of Hanukkah, they reference the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

We are profoundly grateful and proud that our Religious School faculty exemplify the meaning of dedication. Faced with buckets of lemons (etrogs?), we wanted this year to be a time of delicious lemonade—if at all possible—and created a model driven by the desire to give students and faculty choice. At a time when it feels like everything is out of control, we want Judaism to offer comfort. To accomplish this, we invited Religious School faculty to dream up unique electives reflecting their passions. Without the confines of separate campuses and grades, so many opportunities were opened. Right away, their ideas for electives began to flow: cooking classes that made treats from around the world; using your voice to advocate for others; doodling to meditate and reflect; comic books; tours of Israel; art classes with meticulously assembled kits; Jewish humor … The list went on and on. Our faculty showed up with brilliant and compelling ideas, and families signed up to participate.

Our elective offerings rotate each month so students and teachers can exercise human agency. We gather weekly for communal prayer and then move into our respective Zoom Breakout Rooms. It’s working! We are learning new things each week—things that were not taught in grade school or graduate school. We are confronted with new challenges, but far more than often, we find inspiration.

We delight in sharing inspiring stories about our students and their experiences. And there are many, many of those stories to be shared.

Throughout October, I received photographs of mouth-watering food from students who were learning about Jewish cuisine from around the globe. In one of those cooking electives, Ms. D. (aka Jenn Deutsch) had our youngest chefs making a “sukkah” with avocado spread and bread! I also heard about virtual trips to parts of Israel and conversations about how students were learning to use their voices to self-advocate.

In early November, Penny Packard was teaching her K-2 art elective. Each week, she read a story linked to the craft they were going to make. As Mrs. Packard talked about God’s role in the Biblical Creation story, a student spoke up: “Wow – God created everything in our world. And, on the 7th day, God created rest, too?! WOW!”

Moments of laughter, deep thought, and learning happen even when our classrooms are virtual. Connection and inspiration are possible so long as we are receptive. Of course, we wish we were gathering and learning in person. Of course, we can’t wait to see everyone outside of Zoom and in the real world. But until that day comes, we will continue to do our best. As I often say to my toddler, “waiting is hard … but we can do hard things!”

As Jewish people, we stand on the shoulders of incredible, strong people. We will overcome this moment of adversity, and we will be stronger. When we are ready to resume in-person education, we will do so, having learned from this experience. I can’t wait to see everyone in person, and I can’t wait to start something new based on everything we are learning now.