A sixth grader in class suddenly bursts into tears and doesn’t know why he’s crying. “Our students have experienced trauma,” a menahel pointed out.
of This Unusual School Year
Mrs. Rasha Grossman, Secular Studies Principal of the Yeshiva Ketana of Queens, shared her thoughts. “Due to the mask wearing, this year is sadder. I can’t see children’s faces, I can’t hear their requests or comments, and, most of all, I can’t see their smiles. Too often, I need to ask kids to repeat themselves. The easy communication is just not so easy anymore. My students – especially the younger ones who don’t really know me well – can’t tell when I am serious or joking with them and that takes some of the fun out of ‘principaling.’ Group work, which is always so nice for kids, is rare or never because of the Plexiglas barriers and the need to socially distance. Our afterschool activities of school newspaper, E2K, and chess clubs – and even an art class that I had wanted to feature this year as an afterschool elective – have all been victimized by COVID-19.
“We’ve had to figure out how to navigate a new world as we continue to fulfill our imperative of davening, learning, and doing chesed, even as we face new obstacles that we must snake through and leap over.”
Rabbi Gidon Goldberg, a Queens resident and Menahel of the Yeshiva Ketana of Manhattan, shared his experience and thoughts about the pandemic. “In the spring, students didn’t just lose skills but they went through trauma. In preparation for this school year, it was important to emphasize to the staff and parents how vital it was to focus on the children’s social and emotional well-being.” Students had to adjust to being solely in cohorts. The yeshivah prides itself on a strong sense of achdus throughout the school, but group activities could not take place this way this year. Rabbi Goldberg shared that his phone is constantly ringing, day and night, as parents call him seeking medical advice and advice for how to help their children who may be experiencing trauma from this situation.
Mrs. Nechama Jurkowitz, Limudei Kodesh Principal of the Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens, shared that “there was a deepened sense of responsibility for the physical and emotional safety of our students, while preparing teachers and students for a new frontier: distant learning.” She shared that she has to maintain a clear set of objectives, parameters for safe practices as it pertains to the coronavirus and its containment, and protocol to handle the unexpected. Setting up all this into the school framework is a new aspect of the principals’ jobs.
Rabbi Mark Landsman, Menahel of the Yeshiva of Central Queens, noted the challenge of “attempting as best we can to find the balance between full compliance with government guidelines while maintaining a warm and pleasant, inspiring experience for the students.”
Mrs. Melissa Cohen, Assistant General Studies Principal of the Yeshiva of Central Queens, said that “the administration created a framework for the school year to the best of our ability; but at the end of the day, we could never have known exactly what obstacles would disrupt our vision. These decisions and obstacles have become the focus of my daily responsibilities. How do we overcome the learning gaps and setbacks resulting from the difficult conclusion of the last school year? How do we ensure enough movement and activity while restricting students to their assigned classroom? Can we encourage social interaction and teamwork while we are wearing masks and sitting behind polycarbonates? How can we sustain classroom decorum and academic advancement when a teacher is forced to quarantine? Most importantly, how do we create a balance between our social, emotional, and academic expectations and growth and the reality of the situation in which we are operating? These are some of the difficult questions and challenges that I face daily.”
Mrs. Nechama Mirsky, Associate Principal for General Studies at the Shevach High School, noted that “one of the highlights of the General Studies program is the series of “academic extracurricular” trips that we arrange each year for the students throughout the grades. Visits to museums, Lincoln Center, and in-person debate meets were all canceled last spring due to COVID-19, and this fall semester is no different. While some places have offered virtual tours, and we are looking into a virtual debate meet, the excitement of actual trips in person is certainly something we hope returns soon. How would we be able to replace this special part of the curriculum?” Also, Regents examinations were canceled. The usual preparations did not have the same expected goal, and SAT exams were unavailable in the spring, and in many cases became optional for various colleges and programs.
Mrs. Miriam Krohn, Associate Principal for Limudei Kodesh at Shevach, pointed out that “a large part of chinuch is education, of course. But another huge piece is interpersonal relationships that will take the students through life. That includes interaction with teachers and staff, and interaction with each other, both in their own grades and over all the grades. It is this second piece that has been the challenge during “COVID education.”
Rabbi Michael Weichselbaum, Menahel of the Bnos Malka Academy, shared, “What challenges do I face each day? I couldn’t even begin to count the ways. It starts first thing in the morning. I’m used to greeting the girls as they come off of the bus. It gives me a tremendous opportunity to see how each child is doing. If I see that a child is not her normal, happy self, if she’s upset or angry, I can usually spot it right away and see if I can help solve the problem. When a person is wearing a mask, it makes the job much harder.”
He added, “All principals hate to be policemen, but now with masking rules and social distancing requirements, I find that I have to do just that. My job has also changed in that so much of what we do is usually face to face. Now most of our meetings take place on Zoom. On the one hand, this expands our ability to meet with people throughout the day – I find that we meet with more parents than usual. But on the other hand, meeting over Zoom just isn’t the same as sitting across from someone and really trying to solve an issue or help a child.”
Rabbi Eli Sultan, Menahel of Yeshiva Mekor Chaim in Brooklyn, shared the challenges. “Firstly, we started the year not knowing if we would be shut down that day. Do the students take home their books or leave them in school? In our schoolwide writing assignment on COVID, almost every boy in the whole school mentioned that he was afraid of COVID. This is a challenge we needed to deal with; and when the red zones and orange zones were created, it was a challenge to keep the school open. Since we did not have in-school lessons from last March, the students in the younger grades were behind in skills.”
Meeting the Challenges
To help students deal with the trauma of the pandemic, the Yeshiva Ketana of Manhattan focused on “Thank You, Hashem” programs, and talmidim in all grades wrote hashgachah pratis stories and created posters. The goal of the program was for children to realize that Hashem is there and He loves them and they should never feel alone. Rabbi Goldberg stated, “We encourage parents to partner with us, and we shared tools with them in talking to their children about Hashem’s love and how Hashem watches out for klal Yisrael constantly.”
Shevach High School has met the challenge of the need for more social interaction in a unique way. Rebbetzin Rochelle Hirtz, Menaheles, noted, “We have met this challenge, in part, at Shevach High School by grouping two grades together and alternating which girls they are, while maintaining social distancing and wearing masks. This week, the 9th and 10th grades daven together, and then the following week, we will change the grouping and the 9th and 12th grades will daven together. Our Chanukah Mesibah, Mishmeres and Chesed breakouts, Kumsitz and Kugel were all configured differently so that the students can connect with each other as we maintain the warmth and family atmosphere that Shevach is known for.”
Rabbi Landsman pointed out that “Baruch Hashem, thanks to our incredible classroom teachers, specialty teachers, rebbeim, and morot, the almost 1,000 YCQ students are truly happy to be in school and are enjoying the classroom experience in a way that I could never have imagined. Although it is quite challenging, we now have a renewed appreciation for in-person instruction and the value of meaningful live teacher-student relationships that we never had.”
Mrs. Jurkowitz noted, “There was no stopping our devoted BYQ teachers; forging ahead with skill-building activities, Shavuos projects, interactive and animated Parshah time, a bas mitzvah mother-daughter evening, and yes, even color war and a virtual eighth grade trip to Washington.”
She added that “class plays are recorded and viewed in the classes via SmartBoard. Our midos programs continue with great verve and excitement, also via video recording, and Parshah classes take place with masks and social distancing. We have found a way to maintain our signature, vintage Bais Yaakov of Queens ruach and learning, with careful planning and a few minor tweaks. Students walk the halls happy, bonding with one another and rising to the challenges that have come our way.”
In Yeshiva Mekor Chaim, students wrote essays about their feelings and thoughts about COVID-19. It was an excellent outlet and it was put together into a school-wide “published” journal.
The Silver Linings of This Challenging Time
Rabbi Goldberg pointed out, “I never saw such happy kids when the students returned to school after the long absence. And, baruch Hashem, those smiles have not dissipated as the year progressed. This year, the smiles are evident in their eyes!” Teaching with Zoom brought out new ways and new creativity for the teaching staff and rebbeim. “It encouraged more differentiation and different ways of reaching students. The children gained a new appreciation of their chaveirim, and there is more tolerance among them. Also, children learned proper hygiene and heightened awareness of their surroundings. Parents learned to see different strengths in their children they hadn’t noticed before. In addition, these challenges strengthened the already strong partnership between parents and the yeshivah. Finally, there is a heightened appreciation of the gift of every day, of being in yeshivah, of being together, and the privilege of opportunities to be m’chaneich Hashem’s children.”
Mrs. Jurkowitz shared that in the Bais Yaakov of Queens, “the sheer energy invested in the Zoom classes, planning, bonding, and stellar learning was something to behold.”
Mrs. Grossman imparted that, “it’s encouraging to see how many children take masking and caring for older teachers seriously at Yeshiva Ketana of Queens. When I walk into middle school classrooms, there’s usually a couple of kids who jump up to make sure the window is open and I notice the boys patting their masks more carefully into place. I’ve also noticed students writing classroom newspapers during recess in our fifth and sixth grade classes and thinking of other new ways to create school spirit.”
Rabbi Yosef Deutscher, Secular Studies Principal and Assistant Menahel of Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe, stated that “the silver lining of our current experience is that we have the unique opportunity to work on and improve the midah of resilience in our students/children. Talmidim coming in every day and learning through barriers, masks, temperature checks, and everything in between, is showing them and having them experience the importance of learning Torah, and on some level, the m’sirus nefesh and resilience needed to become talmidei chachamim and achieving greatness.”
Rebbetzin Hirtz and Mrs. Krohn noted, “At Shevach High School, we have noticed that students, staff, and parents are resilient. We work as one unified team, with one goal in mind. That goal is to retain high standards and still meet the students where their needs are. We are looking forward to a more “normal” time, but when that arrives, we will still operate as one team, with the same common goal.”
Rebbetzin Chani Grunblatt, Assistant Principal of Shevach, shared: “One silver lining in the COVID pandemic can be found in our Shevach Chesed program. We are very disappointed that due to health concerns we have to put on hold some of the important community chasadim our students usually do, such as Bnos. However, we replaced it with rewards for helping out at home above and beyond the assistance usually expected. Being that younger siblings are home much more than usual, due to quarantine restrictions, we are sure the parents greatly appreciate any extra relief provided by older siblings. We are also confident that this type of chesed will help mold our girls into wonderful future mothers of klal Yisrael.”
Mrs. Sarah Bergman shared that “because of the challenging constraints every educator faced, it reawakened our and our teachers’ commitments and dedication of why we love what we do and why we do it. So when we greeted our children in September for in person learning, it was as if we reawakened the friendships, love, and excitement of learning together.”
Mrs. Karen Reisbaum, Associate Principal for General Studies at the Bais Yaakov of Queens, pointed out that “the pandemic has created many challenges for all of us. On a positive note, I am astonished at all of the “outside the box thinking,” creativity, and design all educators, especially at BYQ, have implemented. This has sparked a greater concern for reaching our children’s needs and expressions of their talents.”
The Shevach principals, Rebbetzin Hirtz, Rebbetzin Grunblatt, Mrs. Krohn, and Mrs. Mirsky, noted that “the girls seem to be pretty happy with all the extra fun events the staff has brought to them in school; and the truth is, it’s great not to have to worry about traffic into the city!
“The experience of having the Regents exams canceled led to teachers brainstorming more about creative projects and more student-centered assessments. AP exams went virtual; and while it was great that students could still earn credit for their advanced studies, the system was still in its development.
“All of those changes to traditional testing milestones created a space in which educators reevaluated long-standing assumptions and procedures. Despite, the unsettling feeling that was certainly natural on some level for administrators, teachers, and students, the fresh perspective was definitely healthy.
“While we all wonder where this will take us for both this spring and beyond, it is clear that high school assessments and college preparation have undergone a transition. We would like to be optimistic that it will ultimately be a change that provides for a richer and more individualized educational journey.”
Rabbi Weichselbaum said, “Undoubtedly there are a few silver linings. For instance, I’ve seen people who are technologically or otherwise savvy step up and help a colleague in need. I’ve learned so much from the people I work with during this time, and I’ve also learned a lot about them and their innate desire to do good! I’ve also seen in action what I already knew. Children are much more resilient and resourceful than we give them credit for! Sadly, there are also children who are not faring well during this time, and it’s imperative that teachers and parents recognize this and get their children the help that they need.
“Another silver lining was that when we were on Zoom, I had a lot more time to, as Stephen Covey calls it, “sharpen the saw.” Because in the beginning of the pandemic we were working from home, I had more time to learn, exercise, read more about being a better educator and person. I really feel that I came back to work with a renewed sense of purpose.”
Mrs. Cohen shared that “regardless of the frustrations and personal trials that the pandemic and school closings have caused, the parents continue to remain steadfast in their support. Our students’ successes are a silver lining, as well. Despite being asked to conduct themselves in a way that goes against their natural tendencies, these children are superstars! I am amazed at their positivity and ability to adapt, and have personally gained strength from their resilience. Finally, the trials of this pandemic have magnified the existing perseverance and dedication of our incredible faculty. Each teacher rises to the occasion every morning by bringing his or her enthusiasm and energy to the classroom, despite the added exhaustion and sacrifice that comes with the job this year.”
Messages for Students, Teachers,
Mrs. Jurkowitz shared, “I want students, teachers, and parents to know that we are resilient. We are able to adapt and we are capable of so much. With the loving support of home and school, as a team, as a family, there is so much we can accomplish. While we would never have asked for a pandemic, which we knew little about, we have come to know ourselves better. We have managed, endured, and even triumphed during lockdowns, quarantines, and distant learning. Students have recognized the devotion of their teachers in ways they may not have realized before. Teachers have seen the vulnerabilities and strengths of their students, and appreciated them for their youthful strength and vigor.
“Let us always remember how much we can be, how love and care carries our children far, and how setting a healthy tone in both home and school is mirrored in the hearts of children, forever.”
Mrs. Sarah Bergman imparted, “Although we were home and fragmented, the BYQ family did not feel that way. Yes, we were home, but we were beating as one heart. We started the day davening together, and continued learning throughout the day, doing projects with interactive programs we planned as a team of educators. We reached out to our children. It was a time of reflection for families to reconnect with one another. It was time for teachers to reflect and think outside the box and answer, ‘How can I reach my children academically and emotionally?’ The lessons were planned with continual assessing and evaluating of the level the children were at and what they needed. Our goal was to build a warm, safe mindset with experiences that taught lifelong lessons, resilience, and emunah in Hashem.”
Rabbi Deutscher shared that, for students at Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe, “Having adults in their lives who love and care for them, who come in every day despite these trying times, shows them how much we appreciate them and the value of what we are offering them. Rabbi Yaakov May, the Menahel of Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe, has spent untold hours and days doing everything possible to stay open and have learning in real time. My hope is that, down the road, the children (and maybe some adults) who had to live through these “unprecedented times” will be able to look back and say that they really grew from the experience, and became better people through it.”
Mrs. Grossman imparted that “with a little bit of ingenuity and effort, we can rise to this new occasion. Gratification might not be as immediate as we would have liked, but I’m grateful for the feeling that we are giving Hashem nachas by protecting others, and I think that’s a great lesson to teach young children: the essence of Yiddishkeit, putting into practice our deep concern for others even when that might be difficult. I am especially impressed with our Menahel, Rabbi Kessler, as he adheres to all the state and city rules that change from day to day without losing his cool or pointing fingers. Even the DOH commended him for going above and beyond; and in today’s climate, that was not easy. He’s been a true kiddush Hashem.”
Rabbi Sultan shared that “schools are doing their best to service the children. Baruch Hashem, we are on the same team with the parents, striving to give children the best education possible and filling their spiritual, emotional, and academic needs.”
Rabbi Weichselbaum said, “Parents, you are doing an amazing job! Please keep in mind that teachers have more on their plate than you may realize. Teachers, you are doing an amazing job! Please keep in mind that parents have more on their plate than you may realize. Students, you guys rock! You’ve retained your enthusiasm for life during the most trying of circumstances. Try to go easy on the substitute teachers. They’re getting hard to find!!”
Mrs. Cohen shared, “My message to the YCQ community – to the parents, students, and faculty – is threefold. One, keep up the great work! Your contributions do not go unnoticed. It is YOU who keep our yeshivah strong. Two, focus on the positive. We have come so far and accomplished so much. Yes, we have all had personal setbacks, but be sure to acknowledge the many triumphs and be proud of them. And finally, take all the lessons you have learned this year and carry them with you, even as we, G-d willing, move past this pandemic to better days. This year of adversity has given us the strength to face any obstacle, and a deeper appreciation for all of life’s blessings.”
And what happened to that sixth grader who burst into tears one day in class? He was expressing those emotions we are all experiencing at some point during this pandemic. Baruch Hashem, he is now happily shteiging, and the beautiful teachings about gratitude and emunah in Hashem are making a difference for him and all the students in our schools. May we all absorb these lessons and the light of Chanukah into our lives.
Hashem should bless all of the principals in our yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs with good health and strength to continue their exemplary guidance for students, teachers, and parents. In the merit of the strong emunah and love they impart, Hashem should please end this pandemic now and bring the ultimate g’ulah!
By Susie Garber