There is an inspiring Dr. Seuss book – called Oh, The Places You’ll Go! – which is a popular ode for graduates or people embarking on a new chapter of their lives. The central message is: “Remember that life’s a great balancing act,” but don’t give up and keep moving forward when challenges arise on the path to fulfillment and success. One could say that this book is particularly applicable to all of us during the COVID-19 era, but especially to students of all ages whose daily lives are constantly changing. One day, school is in-person, and the next day, it’s on Zoom – with the associated disconnects from teachers and friends. The message is even more relevant to students at Emet Outreach who are learning about incorporating Judaism and daily mitzvos into their lives. The underlying theme to keep going, keep adapting, and keep learning has been the mantra of Emet’s educators for the past six months. This has meant that learning continues in all formats, all locations, and even in all weather conditions.
“We have a deep responsibility to our students to keep motivating and enabling them to learn Torah and to be a constant presence in their lives when things seem uncertain,” said Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg, Emet Co-Founder and Director. “Since March, we have continually adapted how we teach and make Torah study available to them. In tandem with colleges shutting their doors, we shifted all our beginners and advanced classes to Zoom, which worked well for the initial months. Our rebbeim and ‘mekarvos’ also kept in regular, personal contact with each individual student. As conditions improved over the summer, we expanded to outdoor and socially distant events and Shabbos experiences. Right now, we are utilizing all safe options and keeping our students engaged in Torah without interruption.”
In addition to continuing with Zoom, utilizing all options has led to an appreciation of the outdoors as an appropriate venue. At the end of August, there was a particularly busy week that brought multiple events to the backyard of a generous local family in Kew Gardens Hills. First there were a sheva brachos on two evenings for two Emet couples. Normally, the weddings of Emet students are well attended by the extended Emet family. Due to the necessary guest limitations, hosting small sheva brachos events was a great way for Emet to be part of the celebration. The only catch was a severe downpour one night that felled the tent after it was elegantly decorated. It was quickly fixed and the simchah continued!
Following the sheva brachos, there was a very moving “challah bake” for students in Emet’s Fellowship and Step It Up programs. A group of 50 girls, and some of their mothers, were joined by Ms. Shira Fendel, Women’s Director, Mrs. Sara Benyamin, Program Director, and Mrs. Mazal Musheyev. The baking steps were led by student Daniella Bababekov, followed by powerful words of inspiration by Mrs. Amit Yaghoubi. It was very heartfelt and for some was the first time they were together in months. “It was an evening that created a spiritual mindset for everyone before the start of the school year and the holidays,” said Ms. Fendel.
Backyards have become the new classroom space for Emet’s women’s division in general. The Elul semester for the Ateret Emet Seminary was held on three consecutive weeks in different yards. The morning classes started with breakfast and a class by Mrs. Yaghoubi. This was followed by a lesson from Rebbetzin Tehila Jaeger. “Rebbetzin Jaeger and Mrs. Yaghoubi were an incredible combination. The girls were extremely inspired. We had, baruch Hashem, close to 30 girls registered,” said Ms. Fendel. “The first week that we were back was very emotional. I led the girls in a special prayer of hodaah because we felt so lucky and thankful to be back together. We then went around the group and each girl shared her reflections of the past few months. The last week, we gave the girls Rosh HaShanah packages to get them in the spirit of the holiday.”
Right before Rosh HaShanah, Mrs. Devorah Kigel gave an inspiring backyard lecture as part of the new semester of the women’s Step it Up program. It was her first time speaking in Queens since March. With her signature warmth, she enthralled the girls with a discussion on “pressing the restart button on life.” Also, at this event, the Emet team presented a gift to the Bababekov family in recognition of their support of Torah learning by being frequent backyard hosts during this difficult time.
There are some cases where indoor Torah learning has been possible with social distancing. Both the beginners’ Summer Fellowship and the more advanced men’s Torat Emet learning program have met in-person at Beth Gavriel and Ohr Natan. There were also outdoor components to these classes. For the men’s division, there have been evenings of outdoor learning, followed by barbecues and pool parties. Rabbi Yakov Musheyev, Torat Emet Coordinator, commented: “Being in-person brings the learning back to life and is really uplifting for the students.”
Zoom is still in the mix for many classes. Among the Zooms offered, Rabbi Mordechai Kraft, Co-Founder and Educational Director hosted a remote pre-Rosh HaShanah celebration in conjunction with St. John’s JSA. Rabbi Binyamin Yuhanan, Emet’s community rabbi, has been giving a weekly lecture series in Russian on the laws of Shabbos.
Traditionally, Emet kicks off the Yom Tov season with a “Rejewvenation” event. For the past ten years, this has been a way to unite Emet students from all programs and feature Emet’s dynamic team of educators in one place. It’s normally a catered event in a social hall that attracts a crowd of over 150 people. This year the only way to do it safely was on Zoom. The theme was to “reconnect, inspire, and be inspired.” In addition to Rabbi Rutenberg and Rabbi Kraft, there were drashos from Rabbi Reuven Kigel, Rabbi Nissim Musheyev, Rabbi Yakov Musheyev, Rabbi Michael Fuzaylov, and Rabbi Eliyahu Maksumov. “Each of our drashos complemented one other and were especially poignant for our students during Aseres Y’mei T’shuvah,” said Rabbi Nissim Musheyev, Community Development Director. “I spoke about the concept of t’shuvah as a way for each person to return to his or her original and unique potential as created by Hashem.” Rabbi Yuhanan closed the evening with a review of the halachos of Yom Kippur.
“We originally launched ‘Rejewvenation’ to connect everyone at Emet and to show we are one family,” said Sara Benyamin. “This year, connections are more important than ever, and while we would have loved to be together in-person, we still maintained our usual group dynamic. In fact, we had a wonderful turnout with over 80 students on Zoom and more than 400 watching on Facebook Live.”
As the COVID situation continues to evolve, the Emet team will modify programming along with it. “These past few months have demonstrated to us how important it is to keep the learning moving and evolving,” said Mrs. Rivka Muskat, Associate Director. “Locations are important, but consistency is more important. Our students inspire us with their unwavering devotion to Torah study, Shabbos, and other mitzvos, even in the midst of challenging times. We want them to know that we are with them with every step they take on their spiritual journey.”
For further information about Emet classes and programs, visit www.emetoutreach.org.