All over the world, students will be continuing a different school experience, one that began soon after the pandemic. Some face a new academic year with entirely virtual learning. Others are going back into classrooms with many adjustments to allow (theoretically) for safer, virus-free learning. Still others face a hybrid approach, with small amounts of time at school but more time with parents, in daycare or even without any supervision at all as their parents work.
It’s a precarious time. Most of us haven’t experienced anything like this. Yet, there have been moments throughout history when the school rules changed. Imagine the European parents of the 1930s, faced with the Nazi rules, where their kids weren’t permitted to learn in the regular schools. There were families who left everything they knew to escape and start new lives anywhere they could go. There were parents who sent their children away to English boarding schools or on the Kindertransport, knowing that they themselves might not ever be able to leave Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia or Danzig.
Those who say children must go back to school because “school is better for them than the alternatives” make arguments like, “We don’t know what the effects of this absence from school will be.” When I hear this, I immediately think of the settler children, perhaps 150 years ago, on the prairies, who spent long winters in sod houses or log cabins. Jewish immigrant families arrived in the 1880s in Manitoba and many spent time in immigration sheds or shacks by the river – it’s unlikely those kids had formal schooling. Many immigrants taught their kids as they could. Schooling was intermittent at best.
Don’t get me wrong, for kids who are hungry, neglected or abused, school is a refuge. For refugees with traumatic pasts, interrupting school learning is not a good thing. However, many kids with stable, financially secure families are doing just fine while staying at home. It’s the safest choice.
Were all these people who lived in sod houses or who had lapses in their formal schooling permanently marred as adults? I don’t think so. I pondered all this recently as I celebrated finishing the Talmudic Tractate Shabbat – by myself. I started Daf Yomi in January of this year, and I’ve read my page online every day, often late at night. Aside from a few online exchanges, it’s all alone. I know this study is better done with a partner or chevruta (small group). This would be preferable. However, during the pandemic, at home with my family, I was lucky to squeeze in a solitary 20 minutes to study before bed. It’s been hard to listen to podcasts or chat online in a forum, and I certainly wasn’t regularly meeting with anyone in person.
I didn’t have any formal training in studying Jewish texts until I was a teenager in a summer camp program. I didn’t learn Talmud in an organized way until I was in graduate school. Yet, here I am, actively learning as an adult. Does interrupted or unconventional schooling mean less learning? I don’t think so.
In an informal survey of the online Jewish world, we’re finding learning opportunities all over the place. Whether it’s religious schools, congregational adult education, Jewish institutions for higher education, publications or more, we’re offered countless ways to listen, watch and discuss in online classrooms. My kids, age 9, were deluged with online Jewish opportunities, even outside of their bilingual Hebrew/English public school curriculum. My parents report that they are doing something interactive and learning with their congregation nearly every day.
Learning is happening in many traditional and hands-on ways. Often, it’s just having time for reading or making food from scratch. In some ways, the pandemic has motivated people of all ages to try new things. For many in the Jewish community, the pandemic has allowed us to jump into Jewish learning or to attend synagogue (virtually) more often. The need for stimulation while staying home has wakened many people’s intellectual curiosity.
For me, at least, and for my kids, school wasn’t usually the place to satisfy that curiosity. Sure, yes, we learn essential things at school. But the exploring of the outdoors and science, the building and construction with Lego, the art and design we see and draw and the music we listen to – our appetite for all this was never fully sated at school. Or, at least, not as of yet.
I have one twin who is desperate to get back to school to see his friends. He cannot wait. The other twin is not at all sure he wants to return to school ever. Given the situation we find ourselves in, each kid may get some of what he wants. A little school, and a little time at home.
I felt I didn’t need a fancy siyum (event to celebrate finishing the study of a talmudic tractate) or a seudah (celebratory meal). However, at the last moment, I signed up for a Zoom event hosted by My Jewish Learning online. Three distinguished teachers spoke, one taught the last few lines of the text, and another recited the Hadran, the special short prayer one says at the end. It says, “we will return.” We pray not to forget the tractate we’ve just studied.
I was moved by the Zoom siyum. More than 450 people attended! Although I listened while I answered kids’ questions and made salad for lunch, I still learned a lot.
I also realized that, as long as we’ve been studying Talmud, we’ve been hoping for a return, a review and a chance to learn in the future. We may sit in virtual classrooms, all alone, or in a real classroom, socially distanced, but we will return to learning – no matter what our age.
The pandemic is possibly the biggest event in our lives for some of us. To paraphrase what we say in the Hadran, we must remember that we’ll return to learning and that learning will return to us; that we will not forget you, learning, and the learning will not forget us, “not in this world, and not in the world to come.”
Wishing you a healthy and positive back-to-school learning experience – however differently we might experience it this year.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.