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Whole lot of learning

Looking back at Temple Sholom’s outdoor pandemic religious school

Students and community members 
greeted students returning to Temple Sholom for in-person, parking lot classes last April, where the ground made for a convenient blackboard.
Students and community members greeted students returning to Temple Sholom for in-person, parking lot classes last April, where the ground made for a convenient blackboard.

As Shari Rothstein contemplates the upcoming school year, she figures she’s ready for whatever the shifting covid circumstances throw at her. 

Ms. Rothstein is director of congregational learning at Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove. The current plans — cue God’s laughter — are for classes at the Temple Sholom’s religious school to begin in October, after the holidays. The plan is that they’ll meet the way they did when Ms. Rothstein first came to Temple Sholom two years ago: in the classrooms. (Though now with masks.)

“Only seven months of my time here has been in live, actual school,” Ms. Rothstein said. (Her previous five years as the associate religious school director at Temple Emanu-El of Westfield were all in live, actual school, because that’s how things were in the Before Times.)

Temple Sholom’s religious school “went online like everyone else” in March 2020. That was not simple. “We were training people on the fly,” Ms. Rothstein said. “I was trying to learn everything a day ahead to teach the teachers.” Her aces in the hole were the school’s “madrichim” — the post-b-mitzvah teens who help out in the religious school each week, whether as teacher assistants, shadows for individual students, office help, or bulletin board decorators. When Temple Sholom went online, these madrichim joined the Zoom sessions, providing technical assistance for teachers, not all of whom were instantly Zoom savvy. 

Last summer, professional development brought all the teachers up to speed on the technology. And that’s a comfort amid the unpredictability: “We were up and running smoothly and now we know we can do that.”

But what stands out looking back at last year’s educational program — and what prompted a synagogue board member to reach out to a newspaper — were the six weeks last spring when classes were held in the synagogue’s parking lot.

By then, things were looking safer. And the weather was warmer and the sunsets were later (not an insignificant factor when classes start at 4 p.m. and the synagogue parking lot is not illuminated). And so, in consultation with the school’s pandemic advisory task force, the school’s leaders decided to bring the students to gather in person at the synagogue parking lot for the last six weeks of the term, in April and May.

And not just to gather: “I was saying to the teachers, this is for learning,” not just for connection, Ms. Rothstein said.

That meant buying rolling white boards that could be wheeled out (and that revealed just how much the parking lot sloped; “the maintenance staff made it work with sandbags”). It meant rolling out carts of supplies.

And it meant figuring out how to use the outdoor space to best advantage. 

“Super-creative things happened using the outside,” Ms. Rothstein said.

There were the Hebrew hopscotch games drawn on the pavement. There was the bird house designed and decorated for the synagogue’s garden.

“The teachers really embraced what they had and thought outside the box,” Ms. Rothstein said. “The kids were really happy to be together. The first day we had a welcoming squad, we had pom-poms, we had a lot of ruach.” A great deal of excited, enthusiastic spirit.

At some synagogue schools, educators criticize parents for creating a drop-off culture, where parents leave the students at the school without setting foot in the synagogue. That’s not how it goes at Temple Sholom. “At Temple Sholom, the culture is for parents to come into the building,” Ms. Rothstein said. “It was something new for parents to pull up, drop off their kids, and leave.” (They couldn’t park because the parking lot was being used for instruction.)

For prayers, chairs were arranged in a large circle, and Cantor Kenneth Feibush brought his guitar and portable amplifier.

The kids were excited — many of the 14 towns the synagogue draws from weren’t having any in-person instruction.

And on the last day of the school in May, an ice cream truck was invited to drive in and offer its wares. 

Ms. Rothstein said the experience of online learning earlier in the year did bring some benefits. The online format encouraged teachers to break Hebrew reading lessons into shorter sessions with smaller groups, because the normal full-class approach wasn’t working online. That worked well, and will be continued in what Ms. Rothstein has dubbed PREP online, standing for Prayer Reading Experience Personalized. “Teachers will meet with sixth graders one-on-one or one-on-two outside regular hours to work on reading, to allow class time to focus less on reading and more on meaning-making and making connections,” she said.

The experience has her optimistic about the year ahead.

“We know how to do anything now,” she said. “Whatever happens, we can turn on a dime.”

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