Back to school means back in school: Local educators long for a new year

August 20, 2021

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In preparation for Rosh Hashanah and the start of school, local Jewish educators share their learnings and longings for an academic and spiritual refresh. By nature, educators are positive people. Guarded optimism is a precious currency going in, out—and back into a new strain of pandemic life.

Jewish News spoke to these four individuals and asked:

‘What do you hope for? How has the pandemic re-shaped your views and practices as a Jew and an educator?’

Amy K. Milligan

Batten endowed assistant professor of Jewish studies and women’s studies at Old Dominion University

Looking ahead at the new school year, I cannot wait to reconnect with my students. I’m teaching a course on Judaism this fall. I’m looking forward to beginning the semester with them and talking about what a new year (both the academic year and Rosh Hashanah) will mean for them, how they conceptualize a fresh start, and what things they want to leave behind in the previous year.

Jennifer Groves Rosenbaum

Teacher, Landstown High School

In relation to the coming year, I am optimistic. My school system showed respect for our faith by postponing the first day of school to Thursday, September 9 instead of starting on Rosh Hashanah. This is a wonderful learning opportunity for people to understand the importance of the Jewish New Year and what this means to the Jewish people. I’m excited to meet a new group of students, help them learn to think for themselves, and be informed citizens.

The teachings of Jewish ethics can be applied to the coming year—be kind to strangers, be compassionate, and be patient. Everyone, regardless of age, should feel valued, respected for their thoughts, and appreciated for their contributions. Teaching 12th graders allows me to help shape the future, and I can’t think of a more fulfilling life for myself!

This year also happens to be the 20th anniversary year of 9/11. This is a reminder that with the promise of beginning a new year, we are also still striving to be inscribed in the Book of Life. The fragility of life was exposed during the pandemic, and I have become more appreciative of a slower pace, positive connections with others, and loving my friends and family even more.

My father passed away in April, and I gave birth to my son, Daniel, in May. On the one hand, I experienced my greatest sorrow. On the other hand, I experience my greatest joy. I have become more spiritual, and I bless my son each Shabbat. The pandemic may have started the process of changing my perspective, but living each day has renewed my faith in life, humanity, and Judaism.

Ari Zito

English Department chair, assistant coach, Varsity Boys Basketball, Norfolk Academy

I grew up in a community in Connecticut with only a handful of Jewish students in my grade and in a public school system that of course did not give everyone the day off for the High Holy Days. So, going to services and observing the holidays always came with the stress of having to explain the situation to all my teachers and working to make up missed content and classwork.

As a teacher at Norfolk Academy for the past 16 years, I still don’t take for granted that these two days mean no school for everyone. It’s a wonderful thing. It gives our Jewish students, faculty, and staff the opportunity to be fully present during the High Holy Days without worrying about what we’re missing, and it serves as a reminder to Christians and people of other faiths that there is a significant Jewish community—including their friends, classmates, and teachers for whom these days are the most important, religiously, of the whole year.

My family’s synagogue, Ohef Sholom Temple, did an amazing job with the virtual services last year, and if the Delta variant necessitates virtual services again, I’ll understand. But I’m looking forward to coming back to OST for the High Holy Days and being together in person.

Debra Yarow

College Composition I and II,
English Department chair,

Western Branch High School

With the holidays approaching, I typically look at my calendar and take my appropriate religious leave. I note my absences in my syllabus, and I explain to my students the importance of these absences that typically fall so close to the first few days of school. Now I look at our calendar in Chesapeake with a great deal of anxiety. Our first day of school falls on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. In a typical year, this would not bring me such vacillation and stress. I would take the day off and leave a video of my introduction with some simple organizational tasks. This year, however, I can’t imagine greeting my students on their first day back to school in over a year with one more video or “virtual” greeting. It seems cruel. My students, I’m sure, are eager to begin a senior year as close to normal as possible. They will be greeted by teachers who will smile and welcome them back to a physical building. So where is my place?

I have always known I was “called” to be a teacher. It is all I know, and I am passionate about my students and my presence in the classroom. I am also a Jew, called to celebrate and reflect on the year according to my faith. I am eager to get back to shul and be with my Jewish community again. I am torn and my heart breaks as I was forced to have to make a decision Christians in this country are never forced to make. We would never go to school on Christmas or Easter.

So, I have to ask myself, where am I most needed and what is most important right now? Am I absent on the first day of school, unable to set an immediate caring and welcoming tone after such a difficult year and a half for my students? Do I leave my seat empty at shul and start the New Year without the religious rituals and prayers that make the year so sweet and meaningful? Where am I called? Who needs me the most? How should I start off the new year, and which decision will make me feel I did the right thing?

At this point, I don’t think there is a “right” answer, and I have to go with my gut and heart. I will still bake my round challahs, serve tzimmes and brisket and dip apples into honey. I will go to the Hague for Taschlich, and I suppose, I will have to cast off and atone for either decision I make.

-Lisa Richmon

Letter to the Editor