Elliott is Prizmah's Director of Thought Leadership. Learn more about him here.

The Same and Entirely Different


The Book of Devarim that we are reading in synagogue during these weeks is a recap of the previous four books; the material is largely familiar, but is presented in an entirely new way. Some of the classics (the Ten Commandments/Utterances) reappear with changes, while important new material (e.g., the Sh'ma) is introduced. Moshe is recounting the people's history for several important reasons: the new generation needs to review the experiences of their parents; the people require instruction regarding their identity and values before they fight a war upon entering the Land; the teller wants to leave a legacy that defines the meaning of his leadership, that all future Israelites can study and learn from.

However, the emphasis throughout Devarim is less on the recounting and more on the message. The experience that the people are about to undergo, conquering the land and ruling it autonomously, requires different qualities than were required previously. The purpose of Moshe's speech is to fortify the people in their faith and relationship with God and their understanding of the Land as the culmination of their formation and wanderings as a nation.

If the very meaning of Torah is instruction, the Book of Devarim is singularly focused on education:

And this is the Instruction—the laws and the rules—that the LORD your God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you, your children, and your children’s children may revere the LORD your God and follow, as long as you live, all His laws and commandments that I enjoin upon you, to the end that you may long endure. (6:1-2) Translation found in JPS and Sefaria.

Most significantly, only after this period of education, reflection, preparation and change can Bnei Yisrael enter the Land.

Jewish day schools similarly have undertaken a period of reflection, education and preparation unlike anything that most of us have experienced in our lifetimes. When we return to our schools, either in person or online, or both, much will be familiar. We know our material; we know how we like to teach our subjects; we know many of our students, their families, and often the communities in which they live. Unless we are transitioning into a different school, we know the culture of our schools, we are comfortable with our colleagues, our departments, our faculty, staff and leadership, with whom we may have collaborated for many years.

And yet, our world has been shaken, our communities no longer function as they used to. Our schools have invested countless hours to ensure that our buildings will offer as safe an environment as possible. But for all this extraordinary, intensive labor, we simply do not know what the future, near and long term, has in store. Some schools are unable to open because COVID is still raging in their vicinity; when will they be able to return? For schools in states with lower rates of infection, will people truly be able to return to school safely, or will, God forbid, outbreaks recur and force additional closings? 

And we have no idea when this period of history will end and what the world, and our world, will look like on the other side. Will we have a vaccine in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year that will effectively inoculate everyone? Or will the vaccines only be partially effective, as some epidemiologists warn, requiring continued caution and vigilance? At the end of the day, we lean on our faith in God and our confidence in the importance of Jewish day schools and their mission to place our hope in a good outcome, no matter how or when we get there.

Nevertheless, the abundant efforts of our stakeholders are effecting changes that are serving our schools well now, in the present, and will continue to yield fruit for months and years to come. Our schools have proven to be agile to a degree even beyond our expectations, ready to transition to fully online instruction with a degree of success few others could achieve. Despite all of the stress, our teachers and administrators have shown incredible resilience, adapting to changing guidelines and forecasts, making the best of it with remarkable humor and aplomb. 

We see new forms of internal collaboration, with technology directors suddenly ascending in importance and consulting daily with school leadership while supporting the entire educational infrastructure; and unprecedented external collaboration among schools, with heads banding together weekly for critical networking and inspiration. Teachers are engaging in professional development on a massive scale never before seen in our field, in social-emotional learning, inclusion, and online instruction. And board members have worked tirelessly to help ensure the school's financial health, provide for emergency needs, and forecast a sustainable budget in these murky waters.

Like Bnei Yisrael, we do not know when we will arrive at the next stage of our journey or what exactly it will look like; all we know is that it will look different from our world today and the world that we have known until now. And yet, just like our ancestors, we can glean seeds of hope today that we may plant and may flourish one day soon, God willing, when we reach a better place.

Originally posted on JEIC.