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Chicago Jewish schools make plans to open— and experience an enrollment boomlet

Reopening is close at hand for Chicago’s Jewish day schools, after-school programs, and public school Hebrew language departments.

This means devising plans that meet parent’s safety expectations, local health regulations, and teacher safety needs— all while delivering quality instruction.

The result, so far, is a diverse landscape of reopening plans, including increased enrollment in Jewish schools a well as vigorous online learning.

Lori Sagarin, director of congregational learning at Skokie’s Temple Beth Israel, has first-hand experience with this dynamic. Her after-public-school religious education program, or Hebrew school, had initially planned to reopen for on-site learning, based in part on the results of a parent survey. That was before the number of coronavirus cases in her area began to increase.

After consulting with fellow educators and the Skokie Department of Health regarding the change in statistics, Sagarin’s team decided to continue virtual learning.

Gary Weisserman, head of Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School, is preparing for his school’s return to in-person learning with an eye toward safety.

“We have a pretty amazing plan, and we recognize that the landscape is very fluid,” he said.

Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School, a nondenominational school that serves students from Pre-K-8 grades, opened a new, more spacious building last year that they hope will help with student distancing. The school is on track to open for in-person learning on August 31, but Weisserman said they have “plans to shift at a moment’s notice.”

Chicago's Ida Crown Jewish Academy

Chicago’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy Image by Ida Crown Jewish Academy

Zell, as well as all Jewish schools planning to reopen, will enact safety measures that include face mask use, students learning in separated groups or “pods,” and reduction of hallway crowding. Services for students who receive additional educational support will continue, with plans in place for those services to continue if learning returns to the virtual model.

At Ida Crown Academy, Chicago’s only Modern Orthodox Jewish Day School, educators have made reopening plans with similar caution as in-person learning resumes. Students have the option to continue attending in a virtual capacity. Each classroom will broadcast lessons online, and teachers will provide support to at-home learners.

On campus, Ida Crown’s team of educators has enacted significant safety measures similar to Zell’s. At the same time, Head of School Rabbi Leonard Matanky notes that part of keeping students safe means remaining aware of the realistic possibility that a student will contract COVID-19, and having a clear plan of how to pivot if that happens.

Even educators who look forward to re-opening in the fall say virtual learning this past spring had unexpected benefits.

Israeli singer Ishai Ribo performed a virtual concert for Ida Crown students. Zoom allowed siblings and parents at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet to join together for Shabbat preparation activities.

The iCenter, a national hub for Israel education based in the suburbs of Chicago, noted an increased use of its vast library of online resources, including wide-ranging and savvily-produced audiovisual media, with students engaging in topics such as the diversity of Israel’s food cultures, musical styles, and geographic ecosystems.

Distance markers on the opening day of JCC Chicago's Early Childhood Programs

Distance markers on the opening day of JCC Chicago’s Early Childhood Programs Image by JCC Chicago

Afterschool Hebrew programs affiliated with synagogues will largely remain virtual. These programs face their own set of challenges, given their format of two or three-day per week classes that supplement a public school education.

“We are sometimes second on the list of priorities, and when kids are sitting on Zoom screens all day long, all the more so,” said Temple Beth Israel’s Sagarin.

One solution, she found, is to provide supplementary resources to pique students’ interest during this period of digital learning. In the upcoming fall, this will include a collaboration with Theater Dybukk, a Los Angeles based nonprofit specializing in multidisciplinary educational workshops that explore Judaism through storytelling and the arts. The Temple Beth Israel staff also spent their summer break doing special training in best practices for virtual learning.

Mandy Herlich, formerly director of learning at Temple Beth El in Northbrook, expressed pride in her students’ willingness this spring to stay engaged despite what she calls their “Zoom fatigue.” As she transitions to her role as Religious School Director at Chicago’s Emanuel Congregation, Herlich plans to bring along her insights into what works in online learning but adds that on-site Sunday classes may return next spring.

Providing continuity of early childhood education arguably presented the greatest challenges for both schools and the parents of young children stuck at home during months of lockdown. The return of on-site schooling is, for some, especially welcome.

Addie Goodman, chief executive of JCC Chicago, notes that the Chicago Jewish Federation was instrumental in the funding for and procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) for their 600 early childhood students across seven locations. Their PPE plan includes offering students a number of mask varieties from which to choose, face shields, and clear-inlay masks that help show teachers’ facial expressions.

Even the two-year-old students happily complied with face-mask wearing, said Etti Dolgin, director of education at Hebrew-immersion based early childhood program Gan Gani/Moadon Kol Chadash.

Dolgin’s team worked together for months crafting a reopening plan that would keep students safely and sustainably distanced from one another while maintaining a unified school feel.

Congratulating her staff, Dolgin said, “Now you will never be able to say to me the words ‘I can’t.”

In the Chicagoland area, enrollment in Jewish day schools, public school Hebrew language classes, and after-school religious programs has been steadily rising for the past few years. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many educators wondered if overwhelmed parents and students alike would simply opt out.

To their surprise, the opposite happened.

After the Chicago Public School Systems’s recent announcement that their initial plans for hybrid-learning would shift to a virtual-only plan, some public school students are enrolling in Jewish schools for the first time at schools like Solomon Schecter and Chicago Jewish Day School.

The number of public high school students choosing to study Hebrew as their foreign language requirement has increased so significantly in the past few years that middle school systems, such as the Deerfield, Illinois school system, are beginning to add a Hebrew language offering as well.

“Enrollments in Jewish and Hebrew learning are up in the private and public schools,” said Binnie Swislow, director of the Public High School Hebrew Teachers Network at Chicago’s iCenter for Israel Education, “and this is happening as we speak.”


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