This was upposed to be the year that Andrea Unger’s 6-year-old son, Casey, began his Jewish education.
“We always said we would join the temple when our oldest was starting kindergarten so that he could do Sunday school and Hebrew school, just like we did when we were growing up,” she said.
But the COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. Casey started kindergarten in August, but not Sunday school. The Ungers are doing the best they can — continuing to read PJ Library books as a family, celebrating the major holidays, having a nice Shabbat dinner when it's possible — but virtual Sunday school didn’t seem like the right fit, so formal Jewish education is “on hold for now.”
When it comes to Jewish learning during a pandemic, parents across Greater Phoenix have had to decide what works. For some, like the Ungers, formal Jewish learning is on pause. For others, programming from various sources has helped to fill that gap.
Many families have been seeking out Jewish learning opportunities during the pandemic from PJ Library, which sends free books to families once a month to help them build a personal Jewish library and organizes family activities and events.
“That piece is missing for a lot of people right now and they want to keep that going,” said Marcy Lewis, PJ Library-Phoenix’s program director. “And a lot of families don’t know how to do it.”
When Lewis organized a storywalk for Sukkot, turning the storyline of a PJ Library book into an interactive experience, she ended up providing six additional hours of the activity to meet demand, based on how quickly slots were filling up.
“I am hearing from parents that they want some tools to help them through this crazy time, and they still want to continue religiously,” Lewis said, adding that families are also looking for safe things to do together.
Jolene Kuty said Jewish education is just one of “all sorts of challenges” the pandemic has created for her five kids, ages 2, 5, 8, 10 and 13. They’ve been reading PJ Library books and participating in PJ Library activities, going to outdoor services on Saturday mornings in person and attending the New Shul’s virtual Family Beit Midrash on Sunday mornings as well as classes through Lookstein Virtual Jewish Academy.
“We’re taking a course on the 10 commandments, and we get together on Zoom and talk about it, and then we do some independent work,” Kuty said. “It’s really easy and accessible.” She feels like her kids are getting the Jewish education they normally would, but it’s been a lot of work to re-create.“Normally, the systems are in place to create all of that,” she said.
Virtual options for Jewish learning are also still on the table for many families. Rabbi Zari Sussman, director of lifelong learning and engagement at Congregation Or Tzion, said most of the families who were enrolled pre-pandemic are still enrolled. They’ve even gained a few families.
“Our attendance has been better than normal Sunday school — I’m assuming because it’s just easier to log on and log off,” Sussman said. “We’ve had 60 to 70 children log on, which is more attendance than we would get in person.” Or Tzion offers Sunday school for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade and Hebrew school on Wednesdays for kids in third through seventh grade.
“I’ve been amazed by the parents’ commitment to Jewish education during the pandemic,” Sussman said. “This certainly was the year to let it go, and they didn’t.” JN