In the midst of distancing and quarantine, I’ve learned a lot about education, and it’s often not been what I was expecting. But the most striking lesson of all hasn’t been a revelation as much as an articulation of something I knew innately but not expressly. It’s a story I heard expressed in the physics of playing a guitar and string vibration, and it connects to the 70’s rock band Led Zeppelin. But I first heard it explained when talking with a couple of students about the transition from learning in person to virtually.
The question of how one teaches Judaism is important. At its best, Jewish education isn’t purely intellectual or academic, but leads to understanding and reflection that brings us to know ourselves, one another, and our broader community more deeply. Thus, the project of Jewish education is a complex one, all the more so against the realities of quarantine and distancing. To better understand this from a college student perspective, I spoke with two Jewish students at the University of Delaware, Jeremy Davis and Dalia Handelman, who have both been involved in Jewish learning in person and virtually.
As colleges, universities, and learning communities were forced to go virtual this spring due to the Covid-19 crisis, online learning was frequently improvised on the fly. Reflecting at this point, several months into the shutdown and quarantine gives some perspective. Jeremy and Dalia were both students in a class I taught for the university, on Rabbinic literature in Jewish Studies and English. They are also continuing to learn this summer in a cohort with UD Hillel, studying the weekly Torah portion. To hear from them, the transition on the whole from in-person to virtual learning was very mixed.
As Jeremy noted, “At first everything was confusion! Spring break got moved up and we were in limbo. But as time went on over that extended break, to when classes resumed on March 31st after the long break, there was a big difference between teachers who were prepared and who weren’t. In our seminar, where there was a lot of hevruta study (1), it worked out swiftly. So on some level this became about our teachers being ready.”
Dalia didn’t find the transition to be as smooth, but noted what worked differently, “For me, online classes are really difficult. Our Jewish studies class was one of the only classes that left me with the slightest sliver of normality. Online still doesn’t compare to what in person is like, but in the breakout rooms in Zoom, there were incredible conversations and I still left class online feeling like I would have left the room in person. I felt like I learned something new. that I was mentally progressing.
But many of my other classes didn’t work for me. That said the most interesting was a class that was a big lecture, and against the odds, the professor did an amazing job. She asked for lots of feedback, and how to make it work. In the middle of it all, there were people losing family members to Covid and people who had financial problems with parents losing their jobs, and she did so much to try and make it work. She sent lots of emails to say ‘I’m here for you.’ She rearranged the curriculum to make it more successful for us. As a learner I respond so much better when the teacher is more than just there to teach you. The kinds of teachers who care. The ones who made a difference were the ones who said ‘I’m there for you. I’m going to do everything I can so that you can learn.’ They were the ones who made it clear it wasn’t about a grade. They were the ones who made it clear that they cared about you, what you learn and take away from it for your life.”
And this is where the physics of guitar comes into the picture. A couple weeks ago I heard Rabbi Aryeh Ben David teaching a session on Zoom for Hillel educators and rabbis as part of Hillel International’s Masterclass series on Torah. One of the pieces he introduced that stayed with me is the idea of harmonic vibration. This is the guitar string part of it--Aryeh Ben David taught us that if you pluck a stringed instrument and hold it opposite the same instrument with the same strings tuned the same, the corresponding string in the opposing instrument will start to vibrate along with the one you plucked. As an electric guitarist, I also can attest that you get some of these harmonic overtones and resonances if you play a double-necked guitar (like in the iconic pictures of Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin fame) on the neck you aren’t playing.
And this was the piece that I heard Dalia articulate so perfectly. The most successful learning isn’t a function of the smartest teacher or most clever lesson plan. In some ways, for Jewish education, a kind of education where we’re asking the learner to bring their fullest self to the experience, that kind of harmonic vibration is crucial. And as crucial as it is to our work, it becomes strained online.
But it’s doable. As Dalia sketched out, it’s critically important for teachers to be able to make these human points of contact that might come so naturally in a room, but may be more elusive online. Finding ways to demonstrate care for students in their journeys is all the more important in a time when their lives are deeply impacted by struggles with Covid, the economy, and social upheaval. And thus, if Jewish learning is meant to be something that is immersive and soulful for the learner, our moment calls us to greater connection and care, even at a distance. This moment calls for us to focus beyond the tasks and materials of Jewish education to reflect on how we as educators can resonate with our students’ souls in this strained time. Taking the time to check in with them. Finding extra places to be present. Hearing their concerns, stresses, and observations about the world. These were things I knew were part of being a good rabbi and Jewish educator, but their importance becomes paramount in a time of social distancing, when it’s so critical to close that experiential distance.
In that way, a college class, or a weekly Hillel Torah study can transcend its form. It’s why Dalia and Jeremy are continuing to learn over the summer on Zoom. Sure, we’re covering material and texts. Sure, our learning is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. But at its ideal, a Jewish learning group is more than the Torah we learn. It’s a place where the souls of learners will resonate on the frequency of our shared journeys in the world today. Even in the little windows of Zoom, we resonate with each other’s stories and each other’s Torah.
(1) Traditional mode of Jewish study where learners study together in groups of two or three.