The classrooms and hallways of our yeshivos were silent. Listen closely and you can almost hear the walls cry as they beckon the children to return and fill them with davening and learning. During these silent months, the devoted Menahalim, Rebbeim and Moros have heroically transferred their classrooms to the living rooms, studies and kitchens across the region as they valiantly sustained their unremitting task of infusing their talmidim and talmidos with Torah.
As the scourge of coronavirus begins to wane, some yeshivos are open, some are being opened, and others are setting in motion their planned return to their hallowed classrooms. Questions remain as to how they will proceed; how to make up for missed learning, how to refocus the children, and how to deal with the myriad of issues that may emerge.
Hamodia spoke with some of the premier Menahalim across the United States about their plans for the reopening of our holy mosdos.
Rabbi Yehudah Pirutinsky, Lakewood Cheder, Lakewood, N.J.
Rabbi Yehoshua Cooper, Mirrer Yeshiva K’tana, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rabbi Nosson Muller, Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi, Chicago, Illinois
Rabbi Tzvi Krigsman, Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island, Inwood, N.Y.
Rabbi Yaakov Menachem Seidel, Yeshiva Yagdil Torah, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Rabbi Rafi Draiman, Torah Academy of Boca Raton, Boca Raton, Florida
With the reopening of schools on the horizon, many Rebbeim, parents and students are curious how the yeshivos will deal with the issues which may arise. One that is probably at the forefront of everybody’s mind is how will we make up for lost time. Although the Rebbeim did a fabulous job teaching remotely, there is surely a gap between what they usually cover and what they were able to cover. What is your plan going forward, in terms of skills not mastered and in terms of yedios not covered?
Rabbi Pirutinsky: Before we begin to talk about plans for reopening our schools, we must applaud our dedicated Rebbeim — our heroes — who have gone far beyond our expectations in motivating and encouraging our talmidim to learn even under the most difficult situations. It’s amazing how some classes are actually up to where they would usually be while learning in a classroom.
However, generally speaking, class evaluation sheets and grade-based skills tests are being formulated to ascertain the academic level of the boys. This will help us determine how to proceed next year. As of now, we still don’t know when we can return to our classrooms, and are planning accordingly.
Rabbi Cooper: The mission of yeshivos is to transmit the love of learning Torah, the geshmak for tefillah, and the values of Yiddishkeit. More than anything, we desperately need to return to yeshivah and help our boys to again become proud full-time young yeshivah bachurim. So that is our starting point.
Each grade in elementary school teaches Torah at the appropriate level, with strong focus on learning the skills that will prepare the boys for eventual independent learning. These include reading, translating, word structure, and comprehension and meta-cognitive skills. All of these will need to be reinforced and if necessary re-taught at the start of school next year.
Rabbi Muller: We are in the midst of taking stock through our remote learning program, although such evaluations are definitely not as accurate as they would be face to face. We anticipate there will be fallback — by some more than others — and in some crucial subjects and skills more than others.
We will be focusing on two elements of our core curriculum: skills and chomer (material), with the latter obviously being secondary. We may need to forgo a parashah here and there, as well as even a super project or class ritual. But our goal will be on winning the medal — not the race. Skills are what the students need, so that will definitely be our overall focus. We will try our utmost to help our talmidim keep pace without compromising on the chomer — but inevitably things will be lost.
Rabbi Krigsman: In order to ascertain what the classes have accomplished, we plan to administer our regular proficiency test as usual in the beginning of the school year. It is important for us to know the skill level of the talmidim walking in, and that will guide us how to precede relative to other years.
Our concentration will of course be on the skills, as Rabbi Muller said, where we will identify which skills need the most work in the first months after our return to regular classes.
Rabbi Seidel: I can’t stress enough how much the Rebbeim put themselves out during this time and showed their devotion, creativity and expertise. They shared ideas and advice, and together made a real difference in the learning and the lives of the talmidim.
It is interesting to note that while of course there will be some gaps which must be filled, in some limudim we were able to surpass what we usually do. We had a call-in line where the Rebbeim and Menahalim gave messages in yiras Shamayim, or other inyanim, and we were able to accomplish a tremendous amount in this time.
As far as skills, we have seen that different talmidim and classes master the skills of the grade level at different times. So we always assess the classes as they precede to the next grade to see where they are holding and move forward accordingly. So this coming year as well, we will have to test them and decide exactly where the classes are holding, and then decide where to begin the next year. It may be a bit further back than other years, but we don’t expect it to be that much more. For the individuals who fell behind the class, we will of course work extra with them to bring them up to the level of the class.
Rabbi Draiman: I’d just like to add to what was said about the Rebbeim, Moros and teachers, that besides the incredible job they have done, learning and developing new methods and material for the various platforms they are using, they are also busy supervising their own children who are home. So their amazing work is all the more extraordinary!
During our remote learning, we introduced several innovative ideas which helped us keep our finger on the pulse of where our students are holding. We concentrated on the core subjects, i.e. Kriah, Chumash, Mishnayos, and even in those subjects we were more attentive to developing the skills rather than covering the curriculum. So the Rebbi who managed to teach the skills, but may have only covered until Vayigash and did not teach Vayechi, the class can continue next year with their skills up to level even if they did not learn every passuk inside as they would have in a regular setting.
We follow the L’havin U’lehaskil Curriculum, which has built-in periodic assessments. We hope to administer the May assessments in the beginning of the school year, and utilize the results to help develop a benchmark which will help us fine-tune how to proceed in the future.
In General Studies, we utilize the iReady reading and Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education (CIJE) SuccessMaker programs, and they provide a customized program for every student. Through this, we get a pretty good benchmark where each student is holding in those key subjects. In addition, during this period out of school we utilize IXL for Grammar and Math. We hope these supports will help supplement students skills and growth in learning, and help us plan better for any deficiencies we encounter.
Although most Rebbeim can adjust their teaching to the level of their class, many wonder what will be with the children who were in the midst of learning Kriah and had this vital learning period interrupted. Without proficiency in Kriah, a child may be hampered in all future learning. How do you plan to handle this in the coming year?
Rabbi Muller: Kriah is definitely on top of our concern list, as it is a crucial aspect of every child’s chinuch. Despite the superhuman efforts from our teachers and Rebbeim, we expect (and already see) some fallback.
We are planning to have the Kriah Rebbeim continue with their previous year’s talmidim for a part of the day in order to hone their skills. We are also contemplating a pre-start of the actual “new year” in order to allow us to properly assess where each talmid is holding.
Recently, we began differentiated instruction in our first grades specifically for Kriah, and this will definitely be a valuable tool to address the many different levels of the talmidim, and work with them in small group settings based on their individual needs. In addition, we administer a multilevel Kriah scan to our talmidim each year, and we will utilize this tool to plan our way forward.
Rabbi Krigsman: Over the past few weeks, we divided one class into three parts and the Rebbeim taught the same lesson to each group individually, which helped give more individualized attention to the boys. We also added hours to our Kriah specialists and took on extra staff for next year to ensure that each talmid is brought up to the level they need to be at.
In fact, just as there is a need for extra attention in Kriah, there is a parallel need for extra care in reading in the General Studies department, and we have engaged extra help for that as well.
Rabbi Seidel: We use a system called Toras Picha, and we have a Kriah specialist on staff who is trained in this method as well as some other methods. The program runs over four to five years, so this gives us the opportunity to make adjustments, as we do with every grade. We anticipate that at the beginning of the year, the Rebbi’s focus will be more on Kriah than on Chumash. After screening the entire class, we will determine which talmidim require extra one-on-one attention. In the past few weeks, we had our specialist screen those boys who had a history of difficulty in Kriah, and we have begun working with them.
There is one point I stress to the parents. Many times, they are worried that their child is lagging behind in Kriah, and they ask if they should get a tutor. I tell them that mastering Kriah comes best without stress and pressure. If the parents can’t be sure they will remain calm, then it is better to delegate it to a tutor. The same principle applies now, which is that it is best not to panic. We will work with your child, and we will do all that is necessary to help him master Kriah in a calm manner.
Rabbi Cooper: To the best of my knowledge, this continues to be a focus of every yeshivah and Bais Yaakov. Our robust Kriah program, with one-on-one review and assessments for each child, will b’ezras Hashem help us address individual children’s deficiencies as needed. During the past few months, our Rebbeim were in close communication with the parents of their talmidim, and helped direct them how best to review the Kriah. Our remedial staff continues to support the children who need their help and will follow through in the coming year as well.
Rabbi Draiman: We implemented the Kriability program from Mrs. Leah Wenger in Lakewood in our school, and this incredible system boasts a 97% to 100% success rate in younger elementary grades. As of today, K through three is on board at our school, and we plan to expand it further.
Kriability has built in assessments scans, and it has one-on- one sessions each day, which we were able to maintain during our remote learning sessions. By using this, we are able to maintain and monitor each student’s proficiency, and our Kriah program has remained virtually intact.
Rabbi Pirutinsky: All the grades have learned the mechanics of Kriah, but review is very crucial for their ability to continue with Chumash, etc. Our Menahel of the Primary and first grade prepared a questionnaire for parents and Rebbeim to determine how well their children are following the chazarah charts.
Our second- and third-grade Rebbeim will spend more time next year reviewing the Kriah and refer any student who is lacking skills to our team of specialists who test, evaluate and assist the children who need extra help with their Kriah skills.
It’s also important that Rebbeim of the younger grades update the Rebbi of the next year regarding the level this year’s class is up to.
The talmidim had their lives turned upside down for several months. Chances are that there will be the need to deal with emotional issues, perhaps even more than academic ones. What have you done in terms of planning for this?
Rabbi Cooper: Baruch Hashem, our community has grown to appreciate the importance of pursuing mental health care when warranted. Every Menahel I know has professional contacts to assist and advise them in cases where professional intervention is warranted. Parents, too, are usually willing to accept help when it is suggested.
But children are resilient, and Rebbeim and Moros have been amazing all these weeks. They are on the phone talking to their students, many have made home visits and they’ve done their best to keep their relationship vibrant and relevant. We have kept the boys on a predictable routine and I am confident the boys will rebound very quickly.
Rabbi Muller: I agree, children are resilient and adapt quickly. We tend to underestimate our kids. Most are doing great! As Rabbi Cooper said, we are constantly in touch with our talmidim, and we do have a good idea where the boys are at. Nevertheless, a soft landing is called for and, in all honesty, I think that the regulations that will be set by the authorities will inevitably require a slower paced start, which will help ease the adjustment.
Truthfully, the consistency and structure that school offers children will in itself be beneficial to deal with any emotional issues that present. Children shine and are calmed in a structured and reassuring atmospheres. We provide that, every day, all day.
Rabbi Seidel: We worked hard during the lockdown to maintain an ongoing kesher with the talmidim. Besides the weekly packages of sheets and prizes, we gave out a newsletter call Lechu Bonim. This is based on what Harav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, had inscribed on the facade of Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, which was meant to tell the talmidim that he wanted them to remember what they were taught even when they were in a state of Lechu Bonim, when they were out of the yeshivah. In this newsletter, we had interviews with the boys who described their own learning, helping around the house, and this helped retain the connection we had with them, and we hope that any problems will be minimal. For those who might struggle, we have an in-house professional who works with our cheder, who we will utilize if necessary.
Rabbi Pirutinsky: Although some children have gone through emotional stress, most are looking forward to return to school, and that definitely will help them to adjust well. Rebbeim will of course be on the lookout to detect any students who show signs of emotional stress, and will refer them to the hanhalah, who will determine if they are in need of some professional help with their issues.
Rabbi Draiman: We have found that there are yechidim that have struggled because of the quarantine and stay-at-home guidelines, and those are often the ones who struggled with social or emotional issues before. The staff was able to help bridge the separation by forging connections with students and the parents, who now have a front-row seat to what their children and their teachers were accomplishing. Generally, homes that struggled with dysfunction before, struggle even more now, and those children do not have the continuity and safety of school to help them, and these are the children which we deal with on a regular basis.
We have engaged our social workers, and they have reached out to these students and their families. One of our social workers has the students email in questions that they want discussed, and she has a regular video answering questions from the virtual “mail bag,” which has proven powerful to calm the anxieties of many of these children and address questions they do not otherwise have a forum in which to ask. We also spend a lot of time reassuring parents that we are aware of the difficulty they are going through, that they and their children should do the best they can, and they and the students should not worry if they struggle during this period because they won’t fail or be penalized because of it.
Rabbi Krigsman: I’m not too worried about the boys who generally do well in class on their own. They can be expected to slide right back into their learning mode and will continue to do well.
I’m more worried about the child who struggles a bit in class, and he was able to pull it together due to the personal attention of the teacher; the one who needs the teacher to look at him, or to walk by his proximity to keep him focused, to use body language to keep him in line. Many of these students, which I estimate at 35%, struggled during the remote learning, and it’s these talmidim which may have the greatest trouble.
Some of them feel dejected, as they were not seeing their usual success lately. They suffered a yeridah, and some have created a perception of inadequacy and failure. I have spoken to parents and encouraged them to reassure their children that they should not be hard on themselves, because a lot was dependent on the platforms they were using. This is the group that I anticipate will need the greatest tipul, the extra care and attention to get them back on track.
We plan on having some training sessions with our Rebbeim to sensitize them to the various issues, and to give them the tools to deal with them or refer them to others if it is warranted. In addition, the Rebbeim will have to adjust their teaching; the fifth-grade Rebbi is teaching boys who missed a good part of fourth grade. They will need to modify their teaching until the talmidim are back on the level they are used to teaching.
In anticipation of these needs, our Board of Directors has approved extensive funding to expand the hours of our current staff, and to bring on additional social workers as needed. In addition, we will be bringing on a psychological consultant to help guide us and the families through the readjustment period.
What do you anticipate as far as discipline, focus and attention? How have you planned to motivate the talmidim in these areas?
Rabbi Seidel: Our Rebbeim know that whenever we return from a break, like after the summer, after Sukkos or Pesach, we must stress the yemin mekareves, drawing the talmidim in with softness and caring. So in this case, although we plan to have a full program of learning, the intensity will be less in order to facilitate a smooth transition.
During the time we were out of yeshivah, a parent sponsored many Lego sets, and the children earned pieces for their accomplishments.
They received a catalogue and were able to see what they could earn, which gave them the drive to reach their goals. The underlying goal was to help foster a structure for the day, and the theme was to “build themselves up.” The talmidim had their well-earned prizes delivered, and we intend to keep it going for another few weeks in order to motivate them to shteig in their classroom setting.
Rabbi Muller: I mentioned earlier that the actual setting and structure will facilitate calmness and security. It might take some talmidim a few days to get used to it, and for a small group of boys even more than that, but I think (and hope!) that in light of what and how we communicated with our talmidim over the last few months, the boys will come back relatively whole and wholesome, and ready to get back to regular learning. The few that won’t and don’t? Well, that’s all in a day’s work in a yeshivah.
Rabbi Pirutinsky: Students will definitely need time to acclimate to a regular classroom setting. How to motivate the students to focus and be attentive in class will depend on when they can return to their classroom. Hopefully, they will be able to return before the end of the school year, especially in our yeshivah where our school year ends in mid-July. Their present Rebbeim know them well enough to get them motivated to focus and be attentive. Extra incentives will be in place to help the Rebbeim accomplish their goals.
Rabbi Cooper: Most parents are doing their best to avoid complete hefkeirus. Children have learning time, play time, bedtime and a schedule which has some structure. It will take some time for kids to again focus on learning for a full day of yeshivah the way they used to. Indeed, every year the children are out of yeshivah for an extended summer vacation, and our Rebbeim are accustomed to establishing on the very first day a structured school setting.
Rabbi Draiman: I anticipate that within a matter of days, the children will be back into their regular school routine. Children are more resilient than we often give them credit for, and respond to expectations and routines. I’m sure the other esteemed Menahalim would agree that a number of students ended up shining during this time even beyond their usual accomplishments, so we may actually experience some healthy surprises.
Rabbi Krigsman: I think it is important that our staff exhibit more patience in dealing with the children. This, too, will be part of the training we will provide for them. In addition, they may notice a fatigue by the children, who are not used to such a long day. In order to help them, the Rebbeim may have to break up the lessons into smaller pieces, add some time for them to stretch, and give what I call “mental recess,” which is to throw in short breaks within the learning to allow the mind of the children to refresh. This can be done by throwing in a short story, a memory from the past, and does not require the Rebbi to stop teaching, but at the same time allows the talmidim to rest their minds for a few seconds and avoid the fatigue. This, too, will be part of the training our staff will receive.
In a regular school year, the talmidim wind down the year with the Rebbi. With their experience last year, they may be missing a sense of closure. Do you feel this may be a problem, and if so how do you hope to create this sense of closure?
Rabbi Krigsman: Baruch Hashem, we are now at a point where in Long Island we are permitted to return to the yeshivah grounds, albeit in a limited way. We have two tents set up on our campus, and we will have two sessions for in-class lessons each day, with the area completely sanitized between each session. This means that the talmidim will at least be face to face with their Rebbeim each week, and this will help them wind down the year with a sense of closure. We plan for one afternoon of tent sessions for each one of the General Studies teachers so they can have their typical end of the year gathering with the distribution of certificates and of course the party.
Rabbi Pirutinsky: As I mentioned before, due to the fact that we have school for 11 months, we hope the students will be able to spend the last few weeks of school in their own classrooms with their Rebbi. That will be the best closure possible.
Rabbi Cooper: I’m sure our Rebbeim will find creative ways to end the year on a memorable note, and allow next year’s Rebbi the opportunity to establish a healthy relationship for the new school year.
Rabbi Draiman: In addition to end-of-year learning activities with each Rebbi or Morah, we are planning for a “carpool parade” for the end of the year for our early childhood and elementary grades, where the parents will drive through the campus and all our staff will be there, socially distanced, to greet the parents and students and exchange notes and gifts. We will have tables lined up with packets and goodies. We will also have virtual end-of-year assemblies with videos, slide shows, games and shared memories from the year which will review this incredible year, including corona, and hopefully give them some meaningful memories to savor and have closure.
Rabbi Muller: It’s definitely a concern, and we hope to address it with a day of closure and celebration, with singing and dancing, before the new year begins.
In Chicago, we were permitted to reopen last week for alternate days, and coming back to yeshivah is certainly a cause for celebration. We sang and danced in a manner which drove home the lesson of the importance and simchah of limud haTorah.
Rabbi Seidel: I’d like to add a point about closure. The oldest class of the cheder missed out on an exciting time of their final year when they get to be the oldest class. Each year, we bring the class to Gedolei Yisrael to be tested on around 40 blatt which they learned throughout the year. We hope to do this in the near future, and hope to make this a memorable time for this class.
Your students have practiced “social distancing” for months. Do you foresee any complications with their social interactions when they return? What programs are you planning in order to foster their social relationships with one another?
Rabbi Seidel: I think most of the talmidim will be able to revert back to their old social circles. The only concern I have is for those boys who were not socially strong before. We set up a system where some boys were paired up with one another to learn and communicate over the phone, and we specifically matched the stronger boys with weaker ones. This reminded them that someone is thinking about them, and we hope this will help them integrate as well.
Rabbi Muller: If you watch how they are already socializing with each other, I think that the greater problem may be keeping them apart, if it is mandated, rather than getting them back together.
Rabbi Krigsman: I see many of the talmidim getting together already for bike riding, so I don’t see it as much of a problem.
Rabbi Pirutinsky: I don’t foresee any issues with their social interactions once returning to school. They are interacting with their neighbors and friends at home. Coming to school and being with their school friends shouldn’t be a problem getting used to.
Rabbi Draiman: I think once we are permitted, all we need to do is “let them out of the gate.” The children are all dying to connect to each other, and many have struggled, if anything, about being apart during this time. As Rabbi Muller said, dealing with COVID restrictions on space or activities may be the bigger challenge.
Rabbi Cooper: Social separation rules have already been loosened. Our boys will have three months to resume typical patterns of interaction. They will be OK I am most concerned now about the possibility of children not having structured summer programs. It is crucial for both parents and children that summer camps are operating this summer.
Rabbi Cooper: My phone has been ringing all day with parents who wish to talk. It’s interesting that parents seem to have more concern about yeshivos not being open yet than they do about safety. We will continue to do our best to follow the guidelines for a safe return to our schools, with the safety of their talmidim in the front of their minds. We stress to the parents not to foster unnecessary anxiety in their children.
Rabbi Muller: We do communicate often through email and phone conferences, and will definitely update them as soon as there is a set plan in place. Too much of what we will be doing and requiring from them is still unknown as of now, and we will initiate that part of the conversation as soon as we have a better idea of what is involved.
Rabbi Pirutinsky: I’ve spoken to parents, and we took their concerns into consideration as we plan for the upcoming school year.
Rabbi Draiman: In over 20 years in chinuch, I have never had so much communication with parents as I had this year, and during this time they have come to experience and understand the tremendous amount of thought and energy our Rebbeim, Moros and teachers put in each and every day. We have been in constant contact with parents, and hope the lines of communication remain open in the future. We truly could not do it without them, now more than ever.
Rabbi Seidel: If there is a silver lining in the past few months, I think it is the increase in communication that developed between the yeshivah and parents. Our contest was designed for the parents to report how many points their son earned, and often when they called in, they left messages for the hanhalah. Once they became accustomed to speaking, the phone never stopped ringing. And that may be the benefit of this period, where the parents feel they are in a full partnership with the cheder in the chinuch of their child.
The beginning of a school year has an inherent excitement which serves to motivate the students. Since this year had such a long break from the last time they were in school, are you planning anything different for your opening?
Rabbi Muller: [After] we were permitted to return part time, we celebrated with singing and dancing. That being said, coming back needs a back-to-business atmosphere. So we held an opening shebang, and then began the zman with the dignity it deserves.
Rabbi Pirutinsky: An opening celebration will only be in place if we return before the end of this year. To have one at the beginning of the new school year will make it so very difficult for the new Rebbi. The first few weeks of a new school year is very crucial for the success of the entire year, and a celebration might foster a looseness in the classroom that a Rebbi can’t afford at that time . A special assembly may be sufficient.
Rabbi Draiman: Keep in mind that in Boca Raton, Florida, the weather is not conducive to much outdoor revelry during the day at that time of year. Our campus setup does not have auditorium space for such a celebration or assemblies indoors. We will nevertheless try to find some meaningful way to express our simchah and thanks to the Ribbono shel Olam for giving us the opportunity to return to the house of Hashem and study His Torah in the best manner. With Hashem’s help, the threat of corona should leave this summer, and perhaps we can host a back-to-school Torah celebration before we resume!
Rabbi Seidel: Truthfully, most talmidim expressed a burning desire to return. So, class time is being reserved for learning, during recess we will have various treats set up for them in our long hallway, including our slush machine, popcorn maker, and other goodies in order to engender a feeling that the yeshivah is a warm and enjoyable place.
Rabbi Krigsman: Since we will be returning to our campus for a short time before the end of the year, we will leave any celebration for later. We might organize some school event before we officially open in September where the talmidim and Rebbeim can acquaint themselves with each other before the learning begins.