An Open Letter To My Students

Ugh, if I see one more article or commercial start with a variant of “in these trying times….”

*clears throat*

In this time of high anxiety and low certainty, of frequent video calls and infrequent deodorant use, of frustrating politics and soothing walks, of conservative spending and liberal ice cream consumption, of staring down my partner’s cat and staring off into space; I’ve been missing my biggest connection to Judaism.

I’ve missed spending time with you. Working and volunteering at Jewish summer camps, youth groups, and supplemental schools over the years have given me the opportunity to explore my Judaism with others. I’ve been able to learn what I teach through different lenses and to learn through conversations from unlikely educators. Even if the lesson plan or the camp evening program is not centrally Jewish, it is part of my Jewish Identity, and I know it is some of yours as well.

For the past 6 or so weeks that I’ve been working from home, hanging out with friends from home, having family arguments from home, cooking all meals at home, and running outside with a mask, I’ve missed more than just being outside of this building. A hole has formed where there once was a place I could gather with enthusiastic students. I feel like I’m mourning.

And I realize the privilege I have in saying I’m mourning a part of my life that is inherently a luxury. When so many are mourning deaths – I see the numbers – it seems like I shouldn’t be allowed to worry about the trivial. Yet I also know I should heed the advice I teach: others’ struggles do not lessen mine. Everything is relative.

I find myself preparing lesson plan fragments based on thoughts I have while running, news articles my good friend and amateur theologian sends me, podcasts I tune in and out of, and topics my partner and I discuss on almost daily walks. I feel like I have a pot of topics overflowing that can only be tamed by feeding them (wow that metaphor fell apart fast) to a classroom full of middle or high school students, or with a group of college-aged staff. How would you and your peers respond?

  • Has having a connection to Judaism helped during this?
    • Why? What is your connection? Is it stronger or weaker now?
      • Why is mine so weak?
  • Have your sources of information changed?
  • Are there any new traditions in your home?
    • Screen restrictions before bed have made reading news intentionally difficult and sleep slightly easier.
  • What’s the best thing you’ve baked/cooked recently?
    • Ok so matzah pizza with matzah from scratch is now in the regular (non-Passover) rotation.
  • Does an event like this impact your belief in G-d?

I’ve been accused of using my classroom as a form of journaling, something in which I take pride. It’s important to allow myself to be vulnerable, to an extent. I feel it allows those around me to open up as well, to know themselves better. This is how I know myself and my community. By showing care and spending time with those willing to learn – not through frontal lectures but through connections. Because of this, I hope you continue to share with me how you are, how you have adapted, how you struggle, and how you mourn.

Me? My Judaism continues to endure: Nicole and my weekly Shabbat video calls with our St. Paul friends with High, Low, Hero, & Goals; connecting with a close former student over our shared running; weekly family video calls trying not to talk about COVID; philosophical discussions brought on by the latest episode of Stargate or Preach, and of course eating matzah well past Pesach. We’re counting the Omer in Judaism now, sort of a time of mourning. A time without haircuts or celebrations (oddly familiar) is part of being Jewish in the few months between Pesach and Shavuot.

To be honest, I’m not really feeling that though. This year I might take counting of the Omer off. Celebrate what I can: getting my grandma set up on Zoom, having my own garden for the first time ever, making our own ice cream, checking in on those I love, playing board games online with friends, cutting my own hair (happy about that clipper purchase in 2011), and not getting scratched by that cat.

I hope you have things worth celebrating, or maybe this has helped you think of what you hadn’t before. I hope you feel comfortable reaching out and saying hi, asking for board game recommendations, or even for help with math. I hope you remember and apply our discussions, that you care for one another. I hope you are well.

Maybe my connection to Judaism isn’t diminishing, just changing. But when everything is in such a state of tumult, I’m not sure I want that change.

Your teacher, friend,