Q&A with College Principal Rabbi Smukler: Coronavirus, Pesach and School Holidays

Q: After the first couple of weeks of online learning, there seems to be a lot of excitement around this new learning platform. In anticipation that online learning will continue for the next several months, how do we maintain our children’s engagement and motivation? How are we going to ensure that we can continue to get them out of bed, showered, dressed, fed and ready for their day on the Moriah B’Yachad platform?

You are 100% correct. Anything new, a new experience, even if it is something rather mundane, is quite exciting. The Moriah B’Yachad platform has generated a large volume of excitement. The children are reflecting the curiosity, fun and risk-taking of our teachers. We are inventing new ways of doing things every day. But after a while, everything new becomes routine and regular. The novelty wears off and in fact sometimes it can become a chore rather than a pleasure. 

One of the ways that we can ensure the online learning platform stays relevant is ensuring that there is always a personal connection. That the engagement is relationship based. That the children know this isn’t some abstract exercise in the acquisition of knowledge being done in isolation, rather they are engaging with their teachers and classmates in an online social classroom. They are continuing to build their relationships, and we’re all in this together. 

Another way of maintaining motivation is increasing ‘interactivity’, questions and answers, interviews etc. Engaging with people in our home environment. Interviewing them, learning from them. Interviewing and engaging with a range of family and friends online as well.

There is also a challenge for the educators who need to continue to adapt their pedagogy. Not just to move the things they have always done to an online platform, but to actually do things that could never have been done before, in new ways that they never dreamed were possible. That way, the educators will keep up their own excitement and engagement, and mirror that in their relationship with their students. Through the children’s relationship with each other and all the members of their household, they will stay motivated. 

Q:  I find it a little challenging, after my child is engaged in online learning all day to motivate them to do some homework.  How can I make it easier for them?

That is in itself a fascinating question and I think we, as educators, are also just learning the correct balance between online teaching and learning and homework tasks; the balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning, i.e. learning that is done face-to-face or learning that the child then needs to take away and do themselves after the school day – what we traditionally used to dub as homework. 

If we look at learning as one continuum, the online learning platform is punctuated with some things that are relationship based, when our children relate to, and engage with, other people. Then there are times, when they go into self-reflection mode, when they need to do their own work and tasks that have been set. It’s one rhythm and flow of being, relating and learning.

There must be times when our kids step away from the screen. When they go outside and get fresh air. When they engage in physical activity. When they do something enjoyable (preferably an activity that doesn’t involve a screen). When they make a healthy snack for themselves and perhaps for other people in the family. When they help with the chores around the house, which actually helps them go beyond themselves and think about the other people around them. 

By punctuating the day, and creating a healthy flow between collaborative, relational and independent learning; by looking at blurring the lines between the school day and what traditionally was known as homework, we will find the work flow is more natural and easier to manage. 

No longer do we go to school, spend eight hours a day, get on the bus, come home and sit down and do homework, it’s now one integrated flow of being, punctuated by all the daily activities that we need to do in our new reality. 

Q:  I’m looking very forward to school holidays with my children, but at the same time I’m slightly dreading them. Camps and workshops are all cancelled, and their ability to socialise with friends and spend time with family is greatly minimised. How are we going to get through, what is particularly, a lengthy holiday? 

I can’t agree more. The school holidays are going to be a challenge but let’s agree that we are facing that challenge together. The first thing is getting everyone in the family focussed on and preparing themselves for Pesach. This gives children a mission and a focus. No matter what level of cleaning and preparation you do in your home, involving all the children in getting ready for Pesach – shopping, planning, cooking, preparing for the Seder is powerful. In particular a Seder that might not even have some of the extended family, or older generation present and will rely more so on the younger generation for the songs and insights to enrich the Seder.

Most of our children have already started to develop new ways of socialising, new ways of connecting with family and friends. In fact, we find that for many, that weekly visit or that pre-Shabbat or festival phone call with grandparents, has turned into almost daily interactions via social media or Facetime. In fact, many people find themselves reaching out to friends that they may not have always been in regular contact with and rekindling friendships or simply making new ones. Co-ordinating online playdates, house-parties (the app), Zoom parties and different ways of engaging with each other, are all forums and means of us truly making a beautiful school holiday. Maybe this is the time to sort through the garage or do that gardening we never get to do.

Q:  I know that Chesed – kindness and care is a core Jewish value. How do we maintain that value in a time when we are sitting predominantly with a device, which lends to us being a little bit more concerned about ourselves and a little bit more selfish in our attitudes? 

The truth is that in order to be less selfish, more selfless, we need to ensure that our children are engaged in thinking beyond themselves. One of the proven aspects of ensuring that a child thinks about others, has empathy, is ensuring that they do regular responsibilities or chores around the household, even if it is not 100% necessary; from making their beds to setting the table, sweeping the floor to loading or unloading the dishwasher, watering the plants or taking the dog for a walk; any household responsibility that gives them both a sense of caring about the environment and others beyond themselves. Home responsibilities gives them a sense of routine and “this is my responsibility”, helps them think beyond themselves. 

Another way of helping a child engage correctly and maintaining their values, is by discussing how fortunate we are. Currently there are over 1.37 billion children, in over 150 countries and their families who have had their schooling and education impacted. We are very fortunate to have an extensive online learning platform with one-to-one devices for all the members of our school and for our staff to be able to deliver education via those platforms, most children in the world aren’t nearly so fortunate. 

We are very fortunate to live in an expansive, free and safe society here in Sydney, in our comfortable homes, together with all our needs, and with no real shortage of food and supplies (other than the obvious things that seem to keep on disappearing from the supermarket shelves –  but that in of itself is a selfishness – thinking about myself and my family and not thinking about the greater good of society).

So, when children appreciate even the little things that they have in life they feel more disposed to kindness, empathy and chesed.

Many have dubbed this time “coronacation” (Corona + vacation), without making light of the severity and seriousness of the social, emotional, economic and health impacts of the corona crisis, but viewing it as a “coronacation”, a special time for us to spend together, to make each moment of each day that we spend at home as an opportunity for us to develop deeper relationships, and enhance our values, rather than have them stifled.

Q:  I am a little bit nervous about celebrating Pesach. We usually get together with the older generation and extended family and friends, and everyone contributes. Now it all falls back on my immediate family, I hope we are going to be able to pull this one off. 

Yes, it’s true, Pesach is the ultimate family, extended family and community time, more than any other time in the Jewish calendar. It is daunting to think about celebrating the Seder just with our immediate family because we don’t want to break the social distancing and spread the virus to others, in particular to the older members of our community. How will they stay connected? How will we do Seder without them? For that matter, how will they do Seder all alone without us? 

Here are a few practical ideas. The first is having a Zoom Seder or a Teams Seder or another online Seder prior to the Seder, similar to what many Sydney Synagogues have been doing, holding Kabbalat Shabbat services an hour before Shabbat comes in. In fact, in talking to many of the communal Rabbis, they say they have a greater participation in the online pre-Shabbat service than they have in the real-life Shabbat service on a regular Friday night. So, we can have pre-Seder connections with each other. 

When we have our more intimate family Seders, we can enjoy our collection of Haggadot that we already own or are available for download online. Whether it’s Chief Rabbi Sacks’ resources, aish.com, Chabad.org or any of the other wonderful repositories of resources that we can access and print prior to the Seder. We also have a Seder guide that is coming out from Moriah College with step-by-step ‘how to’ and insights that are relevant for different ages and stages of children.

This is an opportunity for us to think very differently about the Seder. Yes, it may be quieter.  Yes, we may or we may not know a few more or less of the Seder songs, but this is unquestionably an opportunity for us to think about how to make a unique and special Seder enabling each of our children to explore, discuss, question, find meaning and to share. We can create a Seder experience that our children will never forget. We need to remember that by celebrating this one Seder apart, G-d willing, we will be able to celebrate many Sedarim together for years to come, in good health!

Wishing you and your families Chag Sameach, stay safe and enjoy each other!


Copy of Copy of Untitled (20)About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

2 thoughts on “Q&A with College Principal Rabbi Smukler: Coronavirus, Pesach and School Holidays

  1. annettepien says:

    Thank you for everything that you have arranged to facilitate online studies for our kids. Wishing you all good pesach and a peaceful and safe holiday.


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