Connecting with Boston’s Students Goes Beyond Books

This week, JCRC hosted a conversation between Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell and Dr. Nasreen Hadad Haj’Yahya, Director of Arab-Jewish Relations at the Israel Democracy Institute, on the barriers to equity in education in their own communities: Campbell here in Boston, and Dr. Haj’Yahya as an Arab Israeli.

Both women shared their personal struggles, as they attested to the power of education to transform their lives and enable their success. But they were also painfully aware of how unusual their stories were, and how badly inadequate education systems failed others, including their own siblings.

The current pandemic has exacerbated existing barriers to educational equity in each of their communities, they told us, with the lack of universal access to technology for learning (also known as the “Digital Divide”) being a central factor.

We at JCRC are acutely aware of the potentially dire consequences of the pandemic for young school children, particularly in the high needs schools we partner with through our Greater Boston Jewish Coalition for Literacy (GBJCL) program. So, we are especially heartened to see our tutors maintaining their connections with their young friends virtually, as 60 of them are now tutoring online. The strength of these relationships has transcended the barrier of physical distance, and the pairs continue to share the joy of reading, through their screens.

GBJCL serves students who sometimes fall through the cracks — especially during the pandemic, when students are so isolated and disconnected from their learning communities. This year, GBJCL went beyond academics to focus on the value at the core of our work: our relationships with students.

Like so many other GBJCL volunteers, Nancy Krieger, a two-decades-long GBJCL veteran from Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, connected with her students virtually, even tutoring one student who returned home to the Dominican Republic to be close to family during the pandemic. Despite being separated by thousands of miles, Nancy and her student were determined to continue their work from the previous school year and keep learning together. Nancy is passionately committed to her mission to maintain the joy of learning for this student. Nancy also leverages her professional expertise as a Dance-Movement therapist to offer movement breaks to her students virtually – something we can all benefit from after all these months of sitting at home!

Another volunteer, Judy Elder of Temple Emanuel in Newton, has continued to work online with a child she has tutored for multiple years, knowing from the start that it would take flexibility and innovation not only to maintain her student’s attention online, but also to create a fun experience. Judy and her second grade friend enjoyed reading “Pete the Cat” together, on an online book sharing platform GBJCL introduced her to, and Judy used the same platform to teach her fifth grader’s about Jewish traditions, through “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”

Virtual tutoring has resulted in an unexpected benefit – a new opportunity to connect with parents. Judy and her student’s mother teamed up to support the at-home learning; with the mother printing out pages so student and tutor could read from the same text and supplying her iPhone for her daughter to use when the Internet failed.

As teachers and students face tremendous obstacles, and are stretched to their limits, GBJCL volunteers provide crucial support. In some cases, they also work closely with school administrations to identify teachers and students in need of support, then pairing these students with volunteers. This enables teachers to concentrate on virtual learning, knowing that their students are receiving the one-on-one attention they need.

The online community that GBJCL tutors have built not only improves the tutoring experience but also enriches their own lives. As a population of individuals mostly over age 65, many face isolation in their homes due to the pandemic. As they serve their students, GBJCL provides added value and purpose to their lives.

It is hard not to feel lonely and adrift as we enter our second year of being at home. There is no more powerful antidote than the joy that comes with helping a young child to discover the joy of reading

You can join us in championing a young reader by signing up to become a tutor.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy