How One Midrasha Is Solving The COVID-19 Challenge

JERUSALEM — Rebecca Wernick, a graduate of YULA Girls High School and the daughter of JJ and Rachael Wernick, is studying this year in Midreshet Lindenbaum, of the Ohr Torah Stone educational network, in a capsule.

Did she have a dilemma about coming to midrasha this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? “My parents were definitely concerned about how this year would end up looking,” she said. “But I decided to come anyway because I knew if I didn’t come this year, there wouldn’t be another chance to come and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. Also Zoom college didn’t sound so great.”

Fortunately for Wernick, Rabbi Shlomo Brown of Midreshet Lindenbaum found a way to accommodate studying during a pandemic.

A Hobby Becomes a Lifeline

Rabbi Brown has been the executive director of Midreshet Lindenbaum, of the Ohr Torah Stone educational network, since 1998, where he also teaches Tanakh and Jewish Thought. He’s taught at the school since 1986, with a four-year break for shlichut in Canada.

When COVID-19 struck, he, like all midrasha and yeshiva directors, had new challenges to face. But unlike other directors, Rabbi Brown, who studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and received his teaching degree from Herzog College, has a beloved hobby — carpentry. To be specific, Rabbi Brown and his team have built more than forty capsules to allow for COVID-safe study, for use in the dining hall, and for other areas, as well.

“When we started to deal with the COVID situation, about nine months ago, no one knew exactly what to expect; we were sent many files of instructions” he told the Journal. “We built capsules then but it wasn’t clear how we would use them, or for how long, so at the beginning of this school year, we waited ‘till the last minute, as the guidelines of the government kept changing.

Rabbi Brown working on a capsule. (Credit: Sara Bedein)

“After the chagim, we realized that [COVID-19] will probably be [here] for the whole year, so we decided to rebuild everything, using wood frames and very thick nylon that can be fixed or replaced if it tears.

“We also discovered that if we want to protect the lecturers and the students, we should build a separate capsule for the lecturer. I consulted with an epidemiologist who said it should go all the way up to the ceiling, so if anyone is discovered to have been sick — the teacher or a student — the other side won’t need [to] quarantine. The lecturers teach without a mask.

“We built four or five capsules in each classroom. Then we redid the Beit Midrash, which is really the pearl of Lindenbaum. We built eight capsules in the Beit Midrash and when we finished, all the students said you don’t feel like you’re in a capsule… It is a great success.”

Within the Beit Midrash, the students wear masks when students from other capsules outside of their capsule are present. The students also wear masks in all public areas.

Brown pointed to his carpentry as one reason for his involvement. He also “was helped by Ada Leshem, our Logistics Coordinator, and by two maintenance people, who did most of the work.” Brown took his carpentry tools and created “a carpentry workshop on the lower floor of the building.”

“It took us almost a month to finish,” he noted. “Each of the workers gave advice; it’s successful because it is a team effort. We needed to invent methods, like how to attach the nylon. We change the capsules based on the different rooms and the size of the study groups, and we don’t want the parts to be connected permanently, so we will be able to attach and detach and rebuild in a different way, as the necessity arises.

Capsules in the Beit Midrash. (Credit: Sara Bedein)

“We were the first ones doing the first version of capsules and other schools came to see it. When we have a good idea, we let people know, and we also learn from other schools. All the schools help each other.” But even though schools compete for students, Rabbi Brown said, “there is no competition about making life good for the students, and that has been the same way for years; we share information …  I see this as a tikkun to the machloket (a repair of the disagreements) in Israeli society — the fact that we are all helping each other now. Being divisive is the main problem, so at least in our small world, we can do the opposite. May this be a small tikkun for Am Yisrael.

According to Rabbi Brown, “In the midrasha, each program had to think about how to be supportive and sensitive to the other programs, which total more than 200 students. We have six students in a Special Ed program called ‘Darkaynu,’ have 44 English-speaking students (from the United States, Canada, England, Australia, France), 12 in the ‘AmLat’ program, who speak Spanish and Portuguese, from Latin America, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil. We have 100 students from Israel, including our Hadas (pre-army program). We also have ten students in a specialized leadership program. Each student has her assigned capsule, which demands a lot of coordination, we stagger ten groups who go to lunch according to a schedule.”

The Israeli students live with four to six girls in a room. This room is their “family” unit, meaning they do not have to wear masks in their room. They go home approximately every 17 days.

Rabbi Brown explained that, “Since the beginning of this pandemic I haven’t missed one day of work, thank God. We had permission to keep the school open during Pesach, and throughout July and August, as the students from Latin America stayed. We worked very hard but I am grateful to God that I have work, and that it is interesting. Though I don’t like Zoom, I feel very lucky that I can give classes on Zoom.”

Midreshet Lindenbaum applied the capsules beyond the classroom. “We have a social worker, so we built a room divided into two sections, with nylon in between, with room for the social worker on one side and a student on the other. We are now building places where regular students can learn havrutawith ‘Darkenu’ students. I built capsules in the lobby and we are trying to find a way to create places for students to do exercises. As soon as there is a challenge, you find a way. The last thing we want is for someone to get sick, because then we have to close the school.

“I think that [the government] should give guidelines to the people who are out in the field, and let them find the solutions, obviously assuming that they are committed to doing everything in the most serious way to protect the teachers and students. The solution was simple — just nylon, wood and creativity.”

The Time of Ezra

Rabbanit Sally Mayer has been teaching at Midreshet Lindenbaum since she made aliyah more than sixteen years ago, and for the last three years, she has been the Rosh Midrasha. Rabbanit Mayer told the Journal that, “We have to be very creative this year to make sure that the girls have the wonderful experience of learning, growth and experiencing Israel that they have every year.

“The overseas girls are a closed group who went through two weeks of quarantine upon their arrival, with no contact with outside people, and are therefore considered one family. They are with us every Shabbat, and for all the chagim, unlike the Israeli girls, who go home for Shabbatot. We are their home and we are responsible for them.

“Baruch HaShem, we’ve been able to learn in person, using teacher capsules. We go on trips and Shabbatot to places such as Susia, Tzfat, and Ein Gedi, all while strictly adhering to the regulations to keep everyone safe. We are blessed with an amazing team who work day-and-night to care for the students and make this year the incredible experience it is.”

Rabbanit Dena Rock teaching in a capsule. (Credit: Sara Bedein)

When asked how the students reacted to this atypical year, where travel is limited, Rabbanit Mayer responded, “It’s like the story of Ezra, who came back to Eretz Yisrael to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash. They were overjoyed at being able to rebuild this center for worship of God and the symbol of HaShem’s presence amongst us! But the returning exiles who had seen the first Beit Hamikdash cried when they saw the new one, since it wasn’t as majestic as the one King Solomon had built. Whose reaction was more powerful?

“Our students are having an incredible year in Israel, not exactly the same as a normal one, but one filled with meaningful learning and growth in Midrasha, close friendships, and deep connections to the Land and State of Israel. Just like at the time of Ezra, the challenges of this year are overcome by joy and the fulfillment of their dreams.”

Read this article on the Jewish Journal website 

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