Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky ‘02 Congregation Beth El South Orange, NJ Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech
Don’t listen to those who say that masks cover our smiles. Sitting in the carpool lane at Golda Och Academy this week and returning to in-person instruction for the first time in six months, my children were smiling with their eyes. The smiles of all children and staff (and parents!) could be seen, even with masks, face shields, and PPE being worn. We cannot – and should not – understate the amount of work that the GOA team put into preparing for our children to return to school safely.
This week’s Torah portion, the last before we begin the New Year, Nitzavim-Vayelech, tells us: “[Torah] which I command you on this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach… it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (Deut. 30:11-14)
The past six months have felt strange and scary, and the future remains uncertain. Even as our children excitedly returned to in-person instruction this week, they did so accepting a new reality. Some children rejoined their GOA classmates via remote instruction. People have a tendency to question that which looks or feels different from that which we are comfortable with or used to. But even if this school year feels a bit different than past years, the Jewish community built at GOA and the joyful Jewish moments that our children experience still resonate.
The masks and PPE, socially-distanced classroom set ups, and students who are attending school remotely do not prevent Torah from being close to us. A pessimist may see these as potential hurdles, limiting Jewish communal experience. As a GOA parent, alum, and community rabbi, I am especially grateful for this school community that has thought creatively about how to ensure these Jewish moments continue to be meaningful. I take comfort in this Torah portion, knowing that words of Torah remain in the mouths and hearts of students and teachers at Golda Och Academy. No matter how socially distanced our children remain while inside or outside of school, Torah remains close to all of them, and to all of us.
As we prepare to enter 5781, may we cling to Torah more than ever before. May it guide us as we experience the high points and low points of this roller coaster year, and may our children’s experience this year remind us that even when things look a bit different, Torah still remains on our lips and in our hearts to guide us each and every day. Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!