You Want We Should Go to School on Pesach?


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An evergreen sentiment perhaps, but these past weeks have been worse than normal, as those of us who are sane have had to watch on social and traditional news media as Haredim make utter shandas of themselves, defying public health orders about public gatherings and being hostile to law enforcement (among the more charming anecdotes: the Israeli Haredim calling Israeli police Nazis for handing them fines).

Probably as a result of this, ultra-Orthodox communities have been hit incredibly hard by the virus. The combination of shame at the Chilul HaShem (wrongdoings committed by fellow Jews) and sadness for the woes of the Klal Yisra’el (the whole of the Jewish community) is painful—I may not be ultra-Orthodox myself, but I’ve known people who are, and I have friends who are very close to the ultra-Orthodox world. Jews are not a monolith by any stretch, but we are one people, and I’m feeling that particularly acutely now.

More than that, though, we are feeling the same stresses as everyone else: it feels like the world is falling apart around us. Thousands of my fellow New Yorkers have died, and many more will join them before this ends. The pain of watching this happen is not a sharp one, because most aspects of my life and those of my friends have remained intact. It is dull and prolonged, and it builds slowly and almost unnoticeably before geysering out in bursts of upset. It is what living in a dystopia would (does?) actually feel like, not what it is in YA novels. It is strikingly close to normalcy, but distressingly not, like the memed version of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” with the vocals a half step off. This is Hell as envisioned by “The Good Place” (2016-2020): less penis-flattening, more frozen yogurt.

And on top of that dread, we’ve had to carry on with schoolwork. The volume of that schoolwork, in time it takes to do it, has managed to stay on par with non-quarantine schoolwork despite the absence of commuting or extracurricular activities. This is probably largely because students and teachers—but especially students, each of whom have several teachers and no special training—have had to rapidly adjust not only to a host of new educational platforms, but also to that host of new platforms containing the entirety of our education. And the adjustment is about to experience a major disruption, after New York’s Department of Education’s Chancellor Richard Carranza banned Zoom over the weekend over security concerns.

The fact that school has been continuing apace is, I think, a good thing: it’s important to maintain normalcy (within reason), and the problems with adjusting to the new technology, while a genuine and major obstacle to education, are inevitabilities of circumstance, not failures of policy.

But on the school front, there has been a bright side: Spring Recess, scheduled at the beginning of this school year to happen from April 9 to April 17—overlapping, as always, with Pesach. But then, the Teachers’ Union announced that the break would be reduced to just April 9 and 10—a four day weekend, no more a “break” than Thanksgiving—on Tuesday, March 31. And this Friday evening—during Shabbat, because we live in the world according to Bizarro Pangloss—Carranza pulled the rug out completely, announcing that even the ninth and tenth would be school days.

It’s important to note the ideas for which spring recess exists. The Pesach angle is the less consequential one and more behind spring recess’ scheduling than its being. Most of Pesach is not a terribly difficult holiday to observe; refraining from eating the vast majority of food products for eight days is annoying, sure, but if my Muslim schoolmates can go to school during Ramadan, I can go to school during Pesach (the first two days, during which we hold the seders, are a different story, more analogous to Eid Al-Fitr, which has been recognized by the school calendar since 2015).

The more important reason for spring recess is simple: we need a break. A term of school is a long time, we are teenagers, and we ought to get a week off in the middle of the semester for the sake of our collective mental health. One might assume that this is less true this year because we have not gone to school in three weeks; one would be wrong. If anything, we need a break this year more than ever.

Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reason for cancelling spring recess within a week’s notice is that doing so will, in theory, promote social distancing; who knows what sorts of mischief kids will get up to if they’re given a week to relax? They might go outside, so we must keep them busy at all costs, goes the argument. Truth be told, Carranza and de Blasio’s case has some merit, and they even throw us a bone: “Since we know spring recess is usually a time of rest & recharging for educators & students alike, we'll offer schools new remote learning resources that focus on daily themes & enrichment activities,” Carranza tweeted in his announcement of the policy. And indeed, if the new policy consisted of keeping Thursday and Friday as days off and devoting the week of the 13th to seriously stripped-down remote learning, with classes still in place but all outside-of-class work (homework, that is, but everything is homework right now) removed, I would support it. As sad as I’d be to lose a week of break, de Blasio and Carranza are right to worry about how social distancing would fare without virtual school.

The problem is that the policy neither mandates a stripped-down workload during the week that was supposed to be our break nor keeps Thursday and Friday as days off. “Enrichment activities” is the sort of phrase that could mean something but doesn’t have to; it’s a half-measure. Teachers still have the option of treating the week as normal school. Most probably won’t—they’re losing out on a break too, and it’s not as if their curricula had been depending on that week—but some assuredly will; that’s not right, and it shouldn’t be allowed.

And as for Thursday and Friday: that Carranza and de Blasio have made them school days with a week’s notice is offensive to every Jew who will be recovering from Seders and observing chag, which includes refraining from electronic use, on both days and had been told that we would be able to do so in peace. Carranza has tried to mitigate the harm of this as well, tweeting, “Any students & school staff who wish to observe those holidays may do so.” I assume that Carranza’s effort on this front is in good faith, but it is inadequate. As he continued: “However, they will not be considered ‘days off.’”

Where does that leave me and other Jews like me? Excused from school for those two days, only to find ourselves with two days of work to make up when Shabbat ends the next evening. And that's not to mention that the Governor's original order took away the last two days of Pesach, which, while not having seders, are also chag; there has been no announcement to the effect that students will have the option not to attend remote classes on that day.

Not enough. Not by a long shot. Especially since teachers don't even have the luxury of not going to school and having to make up work — if Jewish teachers want to have off the first two days of Pesach, or Catholic teachers Good Friday, they have to take it out of their personal days. Given that they were supposed to have those days off, theirs is an extraordinarily unfair position.

I can only hope that Stuyvesant will take matters into its own hands. Directing teachers not to assign homework over the Break That Isn’t seems like it’s probably within the bounds of Carranza’s policy, which, as he has presented it to the public, is fairly ambiguous.

There is a pretty well-known song that is sung each year at the seder. It details how grateful we Jews are that God has done so many things for us and how even just one of them would have been enough. It is called Dayeinu, a Hebrew word formed by combining Dai, “enough,” and nu, a first-person plural phoneme: “Enough for us.”

(A nice piece of yiddishkeit, perhaps, that the song we sing for gratitude sounds like a kvetch. “Enough for us!”)

The song has a straightforward structure, of which I’ll quote the first few verses, just to demonstrate:

“If He had taken us out of Egypt and not made judgements on them [the ancient Egyptians]; Dayeinu!

“If He had made judgments on them and had not made [them] on their gods; Dayeinu!

“If He had made [them] on their gods and had not killed their firstborn [Pesach: not a terribly ancient Egyptian-friendly holiday]; Dayeinu!” (translation courtesy of Sefaria)

And so forth, and so forth.

The past months have been like a twisted nightmare version of “Dayeinu,” where everything is bad and just keeps getting worse.

Had COVID-19 existed, but never reached the US; Dayeinu!

Had COVID-19 reached the US, but not New York; Dayeinu!

Had COVID-19 reached New York, but not necessitated a collective quarantine; Dayeinu!

Had COVID-19 necessitated a collective quarantine, but the transition to remote learning had not had any bumps whatsoever; Dayeinu!

Had the transition to remote learning had its share of bumps, but we still had Spring Recess; Dayeinu!

We need time off. We need to rest. We need to recharge. Don’t take that away from us.