Almost exactly one year ago, my three children were spread out all over the house, each in their own corner beginning their journey with virtual learning. In any spare moments I was hurrying from store to store trying to find toilet paper, Clorox wipes, flour and yeast. I was adjusting to working at home, created my very first mask made from an old, clean sock and watched as my dining room table was transformed into a mini-sanctuary.

My husband, also a rabbi, had brought a Torah and small ark (that had previously been used mainly for junior-congregation at his synagogue) home for him to use while leading services on Zoom from our house. At first it was mostly adorable watching my then 8-year-old son do math with his class on Google-meet, while sharing his table space with the ark.

Instead of spreading our family of five out and eating Shabbat dinner comfortably at our dining room table, day after day we scrunched together in our breakfast nook, so as not to disturb the new holy space. Some mornings my husband would be reading Torah and the kids would be playing or watching TV, but when it came time to dress the Torah and return it to the ark, he would yell, “G’lilah!” and the kids would drop whatever they were doing and come running to help put on the belt, dress and yad (pointer).

After a few weeks, we realized that this pandemic was not ending anytime soon and we shifted the ark to a new space of its own, partly in an effort to get my spacious dining room table back, and even more so to bring some feeling of normalcy back into a very chaotic, abnormal situation. Throughout this entire year, my family and I have had a “front row seat” to every Jewish experience, and while we haven’t been able to celebrate as we would have chosen to – in person, with loved ones, in our beloved holy spaces – we haven’t skipped a beat. We move forward, acknowledging that just as our rituals and traditions are evolving during these pandemic times, so too is our ability to adapt and be transformed by all that surrounds us.

This sense of transformation and adaptation has been felt, perhaps most of all, in my important work with the teens in the Wexner Service Corps (WSC). This incredible program brings together an impressive group of high school juniors and seniors in Columbus, Ohio, who have committed to a year of service and Jewish learning that directly supports the needs of our community and exposes them to a variety of ways that they can make a meaningful and powerful impact on our world. In non-COVID-19 times, WSC meets monthly at different sites in and around Columbus and teens engage in meaningful in-person and hands-on service projects that include opportunities to interact and engage with others, as well as to build, plant, dig, organize, sort, carry, create and much more. The skills that they gain and cultivate through this program are critical to their development as individuals, as team players and as future change-makers who will strive to do tikkun olam and find ways to make a difference in the world each day.

One year ago, right as the world began to turn upside down, and we all took literal and figurative steps inside to figure out what our new lives were going to look like and how they were going to function, the Wexner Service Corps team accepted a whole new cohort of teens and started planning how we would not just pivot but reinvent this entire program.

We wondered:

–       How can we do in-person service if we’re not in-person?

–       How can we create meaningful ways for teens to get to know one another online?

–       How can we truly open their eyes to the needs of our community and SERVE the community from afar?

–       How can we make it interesting, fun, valuable, and engaging?

It has taken a tremendous amount of thought, teamwork and creativity, but ultimately we have succeeded in creating something very special. Our current group of WSC teens still come together every month to focus on a different social justice issue and/or a specific local organization and has done so virtually every time. Each monthly service event follows a set structure and flow. We open with an ice breaker or game that is related to the topic of the day, move into our Jewish learning, hear from speakers from local organizations, do hands-on service together in real time, and end by debriefing and finding take-away lessons. Teens can participate safely and comfortably through games and activities that start with nonverbal participation and move into chat/posting and then to small and larger group conversations.

There are definitely moments where I stop and feel the weight of what we’re missing as compared to our regular program. There’s no way to sugar coat it, and as I repeated throughout this year to the teens, it’s worth being disappointed about it. But, instead of focusing on what we don’t have, we do our best to accept and turn our attention to the amazing opportunities we’ve had because of this demand for programmatic evolution.

We’ve stayed safe. We’ve protected ourselves and our communities by staying apart, while simultaneously supporting those most in need around us from the comfort of our own homes. We’ve learned about and worked with organizations that we otherwise might not have, and we’ve seen how COVID-19 has impacted each and every part of our lives. We’ve learned the essential life-lesson: that a person can make a difference no matter where they are, and that there is no act too small to make a big impact. Whether you’re baking cookies, making tie-blankets, creating online games, turning old t-shirts into reusable bags or dog toys, recording yourself reading a story to a child in an underprivileged neighborhood, or painting a beautiful landscape to donate to an isolated senior, each and every act of kindness contributes to the betterment of our society and our world.

Of all the unanticipated gains we’ve experienced during this challenging time, I’m struck most by our expanded ability to hear and listen to one another, and most importantly to hear the needs of others. The experience of coming into a Zoom call when everyone is muted is so unlike real life, where you walk into a noisy space filled with people. Now we have become accustomed to quickly muting ourselves upon entry and feeling hyper-sensitive to even the smallest sound (a dog barking, a baby crying, a tapping pen, or even computer typing). The silence can be overwhelming and intimidating and it’s also powerful. It has the ability to help us tune in to each and every little sound we hear. I pray that as the chaos of COVID-times hopefully starts to calm, that we can carry this new skill of being hyper-attentive and shift it to a fervent desire to be hyper-aware and able to zoom in to the needs of those around us.

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Rabbi Sharon Barr Skolnik is the Program Director of the Wexner Service Corps.