Kohelet 4:9-10: Two are better than one, since they have good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his friend, but woe to the one who falls and has no second one to lift him up.

When COVID-19 descended on our community last spring, it brought with it many challenging, often painful conversations with our students. However, one of the most painful conversations for me was having to say the following six words to our graduating eighth graders:

“We can’t go to New York.”

The eighth grade New York trip is just about one of the most beloved traditions to which our middle schoolers look forward. Whether it meant getting to spend a week in the city, tasting a bit of (structured) freedom with their friends, getting to know their teachers better, and, most importantly, learning through experience and adventure, the trip brought so much to so many for more than 10 years.

Losing the trip only made the realities of our lives in quarantine more stark and unforgiving. While we as a staff made sure the JCDS Class of 2020 left our halls (virtual as they may have been at the time) feeling special and loved, there was nevertheless a feeling that something was missing.

Which is why, when we returned to the building this fall, I immediately went to my colleagues with six new words:

“We have to figure this out.”

New York was still a non-starter, we knew that. But there had to be something, anything, that we could do to replicate the experience while still honoring our guiding principles of Briyut (Health and Safety), Areyvut (Collective Responsibility), and Shlemut (Spreading Calm).

It turns out that our parent community, as well as our medical advisory team, was very much on the same page. Several months of planning, countless emails, two donated Cape Cod lake houses (major thanks to the Engelhart family), and a whole lot of love and care later and the first-ever JCDS eighth grade retreat was born. These four days on the Cape have been a revelation for our students and our staff. After a week in quarantine (save for attending school) and multiple COVID tests, our students are able to interact in ways they haven’t in over a year while inside our bubble: eating, singing, laughing, and learning together, unmasked and smiling. A small oasis of normalcy amid the desert of distance in which we find ourselves. The impact of even the small moments, the smirks and flashes of teenage wonder, is immense.

“I feel like I got closer with my class—which says something since we’ve been together for nine years—and to just be together like we used to. It gave us a good sense of closure. I cried a lot. It was sweet and sad. But I would be more sad if I had to end the year without seeing everyone’s beautiful faces.”
—Ma’ayan R.

“It’s been a community bonding experience and it’s been nice to be with my friends and see a different side of them than I usually do. It’s been fun just to be normal during the pandemic and have fun like it’s a normal year.”
—James H.

“It’s nice because we haven’t had a lot of time to just be together. The activities are organized but still flexible and creative. It’s just nice.”
—Natan M.

“This week has been peaceful and a great way to take a break from all the troubles in the world. I’ve bonded with all of my classmates.”
—Libby S.

“It was 100% worth it to quarantine and test to come here. It’s been so hard to be so far from our friends all year. Just being together means so much.”
—Yael G.

It has been the honor of our year to bring this opportunity to our beloved eighth grade. If it takes a village to raise a child, this trip has truly taken a Manhattan-sized city. But as we end our nights singing together by the campfire, all of the work it took to get here falls away and is replaced by sheer, unfiltered, and very normal joy and appreciation of this wonderful class.

Josh Mocle is a middle school humanities and social studies faculty and the middle school advisor.

The School Sparks blog appears periodically by various writers among the JCDS educational team. Learn more about JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School.

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