Behind Ohr Kodesh Congregation in Chevy Chase stands a series of connected tents. No, the circus isn’t in town. But the laughter of children is there.
Wedged between the and a chain link fence, the structure takes up most of the back parking lot. The floor consists of wooden pallets covered in plywood and carpet. And metal poles hold up the white canopy making up the walls and roof. The shelter serves as the activity center for children at MoEd, a Hebrew-speaking childcare service.
MoEd has run an after-school educational program for children in grades K-8 since 2012. But a year ago, the pandemic began and schools closed.
“I kind of freaked out,” says MoEd’s executive director, Orna Eldor-Gerling. “Who needs after school when there’s no school?”
But MoEd, which means “special time” in Hebrew, is busier than ever. Last fall, it launched a full-day program for students attending virtual classes at Montgomery County public schools.
Parents drop off their children at MoEd during school hours and students attend classes on their laptops. There are 100 kids in the MoEd program at locations in Chevy Chase and at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville.
“I have a waiting list from here until Switzerland,” Eldor-Gerling says.
At the entrance to the tent wooden cubbies. Staff check each kid’s temperature before letting them proceed further inside.
On a recent day, the wind shakes the walls of the tent as if to raise the structure off the ground.
“If we hang on, we might just get to Oz,” Eldor-Gerling jokes.
The structure’s middle section is where the games are kept. A large version of Connect Four sits on the floor as children dig through a bin of Legos. Eldor-Gerling, her hair dyed blue, gives instructions to her staff in Hebrew.
Outside the tent, children splash in puddles and run across a muddy field. Asked about class outdoors, Beth Natter, 6, says it’s “weird because we’re outside in a tent and we’re not even camping.”
Over the summer, Eldor-Gerling initially thought MoEd could host its new all-day service inside. But she had a revelation. There was less risk from COVID if MoEd met outside.
So the staff got to work putting up tents. Eldor-Gerling admits she somehow expected an Israeli winter to arrive for her Hebrew-speaking program.
“This whole idea came out of my very dumb, naive Israeli corner of not understanding how vicious the weather can be, right? When you grow up in the desert, the weather doesn’t have an attitude. Then you can only be stupid enough to think I’ll put up a tent.”
Eldor-Gerling says those first tents were “party tents.” They worked perfectly fine until a thunderstorm tore through them.
And so the staff built the current sturdier connected series of tents. For the most part, the kids stay dry, the heaters keep them warm and if the weather takes a turn for the worse, then they can go inside the synagogue.
Jonathan Tessler, the director of the Chevy Chase site, says the staff on “mask patrol,” on the lookout for kids taking off their masks. But they’ve gotten used to wearing masks, he says. The harder thing is getting the younger ones to stay six feet apart.
“Kids will naturally gravitate each other. So a big part of what we need to do is ensure that they can still have fun, while social distancing,” Tessler says.
Hannah Feldman of Chevy Chase has one child in the full-day program and two in the afternoon program.
“If [my son Daniel] was home every day, it would be really difficult,” she says as Daniel, who’s in the third grade, tugs at her arm. “The fact that MoEd’s the one watching him and not us is a real lifesaver. So my husband and I can work full time without an issue.”
Dan Handwerker of Silver Spring has his son Sam, 6, in MoEd’s full-day While virtual learning goes on, he’s happy that his son can be around other kids.
“Normally they’re not sitting at computers, logging into classes for several hours a day,” Handwerker says. “But it’s not normal times.”