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High-tech comes to Hebrew school in Southbury

By Cindy Mindell

SOUTHBURY – A Fairfield County synagogue used to publicize its religious school with a lawn sign portraying a smiling boy holding a soccer ball and the promise: “A Hebrew school your child will love as much as soccer.”

This, in a simple image and phrase, is the reality of religious school education in 21st century American Jewish communities. To attract and retain students, synagogues must create programs that compete effectively with the myriad other after-school activities crowding the typical family calendar.

Many schools have realized the potential and inevitability of educational technology, adding digital tools to the standard curriculum. Some offer flexible scheduling and telecommuting. There is no shortage of apps and websites that offer Jewish learning for all ages.

As part of B’nai Israel Religious School's B’tzelem Elohim (we are all created in God’s image) unit of study, students created gift baskets for clients at the local women’s shelter and soup kitchen and baked bread for donation to the community-wide  interfaith Thanksgiving Day celebration.

As part of B’nai Israel Religious School’s B’tzelem Elohim (we are all created in God’s image) unit of study, students created gift baskets for clients at the local women’s shelter and soup kitchen and baked bread for donation to the community-wide interfaith Thanksgiving Day celebration.

Among the latest programs to bring together technology and content to create a virtual Judaic classroom is ShalomLearning. The start-up was founded in 2011 by educational technology entrepreneur Devin Schain and Andrew Rosen, a founder of the educational software company, Blackboard. The two decided to bring together their collective experience in business, education, and technology to conceive a curriculum that would appeal to affiliated and unaffiliated Jewish families alike. With input from a curriculum-development team, the resulting tech- and values-based program was piloted at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County, Md., where the Rosen and Schain families are congregants.

The following year, three synagogues and 50 students were engaged. This academic year, nearly 20 synagogues and 300 students are participating in the program – among them, B’nai Israel Religious School in Southbury, the first synagogue in Connecticut to take part.

Designed for grades 4 through 6, ShalomLearning blends traditional classroom techniques with online discussions and self-paced activities. Instead of a fact-based curriculum, the program centers on seven key Jewish values, each forming the basis of a unit: Teshuvah, taking responsibility for one’s actions; B’Tzelem Elohim, honoring the image of God in ourselves and others; Gevurah, using one’s inner strength to do the right thing; Achrayut, recognizing one’s responsibility to make the world a better place; Hakarat HaTov, recognizing the good in the world and expressing gratitude; Koach HaDibbur, understanding the power of our words; and Shalom, working to create a more peaceful world.

B’nai Israel Religious School is a pioneer in another way, targeting the program to its seventh graders to try to improve “spotty” attendance on Tuesday afternoons, says principal Susan Pinsky Bleeks.

“We thought that that session could be replaced by a virtual class,” she says. “That’s the way schools are moving and Jewish education needs to reflect the trends our children are involved in. We saw it as a way to offer meaningful education and resolve the scheduling stress that causes families to miss out on the Hebrew school experience.”

Bleeks says that the school administration was also impressed by ShalomLearning’s values-based curriculum. “Most traditional Hebrew schools are focused on a book with each unit broken down into facts you have to master, with the hope that the related Jewish value comes through,” she says. “The truth is that as children go on to college and become adults, they will forget the names of the Twelve Tribes, the year the Temple was destroyed. But if we incorporate Jewish values as a way to live for the rest of your life, our children will be engaged in our tradition.”

Rabbi Eric Polokoff says that the school decided to pilot the program in seventh grade for two main reasons: a virtual session would ease and complement the already-substantial time they spend at the synagogue for b’nai mitzvah preparation; and an enlivened curriculum might help with student retention in eighth grade.

So, on three consecutive Tuesday afternoons, master teacher Rachel Barclay connects with her 14 seventh graders via webcams wherever they happen to be, facilitating two back-to-back one-hour sessions that involve discussions, videos, and writing. The fourth Tuesday is dedicated to a home-study project. A good example of the power of the virtual classroom came during a “brain break” activity on the Tuesday of Chanukah: Barclay asked the students to go get a menorah for a virtual show and tell. She photographed each student via her computer, and sent the photos to the seventh grade parents.

“It was spontaneous and such a bonding thing,” says Bleeks. “Each student brought a little bit of their personality and their own life into the lesson, something they wouldn’t have been able to do in the classroom without a lot of pre-planning.”

ShalomLearning is funded at B’nai Israel by a grant from the Jewish Foundation, part of the Jewish Federation of Western Connecticut.

“Jewish education, Jewish learning in any form, is a priority,” says Shelly Katz, executive director. “I think it’s very important that we reach out to our students where they are in a way that interests them and keeps them interested in Jewish learning – even more so in our area, where many of the kids are the only Jews in their [regular] classrooms. We’re very proud to be able to support this program.”

The verdict after four months? “Attendance has been amazing,” says Bleeks. “These same children who would miss a lot of Tuesdays are there most of the time now.” Some have even said that they miss being together in a physical classroom, anticipated by the ShalomLearning curriculum developers and answered by a monthly 7th-grade family-learning activity.

Bleeks sees a lot of potential for larger community-building and future engagement. “One of our hopes with ShalomLearning is that, by bringing these children more tightly together in their own community through this direct experience, it will enhance their involvement after b’nai mitzvah,” she says. “They’re really getting to know each other and, by engaging their families, we’re hoping that the parents get more involved because they’re learning too that there’s Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah.”

Comments? email  cindym@jewishledger.com.

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