Please join me in welcoming our new CEO, Michael Feinstein.
As you can imagine, the need for quality online education, teacher training, and innovative curriculum design in Jewish education has been unprecedented in 2020. Enrollment in ShalomLearning’s programs has doubled since last year and now exceeds 12,000 students. But as Rabbi Tarfon famously said in the Mishnah, “the day is short and the work is great.” Thanks to a generous grant we have brought in a new CEO to lead us through our next phase of growth.
Michael brings to ShalomLearning over 30 years of experience as a leader of entrepreneurial businesses and nonprofit organizations. Most recently, he served the Bender JCC of Greater Washington as Chief Executive Officer for 12 years. (Michael’s bio can be found here.)
Our founders, Devin Schain and Andrew Rosen had a vision to transform supplementary Jewish education for elementary school children to keep up with the advancements in education technology. When I joined ShalomLearning in 2014, our enrollment was 307 students and 15 teachers at 15 Congregational School partner sites in six states. Today our enrollment has grown to 12,696 students and 1,728 teachers, 236 partners in 37 states and 8 countries! None of this would have been possible without the transformational grants from The William Davidson Foundation, The William and Audrey Farber Family Foundation and the Terrie and Bradley Bloom Family; our amazing staff and board and partnerships and supporters like you. There are thousands of people involved in keeping ShalomLearning going these days, and I am eternally grateful for all of you!
It has been an honor and a privilege to lead ShalomLearning through this tremendous growth. I am excited to hand the CEO baton over to Michael to help us grow our capacity. I look forward to spending more time on teacher training, programming, writing and publishing and overall advocacy for our continued growth. We are in great hands with Michael as our new leader and I look forward to another fantastic year of growth and spreading the light of living meaningful lives steeped in Jewish values.
It is always darkest before dawn. As you can imagine, we’ve been busier than ever and the ShalomLearning family has grown tremendously since our last newsletter. We are now helping our 200+ school partners get ready for a new year with 1500 teachers and 10,000 students. However, with the start of a new school season upon us, we’re hearing from many or our partners at religious schools about the challenges they are facing. The most common worry from education directors is this: enrollment is down because so many families are overwhelmed, and kids have too much Zoom fatigue already for yet another online lesson as Hebrew School appears as something “extra” in their schedules.
The other day, I woke at 5:30 am and went for a walk to reflect on this issue. The sun was rising over the lake and the water reflected the pink clouds lighting up the sky. “There’s God, showing off again,” I thought. It made me stop and just take in what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.”
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the
morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.
Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life
casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
In full disclosure, this is not my typical morning. Raising children and facing life’s endless challenges during a pandemic does not fill me with radical amazement at every waking moment. In fact, I have never known a time of such sorrow, stress, and suffering for the world in my lifetime, as the moment that we are in right now.
Our children miss camps, sports competitions, live theater and in person clubs and yes, being in school with their friends. We are all braced for another wave of COVID-19 with the cold and flu season coming. When will the vaccine come? Some say it could be another 2 years! To which I say “Oy! Come on!”
Many of my peers involved in Jewish communal engagement are deeply cynical about the future of synagogue life. And they have every reason to feel pessimistic. But reason itself has its own limitations. Our mind can only do what our mind can do. What about the heart? What about faith?
Now faith is a different story. Faith in Hebrew is “Emunah.”
We, as Jews, are part of a global community with a close connection to the Jewish people all over the world. And yet, a lot of Jewish religious life is based around home and family activities. If we do not at least try our best to bring some aspect of spirituality into our homes this upcoming Jewish new year, we will continue to feel lost. I know this all too well.
Surely we can find one or two hours a week to make Jewish life relevant for our children. This thrust into remote learning is an opportunity to use education technology in a more meaningful way. It’s ironically, even an opportunity to learn about ways to take advantage of the times you are unplugged. Each of our lessons includes a summary teachers can send to parents that include “Table Talk.” These are questions to be discussed at the next meal. Ideally over Shabbat dinner, but it can really be anywhere. We want to meet families where they are and help them connect to Judaism on whichever level they are most comfortable.
I believe that ShalomLearning is the best option to help synagogues and home schools right now. We train our teachers how to use Edtech seamlessly and we provide the turn-key lessons and support to make Hebrew School into a fun and engaging and relevant educational experience. We also provide “Hands On Activities” that can be used for safe, outdoor, socially distanced learning – including family education for all ages.
Math, reading and science are important. But so is our soul. We need to answer “the spiritual curriculum” (as Mussar puts it) that we face every day. Our children’s secular schools are trying to catch up with Edtech, and everyone is fried with screen time. I get it. But what are we doing as families in respect to educating and nurturing the soul?
Let ShalomLearning help. Open yourself to bring more spiritual Light into your home. Judaism provides so many beautiful and meaningful ways to navigate through the world. If we do not provide these opportunities for our families, we further the risk of the Light going out on our watch. And that would be the saddest day of them all.
The good news is that Shalomlearning can help your families and community learn how to live life in a Jewish way that will help you get through these dark days and help your synagogue get through this crisis.
At some point in the next 3-24 months, this pandemic will end its grip on everything, and we will be free to meet once again in person, go to concerts and restaurants and hug our friends and family. And I believe that people will want to return to synagogues and gather as a Jewish community, perhaps more than ever before.
Our souls need SOMETHING to bring a light into the darkness in the interim. So let us help you get through this period. Our lessons are designed that they can be taught in person, online, at home, or a hybrid. When synagogue life does return, you will not need to miss a beat in the education of your children. It will simply be, “Last week was Gevurah (Unit 3) lesson three at home. Today, welcome back to our building! Let us continue with lesson four.”
I thank God we have the ability to help religious schools. It is my sincere hope that we can all give Emunah (faith) a better try, as I know that ShalomLearning can help educators and families alike. In the end, we all have the same job in this dark period of history, and that is to do what the Jewish people do best: bring in more light.
Hebrew schools across North America made a dramatic and rapid shift into virtual classrooms in the wake of COVID-19. Now, with the potential for a second wave of contagion this fall, educational directors are making plans to keep classes online at the start of the next school year.
The impact of COVID-19 on the Jewish education landscape was severe, with many synagogues scrambling to adapt their curricula to online platforms, some more successfully than others. Online curriculum providers were suddenly flooded with inquiries, many from educational directors who had little to no experience with virtual classrooms or blended (online and in-person) teaching models.
One such nonprofit organization, ShalomLearning, which specializes in online and blended curricula for Hebrew schools, saw demand jump sharply. Since mid-March, an additional 210 teachers began using the platform, while the number of students enrolled in their virtual classrooms grew by 2,000 to 7,800, bringing ShalomLearning’s partnership total to 163 congregations across North America.
“We weren’t surprised that interest rose so quickly as our numbers have been growing every year and teachers, students and families are really enjoying our lessons. And there was an enormous increase in demand for teacher training on how to run a virtual classroom since we had the technology in place since 2011 to address this need ,” said Joshua Troderman, ShalomLearning’s CEO. “What was surprising, however, are the reports that we are receiving that student attendance in the virtual classrooms are rising tremendously. Many Jewish educators who were once reluctant to embrace new technologies were caught off-guard, but they now realize the necessity and are getting on-board, especially considering all the summer camp closures that have been announced this month and what’s expected this Fall.”
Public health officials have begun to warn of a potential second wave of COVID infections later this year, which could be further exacerbated by the return of flu season. With this in mind, several synagogues have already declared their intention to operate virtually at the start of the school year, including Kehilat Shalom in Montgomery Village, MD and Temple Sinai in Brookline, MA.
“We look forward to keeping our virtual learning going in the fall,” said Temple Sinai Director of Education Heidi Smith Hyde. “I’ve heard from a few parents that offering an online option will make their lives easier by eliminating the need for transportation to and from religious school, especially during a busy work week.”
One benefit to online platforms that use a blended model is the ability to seamlessly switch from in-person to online as needed. The curriculums are designed to be flexible and adaptable, which is increasingly important to educators given the current uncertainty over COVID.
“Kids were so bored sitting at home, so having something like ShalomLearning that was programmed and familiar made it more enjoyable for them,” Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom added. “No one knows what’s going to happen by September and this uncertainty is what’s making people antsy. Continuing our online classes will help give people a degree of certainty.”
ShalomLearning has been providing our educational materials and training for free to help Jewish educators in their sudden transition to virtual classes. We’ve been listening to all the requests and noticed there was a large demand for Passover lessons to use in Zoom (or any other video-classroom tool). Therefore, we pulled sections from our Koach Hadibbur units, edited it to work as a stand alone lesson, and made it available for free.
In this lesson, students learn about the story of Passover, and then use Google Slides collaboratively to retell the story in ten words or less with one image on one slide. Teachers can share the student-created slides for families to see and/or use at their seders.
The notes under the slides provide instructions for the teachers and a link to the “activity deck.”
We hope many educators are able to use this interactive Pesach lesson
In the spirit of our current Jewish value unit: Koach Hadibbur, The Power of Words, I am going to post one good thing a day BECAUSE of this awful pandemic. You heard me- a good thing coming out of this crisis. Is that even possible? Let’s start with today, March 27th. Check back here each day to see the daily positive thought.
March 27 / 2nd of Nissan: Global CO2 emissions are down. Newly learned video conferencing behaviors are probably here to stay. And business travel and office spaces overall will probably permanently diminish after this crisis abides. More time at home with your family and better carbon footprints all around. Great article here https://e360.yale.edu/features/coronavirus-holds-key-lessons-on-how-to-fight-climate-change
Shabbat / 3rd of Nissan
March 29 / 4th of Nissan: Courteousness. Physical Distancing has been so very difficult. And yet, if you’ve been brave enough to go shopping and wait your turn to get in-keeping 6 feet apart has really brought about the “No after you,” culture. Granted everyone is terrified of getting contaminated, but there is something civil going on. People are feeling that everyone is in this together.
March 30 / 5th of Nissan: Household Chores. Some children are learning to do chores and help out around the house for the first time. It’s embarrassing to admit, but too many of us GenX parents have done way, way too much for our children (including the infamous helicopter parenting), depriving their abilities to learn not only self-reliance but the deeply satisfying reward of communal responsibility and the joy of contributing. Parents are drowning in getting their kids started on homeschooling, while learning how to work at home, watching their retirement accounts take a nose dive into an abyss or worse yet, figuring out what to do if they suffered one of the millions of layoffs across the country (if they have not already). This is our World War-ish moment, and parents are finding a newfound toughness. We are not asking our kids to help out with bribes or a “pretty please.” We are demanding help from our children. And the feedback I am getting from our ShalomLearning parents with this newfound authority is that the kids were waiting for these demands and stepping up to help. Honoring your parents is indeed one of our 10 commandments. Doing everything for your kids while they play video games is not! The stakes are too high now, to not see the value in compliance (which is what so many of us parents have been longing for from our children).
March 31 / 6th of Nissan: Appreciation of community and people and checking in on the ones we love. Have you ever felt such a need? How are they feeling? How are they doing? Have you done a zoom hang out with some old friends? If not, give it a try. The preciousness of having the privilege to know someone, whether at work or in play is sacred. We ARE creatures that relate to one another in profound ways. We need each other now more than ever. And compassion and kindness have finally grown as a priority to what was becoming an increasingly distant, self-centered society. There is a course correction happening in attitudes that are filled with positive energy and appreciation for “the other.” We are not alone in this universe. And the longing to clink glasses and share our hearts with a friend or loved one is something that we will not take for granted on the scale that it was occurring before this crisis, ever again.
April 1st, 2020 / 7th of Nissan 5780: Appreciation of physical contact. The ability to touch someone or play with friends. The current reality of keeping things safe is a whole new meaning for “6 feet under.” How we’ve taken our daily physical contact for granted! I am talking about the privilege of being able to shoot hoops with some pals or lay on a high five, or even to sit on a park bench. All is off limits for at least another month in this extended age of quarantine. Social media hasn’t figured how to give a supportive hug to a friend. “There’s an app for that” won’t cut it this time. But this blog is about what’s positive. Our appreciation is growing and that is positive. When we come out of this Corona protective measure to stay 6 feet away from everyone, we will appreciate the magic of physical contact with others so much more. So in the meantime, be grateful for all the people that you have touched in your life. Prepare yourself for a ramped up version of awe and wonder of being on this journey with our fellow humans when this awful virus is cured. Everyone you meet is in this lifetime together, and there will come a day when the masks and gloves are off again and you can shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and say, “I appreciate you.” And you might even be able to touch your face afterwards without living in fear of contamination.
April 2nd / 8th of Nissan: Social Media is finally actually social. On the opposite side of yesterday’s reflection, I have a newfound appreciation for social media. Quite frankly, I’ve had no patience for social media over the years. And I do remain disgusted how personal data is bought and sold to the detriment of throwing elections and revolutions and tremendous horrors of public humiliation that have even caused deaths (In fact, our rabbis taught us long ago that to shame another in public is a form of murder, and quantifies it to being like 1/60th of death). Very powerful stuff and really a drain on anyone’s time if you just wanted to retrieve a message from an old friend. I joined these platforms to do the bare minimum, but now… things are different. Anything powerful like fire can burn you but…it can also warm you and help you cook and fill your house with light. With so many people in lock down, we need social media more than ever to stay connected. I can’t tell you how many people are sending me facebook live links to so many amazing musicians doing live performances.
Friday, April 3rd / 9th of Nissan: Amazing music creations and followings. We are inside a flood of creativity in the arts and music and writing unlike anything the world has ever seen. I am hoping that musically, there will be a ton of great new albums from great artists and so many people that have wanted to learn instruments but never had the time. Now they can finally be giving it a whirl. I predict that when this pandemic calms down enough to see music in public, everyone will want to get out and have fun and share their amazing new creations and genres. A revival and renaissance in 2021will resemble the Woodstock music festival of 1969 and draw in writers and painters getting together. This upsurge of creativity will approach the artistry of the great impressionist period of the 1870’s. And we shall all marvel in awe and wonder. And all of this will be due to the great “shelter in place” mandates of 2020.
Saturday, April 5th / 12th of Nissan: Shabbat
Sunday, April 5th / 11th of Nissan: A growing desire to change the current reality that the workers we need the most are often the most underpaid and badly treated. This is not just the paramedics, doctors and nurses who are obvious heroes, risking death every day to save lives. But I am referring to the caregivers at nursing homes and workers in the fields and grocery delivery people. The pizza delivery person is now a full on hero! Last week, I saw a news clip of New Yorkers, outside the Emergency rooms, applauding the healthcare staff, police and fire department as well as the essential workers who are keeping the lights on, keeping the supermarkets stocked, and risking their lives to deliver the food. Columnist Sarah O’Connor points out the uncomfortable truth of our labour market: as the workers we need the most are often underpaid and badly treated. It is time to make amends. And once the economy has recovered, these jobs will be made better, with more rights and hire wages.
Monday, April 6th / 12th of Nissan: Attitudes to health may also change for the better. Washing your hands for a full 20 seconds was a habit that was hard to enforce even in hospitals, “may be one of those behaviors that we become so accustomed to in the course of this outbreak that we don’t think about them,” Conis adds.