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.
ShalomLearning asked the leadership at Congregation B’nai Israel Barry Ira Graff School for Living Judaism (CBI), in Boca Raton, Florida about using our program. The school is under the direction of Kim Beame, Director of Religious Education and Cheryl Epstein, Assistant Director of Religious Education. CBI is a Reform synagogue with over 700 families and more than 350 students in grades K-12.
ShalomLearning (SL): Why did you decide to use ShalomLearning?
Congregation B’nai Israel Barry Ira Graff School for Living Judaism (CBI): We knew our curriculum needed updating. We could either reinvent the wheel or use an existing curriculum. We chose ShalomLearning because of the ready made lesson plans.
SL: How are you using ShalomLearning?
CBI: We started in September using ShalomLearning’s values-based curriculum in grades K-6 and Torah Aura Hebrew in grades 3-6. We’ve even started some virtual classes for Hebrew.
SL: How would you describe your experience using the program?
CBI: Moving from textbooks to a digital curriculum has taken some getting used to, but the assets in the curriculum are well worth it! We hear from teachers that they and the students are more engaged.
I believe we’ve retained several families by offering mid-week virtual classes for Hebrew. The classes are real-time and still teacher led, but the flexibility of the online classes is attractive to many families.
SL: What advice would you give to other schools starting ShalomLearning?
CBI: Use the resources ShalomLearning offers. Encourage your teachers to prepare in advance. The ShalomLearning team is amazing. They’re always available to answer questions, work with our teachers and guide us.
ShalomLearning looks forward to a long relationship with the Congregation B’nai Israel community and their dedicated team.
Mazel Tov to Ben Z from CA for being the first ever ShalomLearning Escape Room winner! Ben correctly used the Gematria chart and decoder ring to escape all 5 rooms and piece together the clues to pinpoint the secret location within a half mile of the exact solution. Above is a photograph of all the notes he took along the journey. Way to go, Ben! We can’t wait to hear how you spend your $100 winnings!
Heidi from ShalomLearning worked with Ben’s parents to arrange a surprise video conference to break the great news. Watch his reaction:
Even though we have a grand prize winner, we hope the rest of you will keep playing! Remember, you need to escape all 5 rooms to receive your $20 Amazon gift card. Game play is open through March 31, so keep pushing forward to get to the end!
We’ve received so much positive feedback about this program that we’re excited to announce that an all-new ShalomLearning Escape Room Adventure will be available in Fall 2019! More details will be available later this Spring, but if you have any questions or suggestions, please send us a note at email@example.com.