Rabbi David Paskin, the Torah Tech Guy, meets with some of the finest Jewish leaders and educators each week on “Unmute” a live broadcast dedicated to exploring the best practices and finest examples of engaging digital Torah.
On Friday, June 18, Rabbi David met with ShalomLearning’s Heidi Lovitz. Watch the episode here
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