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.”
Rabbi Tracy Kaplowitz, Director of Operations JWB Jewish Chaplains Council®
Imagine life in the military. You enlist in California, train in Texas, get specialized training in Alabama, and then are transferred to a base in Germany. There, you meet your bashert (intended one), get married, and two years later, your first child is born on base in Alaska.
Throughout each of these moves, the Jewish military community was there for you. Jewish chaplains and lay leaders led Shabbat services on your training bases. When you married and again when your baby was named, a rabbi was flown in for the occasion. Now, stationed in North Dakota, your first-grader is ready for Hebrew school, but there is none.
This all-too-common scenario has been the accepted version of Jewish life in the U.S. military for many years. Although many Jewish chaplains and lay leaders create and sustain vibrant and engaged communities, Hebrew schools are a rarity in the military. Where they do exist, funding is scarce and doesn’t cover textbooks or workbooks, let alone teachers.
JWB Jewish Chaplains Council®, envisions a time when military families will have access to the same array of resources available in the Jewish world. Thanks to a partnership with ShalomLearning, this vision is becoming reality. Beginning in February, JWB and ShalomLearning launched the iJEM pilot, which brings Jewish education curricula to children in military families.
ShalomLearning offers Jewish education on three distinct platforms, and each one is currently being tested in military settings.
- Two Hebrew schools—one in Spain, the other in Virginia—are beloved by the children who are enrolled and their parents. Coming together each Sunday to learn Torah and explore their Jewish roots has long been a highlight of the week for these families. Yet, with neither a curriculum to follow nor materials to reinforce the students’ lessons at home, each school was limited in its impact. With the ShalomLearning blended curriculum, teachers are now selecting materials from a wide range of options, and students are logging in at home to bolster their classroom learning.
- In Japan, a virtual classroom, including students from Jewish families stationed on Army, Navy and Air Force installations throughout Japan, is about to launch. Although the students can’t meet each week in person, the first class is set for Sunday at 9 a.m. JST (Japan Standard Time)—and neither the kids nor their parents can wait!
- For four families with children of various ages on base in Washington State, travelling more than an hour to a Hebrew school each week is just not feasible. It is a commitment the families can’t meet consistently. However, homeschooling is another story. For these four families, the ShalomLearning online platform not only connects their children to their Jewish roots, history, and traditions, but also is empowering them to read the language of the Torah and the siddur.
With 10,000 Jewish service members—and their 15,000 family members—in the U.S. military, we know we are just beginning to scratch the surface of interest in Jewish learning within the armed forces. Building upon this pilot, we expect to expand slowly, bringing quality Jewish learning to Jewish children on more installations, in additional time zones, and in homes in and around military installations around the world. Within five years, we hope to offer all Jewish families throughout the military easy access to Jewish learning for their children—no matter where they happen to be stationed.
Share our vision, and help us bring Jewish education to every Jewish family in uniform.