Local Synagogue Opens Up Virtual Classroom To Invite Flexibility Into Program

By Cheryl Conway

Getting to Hebrew School during the week can be difficult sometimes for parents who work full time or for students who are active with sports and after school activities.
With a new virtual classroom option being offered at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, students can now have more flexibility and tune in to their weekday lessons with less conflict. The reform synagogue is the first in the local area to offer such a convenient program.
The Virtual Classroom Option is a platform through ShalomLearning which will allow Hebrew school students in grades three through seven to tune into their Wednesday lesson during a convenient day or time. Classes will still meet Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons 5 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. at the synagogue. Students who cannot meet on Wednesdays can opt to sign up for the distance learning option.
“Our children are increasingly being pulled in many different directions in things they are doing,” says Rabbi David Levy, religious leader at Temple Shalom. “I want religious education something that fits into their lives, rather than a burden to fit into their lives. I want it to be joyful, enriching.”
With more modern means, virtual learning is “something we should try,” says Levy. “Clearly there are people wanting a solid Jewish education,” but they need flexibility or something that fits into their schedules.
The “great benefit” with the virtual learning option is “these parents are able to give [children] a solid Jewish education that is flexible enough to fit into their lives they are living today,” says Levy. “I think we will see more participants with dual working families. If we can be supportive of these families, then we are serving those people then that is one of our missions.”
Getting to Hebrew school on Sundays has not been an issue as much as it has been on Wednesdays for dual working families, says Levy.
“How do we best serve their needs?” he questions. “Having an online component was the best way to do this.” Lots of colleges are using the virtual classroom and it is growing in secondary education, why not religious learning?
“We’re part of an early group of congregations that would dip their feet,” says Levy, who says its exciting to “be on the cutting edge. This is a very new thing to do.”
A cohort of three to four students and a teacher will decide on a day and time for their virtual lesson. The teacher will lead a Hebrew lesson using online technology such as PowerPoint, webinars and Facetime. Students can use desktop computers, laptops, Chromebooks or tablets, adds Levy.
Their learning will mirror what the students are learning in the classroom.
“Whether in person on Wednesday afternoon or virtual for weekday, they’re getting the same curriculum, the same learning.”
Students who agree to participate will work with approximately three or four other students and a teacher on a mutually agreeable day and time in the “comfort of their own living room in a time that fits into their needs instead of a fixed schedule,” says Levy. They will log onto the website and be able to interact with their teacher, the material and the other students in real-time.
Out of the 140 students registered for Hebrew school this year at Temple Shalom, 15 have already signed up for the virtual setting. Participants will pay a small surcharge for the virtual classroom option to cover the technology costs to run webinars, PowerPoint screens and curriculum, says Levy.
If cost is an issue, Levy says “nobody should be denied a place at the table because of finances.”
Alissa Okrent of Flanders, or Mrs. O, will be the assigned teacher for the virtual learning program. Teaching Judaic and Hebrew at Temple Shalom since 1995, Okrent did attend a training class through ShalomLearning to meet the creators, learn the technical system and how to access the online curriculum.

“I am very excited about this program,” says Okrent. “ShalomLearning is a wonderful program that is comprehensive and well planned.  I believe this opens an opportunity both for families to meet a variety of needs in the busy world in which we live.  As a teacher, it provides me with a more personal educational relationship with my students.  For me, “being” Jewish, is a feeling, as much as a lifestyle.”

Okrent plans to offer three online classes broken up by grade level; third graders; fourth and fifth; and sixth and seventh. Each session will meet for about 50 minutes.   

“My intention is for each student to gain confidence, have fun while learning,” she says.  Since it is her first year with this program, she plans to teach the Hebrew component on Wednesdays, concentrating on the Hebrew letters, reading the language and understanding and meaning of prayers; leaving the lessons on Judaic with its culture, religion and Israel news on Sundays.

“I am following the core curriculum of the other teachers at Temple Shalom – so communicating with them is the main guidance I will need for each of the distance classes,” she says.

Her strategy will concentrate on “creativity, attentiveness, an open mind and joy,” she says.
“I am honored to be teaching this format,” she adds. “I love all elements of Jewish education, as I live my life by core Jewish values, this is an extension of meeting the needs of a changing world.”  
Levy adds, “In every aspect in what we do as a congregation, we try to focus on serving the needs of our congregation and serve what God wants us to do in the world. It’s a two way street. We look to serve our congregants and education of our children is one of our highest priorities.”
Hebrew school is in session at Temple Shalom but virtual classes will begin after the High Holidays and continue through May. For more information about this new program, contact the Temple Shalom Religious School at 973-584-5666.

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