Online Judaism: A parents' guide on engaging Jewishly in the time of corona
April 17, 2020
(JNS)-It wasn't so long ago when life was so over-the-top busy that you longed for some quiet unstructured time with your children.
The coronavirus pandemic has granted that wish.
And then some.
With no end in sight of QT (Quality Time), many schools have come to a parent's rescue with online classes through a range of technologies many of us had never heard of two weeks ago.
Ironically, those screens that were once the bane of a parent's existence-the computers, lap tops, cell phones and tablets guilty of commandeering their children's minds and bodies are the lifeblood for keeping the kids learning, productive and feeling some sense of structure and normalcy in these unpredictable times.
But with many synagogues locked up, religious schools and day schools in abeyance, with JCCs shuttered and Shabbat meals now intimate (nuclear) family affairs, how can parents keep the Jewish flame alive?
For Andrea Kasper, head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., seeing how her parents and students have rallied has made her "the proudest I've been in my five years at Schechter." And the school's Jewish curriculum has been a big part of this-from the preschoolers to the eighth-graders-classes delivered now through Google Classroom, Zoom and Seesaw.
"For the 2-year-olds, it really makes a difference that they can hear the songs and see their friends and teachers," she says. "And for the big kids, it means keeping up their learning and socializing, too, starting the day with doing morning prayers together."
Jason Kay is one Schechter parent whose kids are settling quickly into their new routine, including long-distance learning, prayers, phys ed and more. "The older kids are engaged in coursework or hanging out with their friends on their Chromebooks between classes, they're not fighting, and by 7:30, our 4-year-old is ready to see what his teacher's posted for the day, " says Kay, who has children in sixth and fourth grades, as well as in preschool. Weekdays of late start with online morning prayers and songs, "and it helps that they can hear all the kids singing and saying tefillot (prayers) together."
Ethan Simon, an 11th-grader at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pa., participates in a virtual minyan every morning at 9 a.m. before the beginning of class. "Of course, it doesn't really count as a minyan, but we're acting like it's one," he says. "It helps us remember that just because you're away from school doesn't mean you're away from Judaism. And it's not so hard for us to get used to this because our generation is used to electronics."
After-school religious schools are also jumping on the bandwagon. Over at Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., principal Rabbi Mordechai Rackover says his teachers have picked up where they left off courtesy of Zoom. "We're talking with the students, and they're talking with each other and seeing each other; this way, we can make sure we all stay in each other's lives," says the rabbi, who says one recent class had 20 students show up remotely, almost perfect attendance. "It also makes us an address that families can go to whenever they could use some support."
Across the ocean in Israel the same technologies are allowing students to stay engaged. At the Tanakh Yeshiva School in Zikron Yaakov, founding principal Rabbi Shimon Rapport says the online capacity to keep his 180 high school boys focused on their schoolwork is a huge gift.
"We get them up for 9 a.m. classes because teenagers would happily sleep till 11," says Rapport. "We know they need the structure."
The online curriculum includes Tanach, Jewish studies and secular classes including English, all conducted through Google Classroom, Zoom and Google Meet. The kids also have a good hour's worth of homework each day with opportunities for feedback on the chat function. "Everyone-students and teachers alike-has learned he adds. "It's amazing that, if this had happened five years ago, we would not have this ability to keep the education going like we can today."
At a time when the world's synagogues are either closed for the duration or where only 10 people can enter (just enough to make a minyan), or where people are praying outdoors with plenty of space between them, attendance is dramatically curtailed.
"Just because you're away from school doesn't mean you're away from Judaism."
At Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Del., Rabbi Michael Beals has been live streaming his daily and Shabbat services from an empty sanctuary, one designed to seat 250 with the siddur available to worshippers on PDF. "We got 24 for Sunday-morning minyan, more than usual," says Rabbi Beals. "People who never daven in the morning are davening with me."
And since he is saying Kaddish for both his father and mother-in-law, though it's by no means a bona fide minyan, on weekdays Beals glances at his cell phone to see if more than 10 people have checked in.
"I make sure I greet every one of them by name," he says. "It's good for them, and it's strengthens me because all of this is so evolutionary right now."
Though his leadership offered to let him broadcast services from his home-their cantor conducted Havdalah last Saturday night from her place via Zoom-"for services, there's something more powerful doing it from the synagogue; there's a real sense of kedusha, of holiness here," says the rabbi.
Even so, he's planning on moving his live-streaming apparatus into the chapel: "It's just a lot more intimate in there."
Youth groups and beyond
For many teens, youth group is where they turn for Jewish contact in the years between bar/bat mitzvah and college. "A lot of people think of it as a second home, as a chosen family," says Arielle Shofman, president of the youth group at Temple of Aaron, a Conservative congregation in St. Paul, Minn. Thanks to Zoom, members will be able to take part in the youth group's upcoming Passover program.
"We need to stay connected to each other," she says. "Youth group is where we talk about Judaism and everything else in our lives."
Most college-aged students have by now been sent home from university mid-semester or from Israel programs that were supposed to last the year, and still others who were looking forward to being in Israel on Birthright and other trips this spring are disappointed. And while college students may be getting their coursework online, many are missing the Jewish piece.
To fill this gap, Hillel International has launched an online platform to meet college students' educational, spiritual and social needs during this difficult time. On Hillel@Home students will find such online experiences as video meet-ups, courses and opportunities to interact with such superstars as Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and NBA legend Amar'e Stoudemire, who now lives in Israel. The platform also enables individual university Hillels to customize content for their students.
Home is where the family is... until further notice
With such an unprecedented avalanche of online resources keeping the Jewish world engaged and close, Chabad Rabbi Mendel Sharfstein co-director with his wife, Dini, of the Center for Jewish Life in St. Johns, a town near Jacksonville, Fla., says that, even without them, this time of enforced isolation is a potent reminder that the Jewish home is the central address of Judaism.
"The shul is important, to pray with a minyan, but the purpose of a shul is what happens when you leave the shul and go home," he says. "It's the effect it has on your marriage and your relationship with your kids; that's where Jewish life really happens."
Indeed, he adds, learning Torah, educating your kids Jewishly, keeping Shabbat, eating kosher food (and soon, celebrating the Passover holiday), "the purpose of it all is to bring the Divine into your life and your work, but especially your home."
At her home in Hadera, Israel, Isabelle Dalia Fitoussi is with her four kids, ages 10 to 20 pretty much 24/7, along with her husband when he's not at work. And it's going surprisingly well, she says. "We do tefilla together as a family each morning and watch Torah classes for kids (mostly in French), with math and history and more classes," she says. In addition, there is daily outdoor play and ulpan(Hebrew classes) for the kids and the parents alike.
And, thousands of miles away, in West Hartford, Conn., Jason Kay says even though there are currently no Shabbat guests and no synagogue, "we're still making Shabbat meals a special time to do the blessings, and sit and talk about our week." They also joined an online Havdalah with JTConnect (Jewish Teen Learning Connection), a Jewish learning program, which the Connection followed with a family trivia game.
"The purpose of it all is to bring the Divine into your life and your work, but especially your home."
Says mom Orah Moshe in Pardes Hanna, Israel, she and her husband and their two kids are having long conversations they would otherwise not have had the time for. "They miss their friends (they're teenagers), but being home we've had discussions about both the science and religious issues behind this illness, and the fact that uncertainty is a part of life. We're able to take a breath from our frantic lives," she adds. "I made my kids French toast today for the first time in a long time."
"Now that we finally have the time, we can spend it with our husband or wife and our children; we can learn the Torah we never had time for and dip into all the online Torah learning, even if we've never done it before," says Sharfstein in Florida. "In times of so much darkness in the world, it's in our homes where we can create light by elevating our relationships with the people we love and with God."
Jewish Home Resources
Jewish Community Centers are offering online programs, even exercise classes. See what your local JCC is doing at: https://jcca.org/virtual-jccs-online-engagement/
Chabad is offering videos, activities and learning opportunities for youngsters on https://chabad.org/kids, as well as the Online Hebrew Academy, geared to help Hebrew and day schools teaching a wide variety of Jewish children, especially now. Check out: email@example.com
Other online resources for Jewish families
Check out Facebook page: Corona Jewish Home Education Tips & Resources.