Mid-Week Online Classes Become a Staple at Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia

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Michael Jacobs, a teacher at Beth Shalom’s religious school, teaching students online. Photo courtesy of Beth Shalom Congregation.

Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia began its online religious school program at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, becoming one of the first synagogues in the area to do so. These classes grew in such a way that when in-person activities resumed, the synagogue kept its mid-week religious classes online, much to the approval of
the congregation.

The congregation now significantly favors having these classes online after a test period of two years, partially because the Howard County Public School system pushed back the start and end times of local public schools, making online classes far easier to attend during the week than in-person classes.

“We had kids who got home at 4:30 p.m., which [was difficult because] our school in the past ran from 4:30 to 6:45 p.m. There was no way those kids were even going to be able to make it to [our] school on time. So, we stuck with it [online classes] and then this year for a lot of people it works so much better than actually trying to get their kids to the building,” said Dr. Louis Nagel, the director of education at Beth Shalom.

Nagel said that one of the major reasons why the program works so well is because his teachers have perfected the online education model, which keeps the lessons fun and engaging for the students. That adds to the convenience factor of the online classes and has produced a high-quality product.

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“My teachers have really perfected the art. They’ve gone to a variety of workshops, and they’ve developed a lot of skills using all kinds of tools that are available online,” Nagel said.

Nagel noted that the teaching staff deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the work they’ve done to make the program as effective as possible, learning how to perfect their craft through on-the-job experience along with group collaboration and research to find the optimal practices and tools, like the popular online quiz website, Kahoot.

“Some of them make good use of Kahoot, which is very popular with the children to the point that some kids, when they log on for class, the first words out of their mouths are, ‘Are we going to have a Kahoot today?’” Nagel said.

Another benefit to the online classes that Nagel discussed was that having the students outside of a classroom setting reduces the number of distractions that you might have from loud group work or having to sit in a room to watch a video from afar rather than directly on a computer.

And the lack of these distractions is having a significant impact on how quickly students are being able to pick up on and retain material, especially with Hebrew language learning, according to Nagel.

“There is a minimum of distractions [in an online environment]. And the kids last year and this year are making better progress [with their Hebrew learning] than I’ve ever seen in the past,” Nagel said.

The online classes also allow for easy small group engagement with teachers, as students can go practice with partners in a breakout room, away from all the other students and their overlapping practice, and have instructors pop in to check on their progress and give quick specific instruction.

Another factor in that rapid learning is something that Nagel partially attributes to having better attendance through the online model and having the students practicing twice a week on Wednesday and Sunday, versus solely on Sundays, which is much more attainable for students with outside commitments mid-week.

He added that the synagogue is also able to get students who may have other commitments during their Wednesday classes scheduled for tutoring with volunteers, which can also be done remotely to keep up the consistent practice and the learning.

“Just having Hebrew learning on Sunday, that’s wonderful, but you forget over the course of a week whatever it was that you were working on, and then throw in a holiday weekend, like Presidents Day weekend or Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend. And then, of course, winter break and spring break. And you sometimes have three weeks between classes. So, we keep those kids connected and continuing to work in that case on their Hebrew,” Nagel said.

This program is here to stay at Beth Shalom, and it’s in large part due to the persistence and excellence from the teachers who put it all together, according to Nagel. He added that the surge they’ve seen in learning has been like nothing they’ve ever witnessed previously.

“I think the children are getting more out of it [the educational programming] now than they were getting before,” Nagel said.

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