Bethesda Jewish Congregation adds virtual learning

Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer with Bethesda Jewish Congregation’s religious school.
Photo courtesy of Bethesda Jewish Congregation

Bethesda Jewish Congregation’s religious school has stopped fighting weekday traffic and joined a small but growing number of area supplementary schools to offer students online, at-home classes.

Beginning next month, fourth- through seventh-grade students will participate in Wednesday livestream Hebrew classes for one hour and 15 minutes. The congregation has contracted with ShalomLearning, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that provides a web platform and curriculum for Jewish educators.

Students will interact with the teacher and with each other on  the platform. All grades will still meet at the synagogue for classes on Saturday, according to Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer.

He said the goal of offering the virtual classroom is to accommodate the unaffiliated congregation’s families who come from Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia at the height of rush hour. The problem became apparent to synagogue staff six years ago.

“About the time they began to build express lanes on I-495, we noticed that more families had a hard time getting to school on time,” Schnitzer said.

Schnitzer said parents tried carpooling as a solution, but it wasn’t enough.
About two years ago, the board of trustees began to discuss online learning as an option for midweek

Hebrew classes, said Issie Resti, who chairs the education committee. The committee sent a survey to families, asking how committed they were to their children’s Jewish education.

“The message we got loud and clear is that families just didn’t have the time” to travel to Hebrew school,” she said.

Not only was traffic a factor, but at that hour parents were working and the students had other extracurricular commitments.

In addition to providing flexibility for students and parents, the virtual classroom will also give teachers the freedom of holding class in their homes.

Resti said her fifth-grade daughter will participate in the virtual classes.

“She has really enjoyed the live classes, but she can be a chatterbox sometimes, so not having kids next to her will help,” Resti said.

ShalomLearning Chief Operating Officer Debi Himelfarb said a common misconception about online learning is that benefits for children of social interaction are lost. Instead, they realize that they are “not just Jewish in synagogue.”

“People get stuck on, ‘Hey, what happened to the sense of community?” said Himmelfarb, who is based in Rockville. “But an activity could be, see if you can find something in your house that starts with mem. Or maybe they’ll carry the iPad over to show a mezuzah to the class.”

A number of synagogues in the Washington area already offer virtual learning, including Adas Israel Congregation in the District, Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase and the Gaithersburg congregations Shaare Torah and Kehilat Shalom.

Schnitzer said that because most of the religious school’s social and cultural activities happen on Saturday, the virtual learning environment will not dampen the educational experience.

“It’s a more relaxing atmosphere to learn in,” Schnitzer said of classes at home on weekdays.

And the rabbi said there will be safeguards in place to ensure that students don’t fall behind. “We’ll still have parental supervision nearby to make sure the students are learning.”

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