Start-up gives Hebrew school a tech injection

Alex Roberts types a message message to his religious school class from his kitchen table. Photo by David Holzel
Alex Roberts types a message to his religious school class from his kitchen table. Photo by David Holzel

In the long-running battle to make Hebrew school effective and beloved, Max and Alex Roberts are soldiers on the front lines.

On a recent Sunday morning, they sit in their Rockville home, each in front of a different laptop, with video images of their teacher and classmates on the screen.

“We have a lot of kids in their pajamas today,” says MollyBeth Rushfield, who teaches Alex’s class of third- and fourth-graders and was hired by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

They spend the beginning of class adjusting their cameras, making sure everyone is in the frame, and going over class rules. Several times, the images on Alex’s screen freeze and the discussion halts until the glitch is overcome.

Meanwhile, things are going more smoothly in Max’s class for fifth- and sixth-graders. They look at optical illusions their teacher posts on screen and then study a text from the Mishnah, a key rabbinic text.  Both are related to the value of b’tzelem Elohim, that humanity was created in the image of God.

Taught in simpler terms, Alex and his classmates are learning about b’tzelem Elohim, too. It is one of seven values all the students will learn during the school year, in a curriculum provided by a not-for-profit Bethesda company called ShalomLearning.

With its use of technology, ShalomLearning aims to make religious school more convenient for busy families, teach a Judaism that fits into day-to-day life, and forge communities in new ways. Eighteen institutions and 300 students use the materials ShalomLearning rolled out two years ago, including Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda, Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.

Michael Feinstein, the center’s CEO, says ShalomLearning helps his agency “provide enrichment and education to people who aren’t connected [to the Jewish community] at all.”

The center has 10 children enrolled in ShalomLearning. “None of these families belong to a synagogue,” he says. “They are not JCC people.”

Deb Roberts, Max and Alex’s mother, says the intimacy of the program is a plus. “The kids like it. They don’t complain.”

Jewish values for secular lives
Learning doesn’t just happen in front of the computer. The curriculum is designed around seven four-week units. In the first week of each unit, families gather for an in-person session, called a havurah. Week two is the virtual class. Week three is home study, when students work on individual projects and have family discussions. And in week four, the students meet together with their teacher in person.

ShalomLearning markets itself as the convenient, flexible face of Hebrew school. The program can be tailored to one, two or three days a week.

“You don’t have to choose between school and soccer practice. You can do both,” says Sarah Steinberg, the company’s CEO.

By teaching Jewish values, the curriculum strives to demonstrate “the relevancy of being Jewish,” she says. “We are applying Jewish values to secular lives.”

The company has only one completely on-line offering: a religious school program for Jews in the military. “One-and-a-half percent of the military service is Jewish,” Steinberg says. “Jews in the military are scattered, and they want a Jewish education.”

Ten families, spread between Italy and Arizona, have paid the $36 tuition, subsidized by a donor who wishes to be anonymous, according to the company. A teacher in Israel conducts the Sunday class.

While ShalomLearning seems like an answer made for military families, it isn’t a cure-all for what ails Hebrew school and Jewish education.

“It’s a good option for people with no choice,” says Ira Wise, education director for Congregation B’nai Israel, in Bridgeport, Conn. Wise, a “big believer in technology,” warns that “like any tool, [ShalomLearning] can build or take something apart. It gives us the ability to reach kids we couldn’t before. But it also gives the opportunity for families to disengage. What you can’t do virtually is have a sense of community.”

Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg is nevertheless developing an in-person community. Last year, the synagogue closed its religious school due to dwindling enrollment. In September, it restarted the school by adopting ShalomLearning as its single option for grades 3-7. “At a place our size there was no way to run multiple tracks,” explains Rabbi Charles Arian.

Since the school year started, “we see families who previously only came on high holidays. It’s building the community of parents, too,” he says.

Janet Ballonoff, mother of a sixth-grader, is happy with the program. “It gives a lot of ways for kids to interact — classroom, group activities, online component — and it eliminates some of the driving,” she says during a recent Sunday in-synagogue havurah session.

The technology is a “more economical version” of Promethean boards used in public schools, she added.

Cutting travel time
“We’re dealing with kids who are programmed — they lead very busy lives,” said Barry Smith, education director for Beth El Hebrew Congregation, in Alexandria, which is in its second year of offering ShalomLearning as an alternative to the regular religious school.

Giving families a break in their commute is no small thing, he says.

“Beth El is hard to get to, particularly on a Wednesday night. ShalomLearning is a way to meet the needs of our parents and students. It cuts out two hours of travel time.”

Since adopting the program, weeknight participation has risen from 50 percent to 80 percent, he says.

But online classes don’t guarantee smooth sailing. “It’s not as easy as just turning on your computer,” Smith says. Different computers have different capabilities, there can be bandwidth problems and, as with Alex Roberts’ third-fourth grade class, the technology itself can be a distraction.

More importantly, online learning requires the same basic ingredient for success as classroom learning: good teachers.

The institutions hire their own teachers, but ShalomLearning offers a month-long, self-paced training program, where teachers can learn ShalomLearning’s technology. In addition, there is a curriculum specialist available to discuss lesson content.

“You have to have a high level of computer proficiency to make it work,” Arian says, adding that not every teacher can reach the necessary proficiency,

“There is no substitute for great teachers,” agrees Devin Schain, an education technology entrepreneur who founded ShalomLearning with his friend Andrew Rosen, a co-founder of Blackboard Inc., an eLearning software developer. Neither man liked their Hebrew school experience, and their children didn’t like Hebrew school either.

Although the company is run as a not-for-profit, Schain doesn’t think it would be too difficult to operate in the black. “If we had 1 percent of the affiliated market, we could be self-sustaining,” he says.

“The nice thing about [ShalomLearning] is that there is such a low bar for Hebrew school.”

[email protected]   Twitter: @davidholzel

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