Trope and audio lag: Torah lessons go virtual

Sue Marx
Bar and bat mitzvah tutor Sue Marx puts on a tallit. (Photo courtesy of Sue Marx)

By Ellen Braunstein

Special to WJW

On late afternoons, Sue Marx shares computer screens with her bar and bat mitzvah students on Zoom, bringing them Google Slides of trope, the notation system for chanting Torah.

Instructor Nancy Weisz copies, scans and emails prep work for her students that she shares on Zoom’s whiteboard feature. The speech and language pathologist works online with students who have a range of learning styles and learning differences. Some students are especially challenged by remote learning and have parents by their side during lessons.

Washington-area tutors Marx, Weisz and Lisa Goodman have greeted the new learning environment with a measure of disappointment and reflection. As dates for bar and bat mitzvahs are canceled and rescheduled two and three times, the tutors say they are nimbly adapting.

“It’s been both challenging and liberating in some ways for the kids and for me,” said Marx, who teaches music and prayer at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Her online skills with groups of students have translated well to individual tutoring, she says.

“But there is a loss online,” said Marx, of Chevy Chase, who draws students from the surrounding community. “The bond that grows between a bar and bat mitzvah tutor and the student — Zoom takes you one step away from them.”

Weisz agrees that an important piece is missing. “It’s a little bit more mechanical and less personal. I consider it part of my job to talk to these kids about what it means to become a bar or bat mitzvah. What is their Torah portion really about? And how does it relate to modern society? These kinds of deeper conversations are definitely difficult to have via Zoom.”

Goodman teaches most of the b’nai mitzvah students at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville. She also supervises grades 3 through 7 of the Reform synagogue’s religious school. “The biggest challenge,” she says, is making sure everybody is on the right page, figuratively and literally. I can’t always see what the kids are looking at, even over Zoom.”

Weisz has started several new students since the pandemic got under way.

“So, I am working now with kids for a few months who I’ve never actually met. I think the kids are probably OK with it because they are obviously doing their schoolwork by this method. They’re more comfortable with the technology than somebody of my generation is.”

Zoom has its technical difficulties, namely an audio lag. It prevents instructors and students from chanting together. “Repeating what I say is not nearly as effective, especially as the child becomes more proficient with chanting trope,” Marx said.

Lisa Goodman
Tutor Lisa Goodman says that since the pandemic began, families are putting more emphasis on the service. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Goodman)

Some students have had much more to learn during COVID. They study whole new portions if their bar or bat mitzvah is rescheduled within several months of their regular date.

The disappearance of the party has made students more focused on the ceremony. The online students “concentrate on the religious aspect of it and really make that blossom,” Marx said. “I’ve seen kids really do just that. So, there’s a silver lining on this terrible cloud.”

Goodman agrees that people are putting more emphasis on the service, whether it is on Zoom or in the sanctuary with immediate family.

“I find that to be incredibly refreshing,” she said. “They understand there might never be a time when you have 150 people unmasked in a room with singing and dancing.”

Cantor Josh Perlman at B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville is responsible for about 40 students enrolled in the Conservative synagogue’s b’nai mitzvah education program. He still has 30-minute meetings each week using technology that isn’t new to students.

“What’s really changed for my students is the physical mitzvah projects, like those at an animal shelter or senior homes, where they would visit the seniors. That has been huge for our kids. Those things are on hold right now and it’s unfortunate.”

Cantor Jason Kaufman of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria said that students are just as prepared as those that trained and celebrated before the coronavirus outbreak.

Marx admires her online students. “They are having their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies canceled left and right. Nevertheless, they have developed an amazing resilience.”

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