By Dr. Isa Aron, David Lewis, Rabbi Adam Lutz,
 and Rabbi Rebeccah Yusman

Imagine the following conversation: The 7th grade teacher, the education director and the clergy are discussing (on Zoom of course) how to introduce the b’nai mitzvah class of 5782 to Torah study. Last year’s families began with a text study of Genesis chapter 1:1-4.

Walking around the room, the families encountered 14 different translations (written over a period of 4,500 years) posted on the walls. After discussing the pros and cons of each translation, each family used post-its to vote for its favorites, and then wrote its own translation.

That was such a great introduction to Torah study,” says the teacher.

Yes,” says the cantor, “You really set them up nicely for understanding and sharing different translations. It’s too bad we can’t do this this year, since we’re not meeting in person.”

But we can,” says the education director, “We just have to organize it differently.”

How can we use post-its on Zoom?”

And how can they see one another’s translations?”

We can use Padlet,” says the educator.

Padlet?”

It’s an online tool that we’ve been using to introduce students to one another. The kids love it! And it will give them something to teach their parents.”

Here’s the Padlet the educator created: Genesis 1:1-4

When we think of teaching online, most of us think of Zoom. And in March, when part-time Jewish schools were scrambling to go online, nearly all (Jewish and secular) teachers relied exclusively on Zoom. But over the summer, with 5781 upon us, we realized the need to go beyond Zoom to make virtual learning much more engaging. Here is the story of how we did it, with links to the results.

Zoom (and similar online platforms such as Skype and Google Meet) has been a godsend for virtual teaching. But when used exclusively it has serious limitations, even for those with strong Wifi and good computers. That is because Zoom only allows for synchronous learning (i.e., learning in which all the students are online at the same time). This might not seem so problematic; after all, teaching in-person in a classroom is synchronous as well. But it is difficult to get K-12 students to listen attentively at the same time, which is why truly engaging K-12 classrooms are experiential, rather than teacher-centered. Students work on short and long-term projects, individually or in small groups; they explore subjects through the arts; and their reflections (in a variety of media) are important ways to articulate what they’ve learned.

Over the past few decades experiential learning has gained popularity in Jewish classrooms, because so many of our goals include making emotional connections, exploring meaning, and building community. And, to be sure, online learning presents special challenges. For example, music has always been a key part of Jewish classrooms; but when students sing together online, the result is an unpleasant jumble of sounds. Similarly, while it is possible to divide students into “breakout rooms” on Zoom, they can’t easily work collaboratively on joint projects.

Despite these limitations parents in Jewish schools seemed grateful their children had opportunities to communicate with teachers and classmates through Zoom, at least at first. But connections between teachers and students are only a first step; the next step is to forge connections with the content, whether it be Torah, Avodah or Gemilut Hasadim. So as it became clear that online learning would be the norm in Fall as well, directors of part-time Jewish schools began searching for more engaging methods.

Beginning in March the staff of the BJE had begun holding twice-weekly meetings (on Zoom, of course) with directors of part-time schools, with attendance ranging from 20 to 30. At first the main focus was on common problems . Slowly, trust was built among the “regulars,” who realized that they had a unique, confidential opportunity to voice their concerns and get feedback.

As the weeks wore on, it became clear that two of the regulars (Rabbis Adam Lutz and Rebeccah Yussman) had special skills they were willing to share. These particularly “techy” educators had, even before the pandemic, mastered online tools few had ever heard of, not to mention having used in our teaching. Rebeccah and Adam volunteered to teach the rest of us about these tools, demonstrating how they themselves had used them in their schools. Over time, members of our group found their favorites among these tools, and began to think of how teachers might master the tools. This led us to the next step in our process, in which Adam and Rebeccah created instructions for teachers, either written or on video, or both. (For an example, see Reshet-LA Zoom Resources, which were created when we realized that not all teachers were using Zoom to the fullest capacity.)

Connections within our community of practice strengthened over time. What began with empathy and joint problem solving continued with sharing information and honing skills. At that point we began to collect exemplars of engaging online lessons or exercises, and posting them on the BJE website. They have included:

The purpose of this article is to share these items and expand our community of practice. We have posted all of the instructional videos and the lesson plans created at Thriving In 5781. Please download what you want and upload what you can. We know that techy Jewish educators (or parents) all over will have something to contribute,

Our goal is to create the largest possible community of practice, for the purpose of making online Jewish education as engaging as possible while we’re online, and even when we’re fortunate enough to meet in person. We welcome you to join us!

Isa Aron, Ph.D., is Emerita Professor of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR, and a Los Angeles BJE consultant.
David Lewis is Director of the Center for Excellence in Part-Time Jewish Education at the Los Angeles BJE.
Rabbi Adam Lutz is Assistant Rabbi / Director of Education at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.
Rabbi Rebeccah Yussman is the Director of Jewish Learning and Living at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, CA.