Rejoicing in a Virtual Education Model on Simchat Torah

By Rabbi Wendy Pein

As a rabbi and Jewish educator, my experience in leading and teaching Tefilah has been largely focused on helping students listen, recite and interpret our traditional prayers so that they form a meaningful connection to them. Rabbi Arnold Eisen writes, “… the rabbis believed, all who use the siddur will find their way through its forest of words to particular passages that call out to us with special meaning, and the t’filot we need on a given occasion will find us, arrest our wandering, and leave us changed.” (Forward, Siddur Lev Shalem). Jewish educators often serve as the guides through the forest of prayer for our students. Due to limits of time and resources, it is a challenge to lead students through a tefilah or prayer experience from which they will emerge changed and inspired.

Fast forward to virtual Simchat Torah 5781 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our faculty and students logged on a half hour before the service began during which teachers reviewed the Five Books of the Torah with students and also explained directions to a virtual scavenger hunt which our clergy (Rabbi Jennifer Jaech and Cantor Lauren Fogelman) had designed for students to complete as they watched the Simchat Torah service online. The scavenger hunt included items to find on the bimah or raised prayer platform, such as a Simchat Torah degel or flag, a stuffed Torah, and a silver etrog or citron holder. Our Cantor created a sermon-in-song in which modern songs were to be matched to one of the books of the Torah, such as matching the song the Circle of Life to the Book of Bereshit, or Genesis.

We did not know what to expect from this experiment in virtual education. Would students stay logged on for the service? Would they complete the scavenger hunt? Much to our surprise and delight, the experiment was a huge success. The majority of students remained online for the service. Once the service began, the excitement among the faculty and students exploded through the chat feature of Zoom. Comments ricocheted back and forth – a student found a clue! Another student posed the question – what is that thing called where the Torahs are kept? Through the chat, we taught our students the word for Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark and other words associated with Simchat Torah from the Jewish Life Vocabulary list of #Onward Hebrew – as they celebrated Simchat Torah! Our teaching blended synergistically with the service – we prepared our students to recite prayers such as the Shema through the chat and then all recited it together virtually. By the end, it felt that our students had learned so much during this virtual Simchat Torah service. After the service ended and the students logged off, our faculty remained online and discussed our students’ enthusiastic spirit and the potential of this model for teaching Tefilah.

While the novelty of the virtual Tefilah experience may account for some of our students’ enthusiasm, there is still much to process and learn from the interactive nature of the virtual tefilah experience on zoom. The chat feature on zoom enabled the virtual tefilah experience to be more of a community “sicha,” an open community discussion or debate rather than a one-dimensional supplicatory experience between the worshipper and God, or even a question/answer session between a prayer leader and prayer community. Clearly, our students were invigorated by the openness and ease of participation which the chat feature on zoom facilitates, elements which will need to be incorporated into our in-person religious school tefilah services. Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel explained his approach to building the Jewish future with these famous words, “What is old, make new; what is new, make holy.” After such a joyful and engaging virtual Simchat Torah, our goal is how to make this “new” educational model for teaching tefilah an ongoing sacred experience for our community.

Rabbi Wendy Pein is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel of Northern Westchester (TINW) in Croton-on-the-Hudson, NY.  She recently received an M.A. in religious education through the Executive Master’s Program in Jewish Education through Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. She is continually seeking “newish” ways to reveal the beauty and wisdom of Judaism to students today.