Religious schools have faced unprecedented challenges over the past year in coping with a once-in-a-century pandemic that limited, if not eliminated, in-class learning.
However, educators have adapted to the challenge, using new and innovative curriculum to ensure adult and youth learners have the best possible experience.
Transitioning to virtual learning presented several problems, religious educators said, including changing the educational experience’s close, collaborative nature.
“Our currency is bringing people together, community warmth, interpersonal engagement,” which is not easy to recreate virtually, said Beata Abraham, director of congregational learning at Temple Israel in Columbus.
Debra Kellner, director of Jewish education at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus in Columbus, agreed, adding that “community is a big part of Jewish education and Jewish learning and celebrations.”
According to Laurie Reitman and Rose Clubok, the senior and associate teachers of the Jewish Learning Together program at Congregation Agudas Achim in Bexley, the pandemic presented numerous other impediments to learning.
These issues included difficulty engaging young learners virtually and problems providing individual attention to students who need it. Teachers also faced lower student attendance due to the need to compete for screen time with school and had to contend with shorter lessons that limited how much teachers could cover per class.
New, innovative curriculum
Teachers were able to meet these challenges by adding a new curriculum to engage students better. “Fortunately, we Jews are very resilient and innovative,” Abraham said.
For instance, Temple Israel has started using Shalom Learning, online educational programming based on Jewish values and Hebrew classes targeted to students between kindergarten and seventh grade. This programming is interactive and visually engaging, using tools including games and videos to effectively teach remote students, Abraham said.
Agudas Achim used the pandemic as an opportunity to develop a new, expanded curriculum beyond teaching that week’s Torah portion. Now the school offers a broader, three-year rotating curriculum.
Year one focuses on family, community and lifestyle. Students study the holidays through the lens of community and home rituals, and other topics including the Jewish family tree and history, the history of the Columbus Jewish community, and women and Judaism.
The second year of the curriculum is about observance, relationship with God and Jewish texts. Students are taught about Shabbat, the Ten Commandments, the role of prophets in maintaining Israel’s relationship with God and the laws of Kashrut, among other issues.
Year three looks at Jewish history, Israel and American Jewry. This programming includes a study of all of the religions and cultures found in Israel, an exploration of Jewish communities worldwide, a study of the destruction of the Temple and the resulting exile, and historical Jewish figures.
The new curriculum both works better for virtual learning and is better overall, Clubok said. It serves virtual learners because each class builds on the previous one, allowing students to get deeper into topics despite each class being shorter and covering less ground.
Overall, the Agudas Achim’s curriculum improved because it “prepares kids to lead a Jewish life,” Clubok added.
“I think that preparing Jewish children to be connected to their identity is the most important goal of religious education,” she said.
The new curriculum does this, she noted, “by covering a wide variety of topics to build their Jewish knowledge, centering Jewish identity … building community, and most importantly, making religious school fun so that they have positive associations with being Jewish.”
Unexpected benefits, new opportunities
Educators found unexpected benefits and new opportunities due to the need for virtual learning. Abraham said the numbers of adult learners increased since the pandemic started due in part to the greater convenience of online learning.
“From an adult perspective, our lifelong learners really stepped up and thrived in this environment,” she added.
Abraham said Temple Israel has also expanded the guest speakers it uses to teach students, as a virtual learning environment reduces the cost and time involved in scheduling speakers. Now, the religious school can bring in authors, professors, professionals and other exciting speakers from throughout the country, she said.
Meanwhile, the Columbus JCC uses virtual meetings to have intergenerational programming where congregants’ grandparents read stories and sing songs to younger students as part of holiday or Shabbat celebrations, Kellner explained.
“It’s a really nice opportunity for our grandparents to connect” when they cannot be in-town, she said.
Stephen Langel is a freelance writer from Pepper Pike.