As classrooms have turned to Zoom, schools all over the world are struggling to adapt. But for one Jewish school, distance learning is a way of life.
Sixth-grader Hadasa Perez has never met her teacher. Or her classmates.
Yet, while parents, teachers, and children around the world are flailing like fish out of water, struggling to maintain some kind of normal schedule in the midst of a pandemic, Hadasa and her class have serenely continued with life as usual. For the three hundred students of the Nigri International Jewish Online School, remote learning is nothing new.
Opened in 2010, Nigri is a younger sister to the Shluchim Online School, a full-time educational program for eight hundred children of Chabad representatives. Both schools are a project of the Shluchim Office and directed by Rabbi Gedalya and Bassie Shemtov. “The Rebbe gave us a mission to reach every Jew wherever they are, and this is our privilege,” Bassie says.
Last summer, when the Perez family moved to Sacramento from Red Bluff, California, Yehudit and Chaim were thrilled that their six children would finally have access to Jewish education. (Since converting to Judaism four years ago, the couple has homeschooled.) However, as the academic year approached, they heard that the Sacramento Jewish Academy did not have enough enrollment to warrant a sixth-grade class. They found their solution at the Jewish Online School, and when Sacramento schools closed due to the pandemic, Hadasa’s sister, Shulamit, 11, joined her. “Our family found a treasure,” Yehudit said.
Most families join Nigri because, like for Hadasa, it is their only option for Jewish education. They are military families, traveling business people, or those who find themselves in places with no Jewish infrastructure. Others can’t attend brick-and-mortar schools due to illness or use it as a Jewish supplement to their public school education. Students hail from thirty-two states and seventeen countries, and classes are delivered in four languages by teachers in Panama, Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, Israel, Canada, and the USA.
As principal Mushka Paltiel said, “Our charter is to offer Jewish education to Jewish children no matter their location, affiliation, background, or socioeconomic situation.”
One School, Many Tracks
Nigri operates on five tracks: Hebrew School, Day School, Cheder, Bar Mitzvah, and Tutoring. The curricula for each were designed with help from education professionals and leaders in comparable brick-and-mortar institutions. There are multiple levels in each track, and classes are scheduled in the morning and evening hours. The plethora of options allows for a parent body that spans the spectrum of Jewish observance. “At the Online School every family has their own story, which makes for a diverse and inspiring community,” says Leah Shemtov, administrator and outreach coordinator.
Self-described “traditional Jew” Jaime Connor wanted her daughter Bethany, 7, to have a Jewish education. But in Yulee, Florida, a small town that shares a border with Georgia, there wasn’t a Hebrew School in sight.
A fifth-grade social studies teacher for the Georgia Cyber Academy, Jaime was familiar with online learning. She turned to Google and was pleasantly surprised to find Nigri. “The teachers pack so much into the two hours of Hebrew School. It’s hyper-focused and very interactive,” she said. Jaime also loves the flexibility online school offers. “Bethany has attended Hebrew School from a hotel room, or while staying at friends’. She has only missed one class in two years and the teacher recorded it for her so she caught up another time.”
“The complex technological set-up required to run a school online was mastered long ago—the school’s current platform functions as an interactive smart board, where teachers control permissions for the mic, webcam, and chat functions,” said Director of Technical Development Yossi Goodman. “There are also security features, and teachers can view students’ screens, ensuring students aren’t busy with something else during class.”
The more daunting problem is coordinating schedules across multiple time zones—one teacher starts the school day at 6 a.m. in New York to accommodate her students in Dubai.
In Sacramento, the Perez girls, who attend the Day School track, start class at 1:30 p.m., but for their teacher, Aviana Dahan in Montreal, it’s 4:30.
After Morah Aviana’s Level 8 class, concluded their “Jewish Women in Tanach ” course, each student chose a medium and compiled a presentation on the women they have studied. The women included the matriarchs, Spanish heroine Donna Gracia, and their mothers. Hadasa Perez has chosen to present her heroines in short, hand-illustrated movie clips.
“In some ways, Nigri students get a more authentic experience than if they were in a regular classroom,” said Mushkie Lipskier, head of curriculum and teacher engagement. “When they learn the laws of cooking on Shabbat, the teacher is standing in her kitchen and showing them how things work. When they learn about mezuzah, they can show their friends the mezuzah on their very own door.”
“There is no precedent for online learning of this type,” Mushkie added. “Our teachers are trained to make lessons as experiential as possible to keep the kids engaged and make learning come alive.”
As parents and children have discovered during these past months, school is more than a lesson plan and assignments. Nigri staff know this, and constantly look for ways to mimic the social environment of a school. Teachers encourage students to collaborate on projects in class and on homework, and both Perez girls have made friends with their classmates.
The school is also intentional about fostering a sense of community. For Purim, families are encouraged to participate in a mishloach manot exchange, where they send kosher treats to a classmate. When Bethany was assigned a classmate in New Mexico, Jaime and the kid’s mom connected and have remained friends. “It’s very cool and special that the school has brought us together,” Jaime said.
Back in Sacramento, Hadasa leaves school for the day, energized and happy, her mother said. “The Jewish Online School has given my girls a positive platform and a community that, though it is scattered, is connected in its own unique way.”