Rivky Levertov, 12, is looking forward to this weekend. The seventh-grader, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., will be spending it in Long Beach, Calif., with about a dozen girls from the online school she attends.

The event is part of the Shluchim Online School’s extracurricular activities. Started in 2002, the school has classes ongoing 24 hours a day to cater to kids living in all different time zones. It’s made up of more than 50 teachers and 500 students – many of them are children of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries – and divided by gender and region. Students are able to see and hear each other, print out materials the teacher uploads, and fax in tests. They learn about the Jewish holidays and classic texts, and receive report cards for each of the school’s trimesters.

And just like schools made of mortar and brick, its students participate in clubs, attend virtual assemblies, and have opportunities like this weekend’s trip. It’s one of the few chances for the girls, who live in different parts of the country, to see their classmates in person.

Organized by Mushkie Junik, coordinator for the school’s after-school programs, the weekend will bring a different side to their relationship and their classes.

“I can’t wait to see them all just see each other and be together,” she said. “Their smiles are as real as smiles get.”

Levertov was all grins when her father called her during class to tell her she had won $200 towards her plane ticket as part of a writing and art contest that asked the girls to explain why they wanted to attend and what they hoped to gain by being there. Sponsored by an anonymous donor who contacted principal Gitty Rosenfeld, the contest sent money to three student winners.

“I don’t know how I survived the rest of the class time, because I was really excited and still am,” said Levertov.

She started by writing a poem about living a state away from other religious girls and wanting to see her friends, put it to a tune she knew how to play on the piano, and waited. Her submission was selected along with three others.

“The next day I had a ticket,” related Levertow. “I had a reservation and everything.”

Mousia Wilhelm of Oslo maps out the locations of her classmates' at the Shluchim Online School.
Mousia Wilhelm of Oslo maps out the locations of her classmates' at the Shluchim Online School.

A Typical Day

One of four kids in her family who attend the Shluchim Online School, she’s on from 11 a.m. to just after 4 p.m. in the afternoon, in a virtual classroom that shows up to six people on webcam at once.

Levertov’s counting down the hours until she gets to see her close friend Leah and the other girls, some of whom she’ll meet for the first time.

“I never knew anyone aside from my cousins from California or Arizona and then we all came to online school and it’s funny how we just became friends,” she said.

Being far apart, they’ve learned to appreciate their time together.

“Every moment spent together is recharging,” she said. “It’s not like it happens every day, you know.”

The weekend will bring 12 girls from grades five through eight to Long Beach, where they will interact with the local Chabad community and go to area arcades, bowling and take a tour of Los Angeles.

By way of explaining the unifying nature of the weekend, Junik spoke of the camaraderie within the school: Several of the girls surprised a friend in northern California by raising the money for her to attend.

“They sent her an email saying we have a ticket for you,” she said. “Reading those e-mails was really heartwarming.”

At the school, which is directed by Rabbi Moshe Shemtov on behalf of the Shluchim Office, different grades do various activities to create a unified atmosphere, said Junik. For example, the eighth grade girls take turns being on an activity coordination committee, and the seventh grade girls produce a school newsletter. There’s also a yearbook on the way, she said.

When Leah Goldman, 12, heard about the weekend event, she didn’t think she’d be able to make it. Then she found out about the contest and entered a poem about living in Oklahoma and a short article introducing her work. It was her first time entering a contest; when she won, she ran to tell her friend Rivky.

Goldman, who was home-schooled until the online school opened, said she enjoys having classmates her own age.

“I met some other girls like me and we interact on the computer, over the phone and we see each other a couple times a year,” she said. “I like socializing with people and that’s kind of hard to do living here.”

She said the way she goes to school isn’t really that different from someone who attends a physical school. She gets up in the morning and gets ready for school, and then her family drives to the local Chabad House, where she learns in a classroom on her computer. Most of the time, it’s just her before her sister joins her two hours a day. She said she thinks going to school online prepares her socially for how to interact with friends.

“When we first get together as a class, it’s a bit funny; you don’t know what to tell them,” she said. “You’re used to writing to them, typing to them, or talking to them on the phone.”

But everyone settles in fast, added Goldman, “and it works out.”

Of the upcoming weekend, she emphatically declared: “It’ll be a good experience.”

For more information about the Shluchim Online School, click here.