As children start to return to school and the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep across America, Chabad Hebrew schools, which offer after-school instruction to tens of thousands of Jewish children around the nation, are searching for a way to be engaging and ensure their students return to class and not miss out on the formative years of Jewish education.

Knowing that some families are not ready to have their children back in the classroom just yet, Chabad educators are relying on a creative mix of online and in-person programming, along with a new curriculum, to ensure that every child can participate in learning safely, and that everyone feels included.

“Our goal is to work with parents to give every child a Jewish education, while meeting the family’s needs at this challenging time,” said educator Sara Bluming, co-executive director of Chabad of Potomac in Maryland, who is helping to create the new Hebrew-school curriculum for the upcoming academic year.

The program builds on the success Chabad schools had last spring, when Chabad Kids Network (CKids) stepped in during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown to launch a virtual school that was up and running in March. More than 500 Chabad Hebrew schools participated in the virtual program with many supplementing the online program with individual Hebrew-reading lessons either online or over the phone. Additionally, a number of Chabad Hebrew schools had their own educators providing online instruction. Not only did the virtual options work for educators, it was a hit with the families as well.

“What we loved, specifically during the pandemic, is that they didn’t miss a bit,” said Janice Eisenberg of Maryland, whose two children attend the Chabad of Potomac Hebrew School. “They took maybe two weeks to get set up, but the online program was super-engaging, age-appropriate and my husband, Larry Newdorf, and I enjoyed watching them along with the children,” she told Chabad.org

Because their kids are in different grades—Justin, 11, is going into sixth, while Jessica, 8, is starting third—Eisenberg related that “we would each watch with one kid, and we would sing the prayers together during online class. I was so impressed because I didn’t realize how many prayers they knew. To hear them singing them in their entirety was amazing.”

Also impressed with the online education was Riki Schips, whose children—Aiden, 10; Leetal, 8; and Noa, 4—attend the Hebrew school at the Chabad Jewish Center of Northwest Bergen County in New Jersey.

“Initially, I was like, how is this going to work? By week two, the kids were immersed and looking forward to getting their supplies and logging on,” said Schips. “It was such a smooth transition. It was just an amazing job.”

As for Leetal, she said “it was fun, and I got to see my friends.”

Jessica and Justin Newdorf are looking forward to going back to Chabad of Potomac's Hebrew school.
Jessica and Justin Newdorf are looking forward to going back to Chabad of Potomac's Hebrew school.

Conference Draws 250 Educators

This year, CKids and the Chabad Hebrew schools are upping their game. To that end, Chabad hosted a conference with 250 educators to help prep for the pandemic-based school year. Educators were given practical, hands-on tips on how best to educate using Zoom technology.

One presenter was Mimi Kaplan, co-executive director with her husband, Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan, of Chabad Jewish Center of Northwest Bergen County, who successfully revamped her entire Hebrew-school program in March to accommodate learning via Zoom.

“I really went into this thinking that it was an opportunity,” said Kaplan. “Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, it’s so challenging,’ I wanted to think out of the box and come up with ideas that I didn’t have before.

“Our goal was to give a Zoom experience with the same connection to our students and have the same hands-on, fun experience they had in Hebrew school, but move it online,” she continued. “This came from a lot of love and care, and I think the families and children felt that because it was such a crazy time.”

To ensure that they kept the “hands-on” lessons and creativity, the staff at Chabad of Northwest Bergen County would deliver some 100 supply packages to their students every Sunday morning.

“The kids would run to the door; they couldn’t wait to see what was in the packages,” said Schips. “It was like getting a present every week.”

In addition to learning best practices for Zoom classes, Chabad educators are being given the tools to create a school year focusing on the Jewish home.

When Hebrew school first went online in March, Suzy Venit was shouting out the answers to the quizzes.
When Hebrew school first went online in March, Suzy Venit was shouting out the answers to the quizzes.

“It’s a theme that lends itself to a lot of engagement, particularly for those who are learning at home. For instance, during a lesson on kosher food, they can run to their kitchen and find an item with a kosher food symbol on it,” said Bluming.

Rabbi Zalman Loewenthal, director of CKids, added that “we will be learning about Shabbat, the holidays and mitzvot you can do at home. It will be all new materials for this year.” Rabbi Dovid Weinbaum, the youth director at the Dix Hills Jewish Chai Center, is serving as the dean for CKids Hebrew School.

“Our goal,” said Bluming, “is for all the kids, whether in-class or virtual, to always be doing the same thing and be on the same page. And next year, hopefully, we can start back with the regular curriculum.”

And it isn’t just that the plan is putting parents at ease, said Eisenberg, it’s how the schools are communicating with parents and respecting their decision as to whether they want their children in the classroom or at home.

“The number of emails that were sent out to get everyone’s input was just so important. We love being a part of this Hebrew school, and the way they went about it allowed us to make the right choice,” said Eisenberg, at least for them. Their children will attend school virtually this year.

The Schip children, on the other hand, will attend in-person classes. “I know the Kaplans will make sure everything is to the highest standard of cleanliness and protocols; and if they feel it’s not safe anymore, they will go back to virtual class. I trust them 100 percent.”

Eisenberg emphasized that at the end of the day, in school or at home, Chabad Hebrew School “is a family experience,” she said, where “you are making memories.”

To find out more about schools near you, visit the Chabad Hebrew School directory.