More than 200 students and educators gathered at a Brooklyn, N.Y., synagogue Thursday for a banquet celebrating the boys' division of the rapidly expanding Yaldei Hashluchim Online School. The initiative provides an in-house Jewish education to the children of Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries that live in locations without proper Lubavitch schooling.

The banquet represented the first time classmates could meet with each other and their teachers since the beginning of the school year two-and-a-half months ago. It took place during the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, which ends Nov. 12.

The Online School, a project of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Shluchim Office, which provides resources to Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries, offers four hours of lessons every Monday through Friday to those in preschool through Grade 8. Some 400 students sign in to an online classroom to listen to lessons and interact with fellow peers through a teleconference system. Online courses cover all the usual day school subjects, including Bible, the Prophets, the weekly Torah reading, Jewish law and Mishnah.

"The purpose of this school is to make sure that children should not be left behind their other peers," said program director Rabbi Moshe Shemtov, "nor be deprived of a Chabad education."

Crown Heights resident Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov helps fund the program in the memory of his father, Rabbi Mendel Shemtov, who died last year.

"This is a very interesting event," he said. "A lot of these people who have been learning together for a while are meeting each other for the first time."

A Cool School

Students get a chance to greet their teacher.
Students get a chance to greet their teacher.
Before the program's official advent, the room was bustling with energy as children and teachers socialized over a buffet lunch. Nebraska native Yossi Katzman, 10, was sitting with his classmates, Yehuda from Scandinavia and Mendel from Ohio. Katzman, a self proclaimed "fan" of the Online School, said, "I love everything about it. It's more interesting and just … cooler."

At the banquet, Katzman met his teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Zwiebel, for the first time. After months of teaching faceless students, Zweibel said he hadn't pictured his fourth grade students in his mind: "It feels great to meet them in person."

"It's special teaching kids who don't have another school to go to," said the rabbi. "Because it's online, the kids can't wait for class to start. They're usually early!"

The children attending the banquet shared a refreshing enthusiasm for school; most interviewed recognized the uniqueness of their school experience.

Levi Yitzchak Baitelman, 14, from Richmond, British Columbia, was proud to be a part of something he sees as "beyond what most people do."

"I mean, really, I learn with kids from Sweden," he shared.

Baitelman was sitting with two friends whom he met in person at the banquet: Nissy Andruseir, 14, from Cooper City, Fla., and Yisroel Mendel Wineberg, 13, from Vancouver, British Columbia. With fighting over seats and picking at each other's food, it's hard to believe these boys hadn't spent time with each other in person prior to the event. But the students insisted that the online classroom facilitates a strong connection with social peers.

"It's not like we're strangers!" offered Andruseir, who described a warmth between students that he believes is generated by a common ground. "These kids understand my situation; being a rabbi's son and wearing a yarmulke and tzitzis twenty-four-seven."

Added Weinberg, "Yeah, the only difference now is that we're actually chilling."

In terms of the quality of education, students said they saw clear advantages in the Online School. Andruseir, for one, explained that the teachers give over lessons with more details because they lack the ability to actually show students what they're talking about.

Baitelman agreed: "We can't see their expressions or hands, so they have to be very clear and specific with their words."

Andruseir pointed to the confidence teachers must have in students.

"It gives us a lot of responsibility, because they have to trust we're not doing other stuff while they're teaching," he said. "This is one of the greatest programs every made."

Said Baitelman, with a hint of dread in his voice: "Without the Online School, I'd be out of town!"

(Many Chabad-Lubavitch families in far away locations send children to bigger cities for schooling when they get older.)

A Salute

David Ben Ba'ashat (Photo: Mimi Notik)
David Ben Ba'ashat (Photo: Mimi Notik)
The official ceremony opened with Rabbi Yossi Lazaroff, co-director of Chabad of Brazos Valley in College Station, Texas – the location of Texas A&M University – addressing the audience of supporters, students, teachers and parents.

Speaking as a parent of an Online School student himself, he said: "I'm impressed with not only the Online School's level of education, but the love that each teacher has for their students.

"I don't have to tell my kids to go to school," he added. "It's them telling me, 'I have to get to school on time!' "

A special guest, outgoing Israeli Navy commander David Ben Ba'ashat, praised the Online School: "Today, I learned that Chabad likes technology, and know what to do with it!"

"Your children need to be an example to the community," he said, "and this technology allows that. I admire that you know how to use it for your community. I salute you."

Shaya Liberow, 10, from Barranquilla, Columbia, also addressed the audience. He opened with a rhetorical question: "Who would ever imagine that you can learn and chat with friends from all over the world?"

He reported that, when asked about his schooling, he tells people: "I learn online with a teacher that loves that his students can't all talk at the same time."

The evening closed with the Online School's principle, Gitty Rosenfeld, lauding the supporters, teachers and children for their "commitment to a very important school." Afterward, all the students and teachers gathered together for a school picture.

The banquet for the Online School's girls division will take place during the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries at the end of January.