“Where’s Michael tonight?”
“His mom let me know that he’s going to be absent, he won’t be here.”
“Awww man. WAIT IS HE OK?”
“Yes, yes, he’s fine. Calm down. He has a soccer game and will do his make up work after class.”
“Ok, phew. Well too bad he won’t be on my Hebrew baseball team tonight.”
“Ok everyone. Let’s start class.”
This type of interaction happens whenever students are absent from my fifth-grade online Hebrew class. The classes are intentionally small and, with only five or six students per class, it’s very obvious when one is absent. Another result of both our small class size and our unique learning environment is that our students are closer than most. Our video conferencing software allows us to “visit” each other’s homes for one hour per week throughout the year. As a result, we all know what each other’s homes look like, what pets and siblings each one has, and even what each likes like to eat for dinner. Although these elements might seem trivial, this kind of closeness helps facilitate both learning and community formation. Our students are connected to each other and to the curricular material. Although class began only after the conversation about where Michael was, the students were actually applying an important lesson they had learned about valuing and caring for each member of the community. Beyond the simple curiosity of where their friend was, they were also checking in on his well-being and demonstrating how much they valued his presence in their class.
This is only one of the many examples of the closeness in our online learning community. Because the class technically meets in students’ homes and because many of the students participate in the program for multiple years, our teachers have a close relationship with the students and with many of their students’ parents as well. Although I did not expect that there would be a pastoral element of my role as Hebrew teacher, I found myself offering pastoral care to my students or their parents several times throughout the year. Many parents shared with me when they or their children had been hospitalized or when they had suffered a loss in the family. Although these life cycle events do not always become topics of conversation in class, my interactions with students and their parents around these difficult events feel like a sacred privilege. I am grateful for their willingness to let me into their lives, and if I am able to help in some small way, that is truly avodat hakodesh (sacred service).
Another result of being in a tight-knit learning community is that the students are willing to ask questions they might not ask at home or in another learning setting. They often surprise me with their deep religious questions such as “How do we know God exists?” or “How could the Holocaust have happened? How could people have done something so terrible?” or “Why do we pray in Hebrew?” These deep questions are more common in my online class than in any other elementary school setting in which I have taught. They spark fascinating discussions in which the students both learn from and teach each other.
In parashat Sh’lach L’cha, we read the story of the spies Moses sends to scout out the land. Most of the spies are cowardly. Only Caleb and Joshua are brave enough to bring back a message of hope and optimism in the face of the daunting, giant Anakites. When I tell people about our online learning program, some react like Caleb and Joshua. They are excited to hear about it, curious about its potential, and willing to accept online learning as a meaningful educational experience. Others wonder whether the students are missing out on a social experience, whether they will feel at home in the temple if their learning happens online, or if they will really be able to learn Hebrew. My experience has shown me that online learning is not a daunting Anakite, but rather a unique opportunity for community building and facilitating relationships among students, teachers, and families. As our program grows, we will continue to be intentional about incorporating community building into our curriculum and teaching the message that Judaism can happen anywhere, including online.
Ally Jacobson just completed her fourth year as a rabbinic/education student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. She has served as a TJF fellow and intern at Wise Temple and as a student rabbi at Temple Israel in Marion, Ohio; Beth Boruk in Richmond, Indiana; and Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona.