Teaching Torah Trope in a Virtual World

Last summer, as I prepared to begin my TJF fellowship at Rockdale Temple’s religious school, I reflected on what skills and strengths I could bring to my teaching role. I have several years of religious school teaching experience under my belt already, I wrote and implemented a curriculum for seventh graders at camp, I love working with middle schoolers, and making Jewish texts accessible is one of my passions. Notably absent from this list is singing or any sort of musical ability. Yet, to my surprise, an additional responsibility was added to my role at Rockdale Temple this year: teaching Torah trope to the sixth-grade class during our virtual year of religious school.

I was full of anxiety as my first class approached. I brushed up on my trope skills, praying that I would hit the right notes when I sang into my microphone on Zoom. Recently, hand motions have been used to help students learn the trope symbols, and I retaught myself the motions that I learned in my first summer of rabbinical school so that I could incorporate them into my class—I hoped that the kinetic learning might help engage the students in this unusual and exhausting setting. I constructed a Bitmoji classroom to greet students and their parents every week. I modified a COVID curriculum, created entirely on PowerPoint, to meet the needs of the broader Rockdale curriculum. Ready or not, the first day arrived, and I took a deep breath as my sixth graders popped into my Zoom room. 

It took only a couple of weeks for me to realize that my anxiety around teaching trope actually helped me to connect with my students and create an open and supportive classroom culture. They heard my voice cracks and imperfect singing, and they felt more comfortable trying out the tunes themselves. I acknowledged when something was difficult or confusing to me, and they were empowered to ask questions and express their opinions. Our Zoom room became a laboratory for trope. The students were puzzled about certain sounds, and they tried to solve the mystery behind these ancient symbols.We debated why certain trope marks sound the way that they do—Is it a vocal exclamation point? Or does it indicate that something in the text is sad?—and worked together to sing “Green Eggs and Ham” with trope. I realized that, even though I wasn’t leading text study, I was making Jewish texts accessible for these students, giving them the skills to unlock Torah.

More than the technical skills that my students have gained, I am immensely proud of the community that has been fostered in our weekly classes. We begin each class with a fun icebreaker question and, as a result, we’ve learned a lot about each other’s least favorite foods, dream vacations, and preferred snow day activities. The students are eager to form relationships with each other: they often arrange video game meetups for after class, and I’ve taken to leaving the Zoom room open for several minutes after we’re done so that they can be social with one another. 

Overall, teaching sixth grade Torah trope at Rockdale Temple has been more successful than I could possibly have imagined. During a year in which many of us have been silently sitting in front of computers day in and day out, I’ve done my best to create a classroom in which my students can get physical, use their voices, and create tangible connections with me and with one another. While I hope that they’ll remember all of their trope phrases ten years from now, I am much more concerned that, during this pandemic, they felt loved and supported by their religious school community. 

Madeline Budman is a second year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, Ohio. She currently serves the student rabbi for B’nai Israel Synagogue in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and as a TJF Fellow at Rockdale Temple.

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