Group’s online school for far-flung emissaries’ kids provides learning plus a hedge against isolation.
Dini Freundlich’s daughter has been admonished for not wearing her uniform to class.
Fortunately the girl, who lives in Beijing, didn’t have to go home to change into her uniform: she was already there.
Freundlich’s daughter is one of 505 students enrolled in the Shluchim Online School, the first and only fully online Jewish day school in the world.
Students, ranging from pre-K through ninth grade, log in for as many as five hours of live Judaic studies each weekday, interacting via videoconference, text chat and by “writing” on the electronic classroom’s whiteboard. At any one time, participants can see five classmates and the teacher on their screens.
While they live in 36 different countries, Shluchim Online (the boys’ division is called the Lilian & Meyer Nigri School for Boys) students share a common background: all are the children of “shluchim,” the Jewish outreach emissaries that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement dispatches to virtually every corner of the globe.
Operated out of the movement’s Shluchim Office in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, but staffed by teachers all over the world, the school offers a Jewish education and social environment for the children of emissaries, many of them in remote locations that lack any Jewish day school, let alone a Chabad one.
“It’s really changed the ability of shluchim to do their jobs,” says Freundlich, a mother of six who runs a kosher restaurant and trilingual Montessori school, while also hosting Shabbat dinners for hundreds. “Before, a lot of home-schooling was going on, and it divided the couples’ time.”
The online school also has enabled shluchim kids to have a regular connection with Chabad peers.
“Ninety percent of our students are very isolated where they live,” explains Gitty Rosenfeld, Shluchim Online’s principal. “This is a huge social outlet for them: they get to see another Chani, another Sora, someone who lives like them.”
On first glance, one might not expect Chabad to be at the forefront of online Jewish education. Most Chabad Jews, while arguably less insular than other fervently Orthodox Jews, avoid television and popular movies, something that shocked TV personality Oprah Winfrey earlier this year, when she filmed a two-part show on chasidic life.
And the movement drew headlines last month when a girls’ high school in Crown Heights fined its students for having Facebook accounts. Initial news reports claimed Facebook had been deemed off-limits because of modesty concerns; Chabad officials later said the no-Facebook policy is instead aimed at encouraging girls to focus on in-person, rather than cyber, pursuits.
Nonetheless, in its myriad outreach efforts, Chabad has embraced technology, with virtually every Chabad institution boasting its own graphically sophisticated and functional website.
David Bryfman, director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at New York’s Jewish Education Project, says that while there are “many discussions taking place about utilizing online learning to cut the cost of Jewish education” and “using digital media to provide learners with access to great Jewish educators wherever they may be,” Chabad is one of “very few” able to “simultaneously operationalize both those objectives.”
With a total operating budget of approximately $1.75 million (which covers a 70-student online Hebrew school as well), the online school’s expenditure per student averages to just over $3,000, considerably less than the typical day school.
Piloted in 2005 with only a handful of students, the Shluchim Online School grew out of a phone school that had been started two years earlier by a few families.
“We realized that the phone is so limiting, because all the kids can do is listen,” says Rabbi Yossi Goodman, the school’s director of development, explaining why the Shluchim Office, which provides various services for the emissaries, decided to offer a trial class. Since it was launched, the school has grown by more than 10 percent a year.
Now the school, which has 50 teachers, runs on three shifts for native English speakers, each offering separate girls’ and boys’ classes in a different time zone (West Coast, East Coast and Europe). It also runs a Hebrew-speaking division (on Israel’s time zone) for the children of Israeli shluchim in Europe and the former Soviet Union. Initially developed for elementary grades only, it quickly added kindergarten and pre-K.
“People would call and say, ‘My 4-year-old is sitting next to my 6-year-old and saying, I want a morah [teacher] too,’” says Rosenfeld, who taught for 20 years in bricks-and-mortar Jewish schools before coming to the Shluchim Online School, first as an educational adviser and now as principal.
In 2011, Chabad began using the same platform — much of which it developed and customized in-house —for an online part-time Hebrew school, which is open to the general Jewish community and now enrolls 70.
From her office overlooking the tree-lined Eastern Parkway, Rosenfeld is in constant contact — via phone, e-mail and videoconference — with parents and teachers around the world. She facilitates several faculty meetings each week via videoconference, working to get teachers to share best practices with each other.
“We do a lot of peer teaching and peer mentoring,” she says, noting that she regularly has her teachers observe others’ classes and then reflect on what they’ve learned that they can incorporate into their own classes.
“I try to compensate for the lack of face-to-face and make it as personal as I can,” she says.
Instead of walking down the halls and peering into classroom as most principals do, she scrolls down a table of links on her computer screen and, with a click of the mouse, can drop in on lessons. (While the teacher and students can see she has logged in, she usually mutes her microphone so as not to disturb the class.)
Asked to describe a typical day in the life of an online principal, Rosenfeld says she starts the workday at 9 a.m., first going through her e-mails and answering “the most pressing ones,” then making sure all the classes are in session as scheduled.
As with any principal, “a lot of my job is expected work —developing policies and schedules — but also, each day I ask, ‘What’s going to be my surprise today?’” she says, noting there is usually some sort of emergency to address.
More often than not, that emergency is a technical problem, like a teacher or student losing connection to the Internet.
Internet connections have not been the only challenge to running the school, however.
In doing something so new, administrators and teachers have had to learn as they go, running everything on “trial and error,” Rosenfeld says, and then making modifications based on feedback from parents and teachers.
While many parents were skeptical at first that their children would be able to sit in front of a computer for several hours at a time, or bond with classmates and teachers they had not met in person, Rosenfeld says the system mostly works.
The key, says Rabbi Goodman, is that teachers have to “always make sure the kids are engaged.”
“We have to come up with a lot of tricks to make sure we know the students are with us,” he adds. “You can ask questions and have students put the answer in the chat box. The teacher has to do a lot of multitasking.”
To prevent distractions, as well as questionable Internet surfing, the school requires students to use a security program that blocks any site not connected to the class.
For non-school hours, many parents add web filters.
Asked if she is concerned about her children, who are enrolled in the online school, being tempted to go on the Internet, Henya Federman, an emissary in the Virgin Islands, seemed relatively unconcerned when interviewed this winter at the annual emissaries’ conference.
“Even if you don’t bring the computer into the house, the kids will have access at one point. One aspect of their education is learning how to use the Internet responsibly,” she says.
At the Federman household, school is a little “like an office,” she notes, with her two oldest children sitting at adjacent computers, each wearing headphones and a microphone.
“The teachers are very innovative,” she says approvingly. “They work very hard to give it the feeling of a classroom.”
Freundlich, the Beijing emissary, says her daughter has forged surprisingly close friendships through the online school.
“They see each other on the street here,” during the emissaries’ conference in Crown Heights, which includes various special events for Shluchim Online students, “and you’d think they saw each other all the time. They’re such close friends, it’s like they live down the street from each other.”
In addition to offering classes, the Shluchim Online School also hosts school-wide assemblies and special events, using a “rally room” platform that can accommodate more people than the “classroom.”
Principal Rosenfeld notes that the technology has allowed extended family to participate in school events, such as a ceremony marking the day the child receives his/her first prayer book, that they would be unable to travel to attend at a bricks-and-mortar school.
For the assemblies, technology is often the most minor challenge.
“Once we wanted to have a cooking class, but some kids live in places where it’s difficult to get basic kosher ingredients,” Rosenfeld says. “We have to always have to be thinking about, ‘Will they be able to get this item in Caracas, Venezuela?’ and try to offer alternatives. We have to think about, ‘Can the Europeans join? Is it too early for the West Coast?’”
Next in the series: Global online Hebrew schools. E-mail: Julie.firstname.lastname@example.org;
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