A Revival Spreads
Wed, 01/15/2014
Staff Writer
Born in Poland, Hadassah Buchwald-Pawlak designed an online Jewish education program. Photo courtesy Lander College for Women
Born in Poland, Hadassah Buchwald-Pawlak designed an online Jewish education program. Photo courtesy Lander College for Women

A Jewish teen at a public school in a town in Poland was struggling with his German-language studies early in the academic year last year. Already enrolled in an after-school, online Jewish education program run by a Jewish day school in Warsaw, he signed up for optional instruction in German offered by the program.

By the end of the year, the teen’s German grades in school improved and he qualified for an exchange program in Germany, says Hadassah Buchwald-Pawlak, director and co-founder of the pilot Lauder e-Learning Schools, which were designed for young Jewish students who, like the one studying German, live hours from Warsaw and have no access nearby to Jewish education.

Jewish education — Hebrew, and a sweeping “Jewish studies” curriculum — are the center of the program’s classes, which are supplemented by elective instruction in three foreign languages (German, French and English) to make the students’ education “broader,” says Buchwald-Pawlak, a Warsaw native who is a graduate of the Manhattan-based Lander College for Women.

Founded two years ago, the educational program is the latest facet in Poland’s Jewish revival, which is bringing Polish Jewry to the level of any small Jewish community in Europe. The program sponsors the free classes several times a week, after the students’ public school day is over.

The instructors, most of whom who work at the two-decade-old Lauder Morasha School in Warsaw, teach in front of a computer camera from empty classrooms or from their homes; the students attend the e-classes at home in age-specific groups at a tablet computer provided by the program.

“No one is left behind due to economic abilities of the family.” Buchwald-Pawlak says of the computers given to the students.

Through the cameras and microphones on each computer, the students are able to ask and answer questions during each 40-minute class, and make friends with the other students, many of whom are the sole Jew in their schools.

Some three-dozen young Jews, “from all over Poland,” have taken part in the e-Learning program so far, Buchwald-Pawlak says. Tests and homework are administered by email or via Facebook.

The participants, whose ages range from 6 to 15, are invited to an annual weekend Shabbaton in Warsaw hosted by the Lauder-Morsaha School, and attend an annual summer camp sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

Parents of participants are “very supportive” of the program, Buchwald-Pawlak says. Some, most of whom grew up without any Jewish background, have asked for an online Jewish education program for them and their parents.

Buchwald-Pawlak says she complied.

“We want this to become a bigger [Jewish] community,” she says. Like many current members of her homeland’s Jewish community, Buchwald-Pawlak, 35, was raised with no Jewish education – she did not find out she was Jewish until she was 11, when Communism collapsed, when her mother informed her that they were moving to Israel, where Buchwald-Pawlak lived for several years.

She says she designed the e-Learning program — along with her husband, Polish-born Maciej Pawlak, director of the Lauder-Morasha School — for fellow Polish Jews who have little exposure to organized life in their hometowns.

“The work of Hadassah and the Lauder e-Learning program has touched young Jews who otherwise would never have a chance for serious, ongoing Jewish education. This is the true meaning of outreach,” says Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Long Island-born chief rabbi. “Imagine discovering you are Jewish and living hundreds of miles from the nearest Jewish community. What do you do?

“Until recently,” Rabbi Schudrich answers his rhetorical question, “you could read books or come to a summer program. Now, thanks to Hadassah and the Lauder e-Learning program with their highly dedicated and outstanding teachers, there is something you can do. [Parents] are no longer without hope for deeply educating [their] children Jewishly.”

Judged a success, the e-Learning program has subsequently expanded to Germany, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

These are not the first-such online Jewish learning programs. Other Jewish groups, notably Chabad, have offered their own for several years.

Buchwald-Pawlak, who is studying for her Ph.D. in the Institute of Jewish Studies of Krakow’s prestigious Jagiellonian University, stresses that the program is certified by Poland’s Ministry of Education.

She says the e-Learning program is based on what she learned while studying here at Touro College’s Lander College, on a Presidential Scholarship.

“I am not a professional teacher. I am a psychologist” says Buchwald-Pawlak, who graduated from the University of Warsaw’s psychology department, earning a master’s degree in organizational and industrial psychology.

She adds, “Teaching is part of me. I want to help people.” She also does other formal and informal volunteer teaching as a leader of the Warsaw Jewish community.

The Lander school “provided me with the knowledge I needed,” she says. “I had to educate myself in order to provide education to others.”

“Hadassah is doing such an incredible job furthering Jewish education in Poland,” says Naomi Klapper, deputy chair of the Lander College’s psychology department. “Her love of Judaism and quest to know more was obvious when she came to LCW.”

Her husband studied at Yeshiva University, receiving rabbinical ordination in 2006.

“When we came to America, we knew we would be going back and give back to our community,” Buchwald-Pawlak says.

The families of the students who have taken part in the e-Learning program have become more active in the Polish Jewish community, she says.

The student whose German-language studies were helped by the program has grown more confident in his academic abilities, Buchwald-Pawlak says — this year he is studying English online, in addition to Jewish studies, Hebrew and German.

steve@jewishweek.org