Teaching US pupils Hebrew from a computer screen in Israel

Bonim B’Yachad American day schools to add classes in many subjects.

February 14, 2016 01:05
computer keyboard

Writing on a computer keyboard [Illustrative]. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

An Israeli initiative, Bonim B’Yachad, has taken Jewish day schools in the US by storm, offering Hebrew and other classes to pupils taught online by teachers living in Israel.

Aryeh Eisenberg, founder of Bonim B’Yachad, sat down with The Jerusalem Post recently to discuss his innovative enterprise and the future of technology in education.

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Eisenberg, who was a teacher and school administrator in the US for 10 years before making aliya seven years ago, began the initiative based on his experiences teaching in Israel.

“When I came to Israel I was warned by basically everyone to ‘get out of education,’” he recalled.

“I didn’t listen to anybody – I was teaching English and I loved the experience of teaching in an Israeli high school,” he continued.

Unfortunately, after receiving his first paycheck, Eisenberg quickly decided that he would be unable to support himself, let alone a family. He quit teaching, and using his knowledge and educational background in working with computers, entered the hi-tech sector.

“But I felt a void,” he said of his decision. “At the end of the day, when you are born to be a teacher and education is in your blood, that’s just who you are.”

Eisenberg realized that there were many other new immigrant teachers who found themselves in the same position – forced to choose between their love of teaching and financial considerations.

“I saw how many teachers there were making aliya like myself who had to leave the fold, and I was meeting people like this over and over again,” he recounted.

“At the same time I had my ear to the ground with schools in the US who were struggling, they were asked to provide greater services but with fewer resources,” he said.

To bridge between the needs of American schools and the Israeli teachers, Eisenberg established Bonim B’Yachad and started providing online courses in Hebrew to three schools in the US. By the end of the first year, his initiative had expanded to elementary and high school classes in 11 schools.

Bonim B’Yachad was established based on a relatively simple concept – offering personalized classes in a variety of fields all taught online by teachers living in Israel to students across the US.

“All the teachers are based in Israel – I wanted to create opportunities for teachers in Israel and teachers who made aliya, because I was in that situation,” he explained.

Now in its fourth academic year, Eisenberg’s initiative offers 65 online classes to schools across the US in many subjects – from Hebrew to Bible studies, Arabic, math and zoology, to name a few.

“We have received unusual requests, for example, Latin classes, foreign languages such as Italian, Chinese, German as well as advanced Judaic studies and computer science classes,” he said.

“Hebrew language is still by far our most requested subject,” he explained. “There is a continuous debate over how we can teach Hebrew more successfully.”

Eisenberg said he has received a lot of requests to supplement and enhance existing Hebrew programs.

“One school has a large population of Israeli students but only has two [Hebrew] teachers, so we provide advanced Hebrew classes for these students,” he said. “In another religious school they were having a problem finding [Hebrew] teachers and so they came to us asking for very specific criteria – now we have five classes being taught by haredi Hebrew teachers.”

“Every program we do is designed for the students and for the school,” he said.

When asked whether this interactive online method detracted from the personal teaching experience in the classroom, Eisenberg replied: “We are not here to replace schools; we are trying to provide schools with the educational resources to offer every student the education that they need.

“We try to make our classes as active and interactive as possible with as much hands-on activity as could be,” he said.

Still he said the school experience is “essential for every student’s well-being.

“There are things you can’t teach in a classroom like, the social aspect for example. I wouldn’t want a student spend an entire day in front of a computer, because they would miss out on all the other aspects of the educational experience,” he said.

Kelly Adar, the Hebrew language coordinator at Columbus Torah Academy in Ohio, explained that her school began working with Bonim B’Yachad to fill the void left by a lack of Hebrew teachers in the area.

“Living in the Midwest has made my job somewhat challenging in finding professional Hebrew teachers who would be willing to come and teach Hebrew. This is when we heard about Bonim B’yachad. They provided us with professional teachers who could adapt their hours to accommodate our Hebrew-speaking students, making my job so much easier,” she said.

Rabbi Yotav Eliach, principal of Rambam Mesivta High School in Long Island, New York, welcomed the initiative that is helping his school enhance its curriculum and offer extra classes.

“I met Aryeh [Eisenberg] less than a year ago and was fascinated by the concept of long distance learning, especially if it is connected to teachers from Israel,” he said.

Currently, the high school has two AP science classes, one college level business class and one Hebrew class, all being taught by Bonim B’Yachad teachers from Israel.

“Our students love the quality of the teaching and we love the professionalism and of course the high caliber of the teachers and their teaching.

Rambam Mesivta is proud to be one of the few yeshivot in the USA that has won the coveted Blue Ribbon Award, hence we expect a great deal of our teachers,” he said.

Eisenberg said that principals welcome the initiative into their schools for a myriad of reasons.

The idea behind Bonim B’Yachad, he explained, is to allow schools to expand their offerings without having to “deal with logistics” and without “breaking the bank.

“Every school has a different reason why they use us – for some budgetary, for some logistics, for some just the current expertise we can offer,” Eisenberg said.

“This method really makes everything possible and that is the beauty of this,” he said.

“We have principals who lose sleep at night thinking how are they going to meet the needs of every student walking through their doors – we are here as an aid and we are here to help this cause.

“As a Jewish educator in a Jewish system in the US, this is where I saw the need, and in the future I would really like to take it to the global education scene,” he said.

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