Chabad-Lubavitch Hebrew schools have gone online to continue providing a Jewish education, even while many are staying at home due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
The Chabad Children's Club, created by CKids, is an online Hebrew school featuring songs, skits and quizzes, according to Chabad.org. This week, the program focused on the story of the Exodus.
"I kind of found it a little more fun because you could do it at the comfort of where you are, and you didn’t have to get up and go out of the house," said Suzy Venit, 10, after learning with the program with her five-year-old sister, Jenna. Suzy especially liked the scene where Pharaoh had to use Google, according to Chabad.org.
"The girls were very engaged and giggling and laughing," added Francine Venit, Suzy's mother. "Suzy was doing the quiz, and I could hear her shouting out answers. I was elated that she was so excited."
CKids director Rabbi Zalman Loewenthal told Chabad.org that tens of thousands of children took part in the virtual classes. Two different classes were offered for kindergarten through second grade and third grade through sixth grade. Over 2,000 responses to the online quiz were emailed from the United States, Canada, England and elsewhere.
The decision to create the online program was made just last week when schools worldwide began closing.
"All the Hebrew schools were shut down, so we knew that we had to keep Torah learning going; it should never stop," said Loewenthal. "Thank G‑d, we were able to launch a virtual online Hebrew school with amazing teachers, and children from all around the world have been watching it. We’re going to be doing one every week—for at least the next three weeks and teaching about Passover in an educational and entertaining way."
Simon Seesengood, 10, from Pennsylvania, usually attends class at Chabad of Berks County in Reading. His father, Rob, told Chabad.org that Simon "watched the videos, and did the interactive game parts and prayers. He liked it a lot and enjoyed it. He had fun with it."
Rob works at a local college and has been preparing virtual learning for his own students. He was impressed by the speed with which Chabad organized the program.
“What really impressed me from a design perspective is that it was seamless for people,” he said. “There was online content right from his class and user-friendly technology.”
Some Hebrew schools combined the online learning with personalized classwork. Chana Lipsker, the co-director of the Berks County center with her husband, Rabbi Yosef Lipsker, called each student and worked individually with them on their Hebrew-reading skills. Chana got immediate feedback from parents during the studies as well.
"It was exciting,” she said. “The kids were doing something for Hebrew school, but they were home. Parents were involved; they were watching. I got such cute feedback—like pictures of the children watching the program while drinking hot cocoa or in the pajamas.”
“CKids is unbelievable,” continued Lipsker to Chabad.org. “It really has been an amazing thing for me, feeling like we are part of this network, and it’s amazing so many people banded together to make that happen.”
The Nigri International Jewish Online School, a project of Chabad-Lubavitch's Shluchim Office, runs both the International Shluchim Online School, for children of Chabad emissaries stationed around the world, and the Online Hebrew Academy, which is for Jewish children of all backgrounds.
The Nigri Online School is offering institutional advice for Jewish schools that are trying to figure out how to move their studies online. Enrollment to the Jewish Online school is also rising as families and children seek ways to continue their Jewish education in the coronavirus outbreak.
"It’s a time of need, and we want everybody to be able to continue learning Torah and for children to continue their education. We have the ability to help others, and we have to do that," said Bassie Shemtov of the Shluchim Office to Chabad.org.
Shemtov and other Nigri school officials have been working since last week to ensure that they could take in the new students and new schools.
About 100 Jewish schools around North America have reached out to the Shluchim Office seeking help and information, according to Chabad.org. Nigri is offering established Jewish schools the opportunity to use the same base school platform as the international school, with each school being able to run its own classes with their own teachers and curriculums.
“Our technical director, Yossi Goodman, was working all night to find a way to put as many schools in a short time,” said Shemtov. “Yossi is training other employees on using the platform so they can provide tech support, and help schools and teachers and students get on.”
Goodman has recorded a number of tutorial videos to show school administrators how the platform works, while the Hebrew Online School's principal authored an eight-page document with practical tips for online education.
“We’ve been doing this for so long so we knew we had to just put this information out there. We know we can help an entire school, class by class, go online,” explains Yossi Goodman. “At this point we’re all fielding emails and phone calls from parents and schools admins looking for help, and we’re trying to help them navigate.”
For families whose schools are not providing an online option, children can join classes at Nigri's Jewish Online School. At least 125 students from Europe and Israel have joined in recent weeks. The number is expected to rise.
The international school has several different divisions, including one in Hebrew for Israelis and Europeans and an English language school for kids in the US and elsewhere.
Shemtov believes they can accomodate another few hundred students and will work to add more teachers as number rise further.
“On Monday, when the new kids joined, our current students saw a new name coming up on their screen as they logged into class,” explains Shemtov. “They are also seeing their new classmates on camera, and the morah [teacher] will welcome the new students into the class. The idea is that we welcome everyone, just like when you go to a traditional school. Now we’re the ones opening the door to welcome the kids who need us now.”