There wasn’t a Hebrew class that perfectly fit Haviva Tirschwell’s level and schedule in her yeshiva high school last year. Problem? No problem!
Haviva, who lives in Teaneck and was in 10th grade studied Hebrew long distance; her teacher, Michal Mandelbaum, lives in Israel.
Ms. Mandelbaum is on the staff of Bonim B’Yachad, an Israeli company that works together with overseas Jewish day schools and organizations to create customized online learning programs in just about any subject for any grade.
“It was fabulous,” Aviva’s mother, Miriam, said. “She probably learned more Hebrew this way than in all her time in school because it was catered to her and one-on-one. She was able to do it at home when there was no school, so the flexibility was amazing. She really enjoyed learning real-life Hebrew, and it was great for us.”
Now going into its fourth academic year, Bonim B’Yachad (“building together” in Hebrew) is headed by Aryeh Eisenberg of Modi’in. Mr. Eisenberg made aliyah from Highland Park seven years ago, following a career as an administrator and teacher at two large Jewish day schools and as a consultant for other educational institutions and organizations. The company now counts 22 teachers, all based in Israel, including Mr. Eisenberg.
“Altogether, we are working with 28 schools and expect a few more by the start of the school year,” he said.
Using WebEx or Zoom teleconferencing programs, Bonim B’Yachad bills itself as a practical and cost-effective alternative for day schools that wish to offer a new course or an additional section or level of an existing course without hiring a part-time teacher. It can be the solution to an individual need, as it was for Haviva Tirschwell, or for a small group of students.
“Jewish day schools have really challenging schedules, and some use block scheduling that makes it impossible to bring in part-time teachers,” Mr. Eisenberg said. And other schools don’t have enough demand for a particular elective. For example, at Yeshiva University’s Central High School in New York, Bonim B’Yachad is providing French instruction for the few students who wanted to learn it.
The most popular courses the company is asked to provide are Hebrew language and math, but Bonim B’Yachad also has met requests for such out-of-the-box subjects as architecture, engineering, 3D design, Advanced Placement Latin, and Mandarin.
“This allows for a well-rounded educational experience without causing logistical problems for the school,” Mr. Eisenberg said. “We work according to the needs of the schools; we don’t make them change the schedule for us, even if that means some of our teachers are working at night Israel time.”
David Klyman of Teaneck said that his son Yochanan has been practicing Hebrew online with Ms. Mandelbaum before beginning his sophomore year at Torah Academy, at the school’s suggestion. “He does two one-hour sessions per week,” Mr. Klyman said. “It’s going well; he’s getting one-on-one attention and it gives him a chance to interact with a teacher directly.”
The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford is considering a partnership with Bonim B’Yachad in the upcoming school year.
“We’re always looking for connections with Israel and solid ways to integrate technology, and if we can put the two together that would be wonderful,” Ricky Stamler-Goldberg, Schechter’s Lower School principal and director of Judaic studies, said.
“The component they add is creating a personalized boutique approach for a specific need, whether a child is excelling in a particular area or needs bolstering in a particular area,” she added. “The fact that a child can get individual attention, even in an area out of the norm, is very compelling. We’re looking at Bonim B’Yachad for numerous possibilities if it should prove to be a perfect fit.”
She is intrigued as well by the notion that a child could work with a Bonim B’Yachad teacher in seventh grade, and then meet that teacher in person when the Schechter eighth-graders take their annual trip to Israel.
In fact, that kind of meeting already has happened.
Bonim B’Yachad’s director of education, Avi Mandelbaum, who grew up in Teaneck and was educated at the Yeshiva of North Jersey, has offered home hospitality to some of the AP chemistry students he had taught online at Torah Academy of Bergen County, after they graduated and came to Israel for their gap year.
“The relationships I grow with my students are so much fun, and I enjoy seeing the impact I’m having on them,” he said. He was speaking from his home in the Haifa-area town of Moreshet, where he and his wife, fellow teacher Michal, and their children moved four years ago from central New Jersey.
“I had one student tell me, ‘I was thinking about becoming X, but I had so much fun in your class that now I’m thinking of becoming Y.’”
As a teacher, Mr. Mandelbaum is making good use of his chemistry degree from Yeshiva University, though before arriving in Israel he worked not only in the pharmaceutical industry but also as a synagogue youth director. He has taught online courses as diverse as AP U.S. history and the history of rock and roll.
“Teaching has given me the opportunity to be more involved in my children’s lives, which was one of the goals of making aliyah, because in the States I wasn’t with them as much as I would have liked,” he said. “The massive resurgence of aliyah means there are so many people in this country with a broad range of skills and knowledge. You can keep your day job and teach something you’re passionate about at night.”
Mr. Eisenberg said that the company also has allowed many immigrant teachers to continue in their chosen profession. “A lot of former day school teachers who made aliyah were being forced to go into other professions like technical writing, and that’s a shame,” he noted.
The company has an office in the Modi’in Entrepreneurs Startup Hub, or MESH. Most of the teachers work from home, all across Israel.
“Technology is an amazing tool, and if used correctly can offer limitless educational possibilities,” Mr. Eisenberg said.