What may be the largest program in online Jewish education is run out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
What started as a service for the children of far-flung Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries now enrolls 600 students. The original day-school equivalent program – teaching Jewish subjects in Hebrew, Yiddish and English – has been supplemented with tracks for non-Chabadniks that also offer a one- or two-day-a-week Hebrew school experience and personal bar mitzvah tutoring for boys.
“We have students from all around the world,” said Rabbi Yossi Goldman, who runs the school at JewishOnlineSchool.com. “China, Kazakhstan, Germany – all around.”
The origins of the school go back several years, when Goodman, who is a member of the Chabad movement and himself the son of shluchim, lived in Australia. He was tutoring a child for his bar mitzvah. It was almost the big day – and Goodman was sick and couldn’t visit the child.
Inspiration struck. He connected with his student via Skype, the video conferencing program.
“We actually conducted a great lesson over Skype,” Goodman said.
A few years later, he had a website, BarMitzvahLessons.com, offering “the best online live personal training” for only $20 a lesson. He was working at Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights when he learned that classes were being taught over the phone to a handful of children of Chabad emissaries. As an experiment, he took three students from telephone conference to video conferencing. That was year one, a time to iron out the technical glitches.
With video technology, the teacher can see all of the up to 15 students in his class. The students can see the teacher on their screen, and there is a virtual whiteboard where the teacher or the student can highlight the text.
“I wish the online school was there when I was a child,” Goodman said. His parents were Chabad emissaries, and while his parents felt comfortable sending him to a regular nearby Orthodox yeshiva for his first few years in school, for fifth grade he began attending a Chabad yeshiva in Brooklyn, living with a family there and only returning home on the weekends.
(In northern New Jersey, most Chabad emissaries send their children to Cheder Chabad in Monsey, which uses the Chabad siddur and begins teaching the writings of the Lubavitcher rebbe to the eighth grade boys. A minority send their children to the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. None of them use Goodman’s school.
Of course, there are no buses to Staten Island or Crown Heights in Almaty, Khazakhstan, and the Chabad rabbis there used to take time out from their day to teach their children.
So it was not surprising that the online classes “caught on like wildfire” among the Chabad diaspora, Goodman said.
Then the school began getting requests from non-Chabad parents. Starting two years ago, it began adding the Hebrew school and bar mitzvah tutoring.
Teachers are around the world; there is full tech support based in Europe, since afternoon in China is for the classes for Europe and Asia that take place at 3 a.m. New York time.
The virtual classrooms are not coed. The school goes through eighth grade for boys and ninth grade for girls.
“At one point we do want the kids to get out of the house,” Goodman said.
The classes for Chabad students are separate, “with more of a Chabad twist.” The curriculum lists as an “advanced track” a curriculum that has boys begin to study Mishna in third grade and Gemara in fifth.
“In the regular online Jewish school, it’s regular Judaism. We do add a Chabad spice to it which makes learning Judaism more fun and engaging and exciting,” he said.
While it bills itself as a day school, the posted class hours are after school; the day school track meets two hours a day, two or four hours a week.
“Wherever there’s a local day school, we encourage them to attend,” Goodman said.
“Our goal is not to hurt any day schools. Whenever someone inquires, we first want to understand the nature of why they are coming to us. But there are many kinds of situations where the online class would work much better than the local school that they do have.”