Staying hybrid in Rockland
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Staying hybrid in Rockland

The county’s federation keeps its Midreshet program in person and online 

Leslie Goldress leads a hybrid class at the Rockland Jewish federation.
Leslie Goldress leads a hybrid class at the Rockland Jewish federation.

As the omicron variant of covid-19 spreads, the Jewish Federation and Foundation of Rockland County doesn’t have to rethink its Midreshet program of adult Jewish learning.

That’s because when students returned to the classrooms of its West Nyack offices in September, those who preferred to continue learning remotely weren’t left out.

The program adopted a hybrid model where some students came to the classroom in person while others continued the Zoom routine they had begun when courses were moved online in March 2020.

“The thing about hybrid is that you can accommodate any mix,” Cantor Barry Kanarek, the federation’s director of Jewish education and engagement, said. “Between omicron and the winter weather, we expect a greater proportion of our students will be online. The nice thing is we have the flexibility.”

Currently, 62 students are enrolled in the fall semester of the Midreshet, which wraps up in January. Registration is now open for the four courses that begin in February. (You can find details at https://jewishrockland.org/midreshet-spring-2021-22.)

Cantor Kanarek is widely credited with helping the Rockland federation and its broader community move online when covid hit.

“He trained all of us in the beginning,” Marilyn Silberglied said. Ms. Silberglied, 81, lives in New City.

“None of us know how to do Zoom. He did it by telephone, by computer messages, and by phone. He walked us through the process. He gave us a list of instructions and said, ‘If that doesn’t work, call me!’

“I call him my hero. I don’t know how I could have gotten through the pandemic without him. We were completely cut off from everybody. Zoom was an outlet for us.”

Now, in offering the hybrid learning, Cantor Kanarek has the assistance of an owl — a Meeting Owl, to be precise. It’s the brand name of a small video camera that can rotate, owl-like, at the sound of a voice so that it focuses on the speaker. The result is a better experience for students tuning in from home than they would get from a camera focused just on the instructor, or presenting a panorama of all the in-class students.

The smart camera also shuts off its microphone when someone is speaking online, eliminating the echo effect old-timers remember from call-in radio shows.

The price? Around $1,000.

“Between the camera and a flat screen TV to display the Zoom, equipping the entire room cost us about $2,200,” Cantor Kanarek said.

The hybrid model isn’t just for classes. “It’s useful for board meetings and things like that,” Cantor Kanarek added.

He acknowledges that there is an “extra piece you get” when people show up in person, whether for a class or a board meeting. “The social aspect of it is so important.”

But “when you have people who can’t make it for various reasons, whether it’s board members stuck in the office or students who might have moved out of state,” the online option is very important.

“We needed an approach that could be flexible,” he said.

As he was planning in the summer for this fall, “We just didn’t know where this was going to go. At the same time, we had a large number of people who were tired of being remote and wanted to see each other in person.”

The flexibility means that each of the classes falls into its own dynamic.

“In one class, roughly half are online and half are in person,” Cantor Kanarek said. “I have one class where we started off with most of the people in person and it shifted to everyone being online. There was one class where the instructor was online and most of the class was online, but we had two people who came in. The nice thing about it is it just gives us the flexibility.”

For Ms. Silberglied, the option to continue studying from home even as some of her fellow students are returning to the classroom is a godsend.

“As we get on in age, it’s not so easy to get up and get out in the morning,” she said. “When it’s cold out, I don’t want to get out into my car and drive. I am happy staying at home and staying on the computer.”

She has been taking classes through the federation for 11 years now. “Your class is as good as your teacher,” she said, and she is quite a fan of several of the regular teachers. She is also taking Jewish studies courses at the New City Jewish Center and at the Rockland Learning Collaborative — which has offices at the New City Jewish Center but is currently offering all of its classes remotely.

“It loses nothing, other than the human contact,” she said of online learning.

“There are drawbacks. I can’t say it’s completely wonderful. Every once in a while the internet will go down.”

But when the technology works, the Jewish Federation instructors — trained by Cantor Kanarek — know how to make a course work, she said, shifting as required between sharing the text on their computer screen with the at-home Zoomers (and on the large TV screen for those in the classroom) and lecturing and running an interactive discussion.

The federation is offering four courses for its February semester, ranging from 10 to 12 weeks in length. They take place on Wednesday or Thursday mornings; two of the instructors will teach in person and two remotely. The course topics are “Jewish Nobel Prize Winners,” “Saviors of Israel” (ranging from Moses to Theodore Herzl), “Early Christianity through a Jewish Lens,” and “The Adventures of Israel’s Kings,” which will focus on the first three: Saul, David, and Solomon. Registration is at https://jewishrockland.org/midreshet-spring-2021-22.

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