If you grew up Jewish in North America you probably have memories of some kind of formal Jewish learning program. When I was a kid Jewish day school was relatively rare but today it’s more prevalent . An estimated 25% of American Jewish kids attend a day school while, of the remaining 75%, the majority continue to look to their local congregational schools for complementary Jewish education.
People who are involved in Jewish enrichment tell me that Jewish education is changing for the afternoon/Sunday school crowd. The teachers are better trained, the curriculum is geared towards the students’ interests and there’s more experiential and immersive education going on than ever before.
This is great news to people like myself who remember our Hebrew school days as mandatory, boring, uninspiring and depressing. Today’s Hebrew school students can integrate the material that they learn into their own lives in real, meaningful ways via a Jewish community that has come to the conclusion that engaging today’s Jewish youth will promote a healthy Jewish community of the future.
The present afternoon/Sunday school option, however, isn’t for everyone. Some communities are far-flung and getting a child to his or her congregational school involves significant travel time. Other Jewish families live in rural areas with no synagogue or temple anywhere in the vicinity. There are Jewish servicemen and woman who live on their bases where there are no congregational school frameworks for their children.
Some kids simply don’t integrate into an existing Hebrew school while others want to experience a different kind of Jewish learning than they find in their congregation’s complementary educational program. Many cities have day schools that reach the 5th or 6th grade but don’t go further, leaving the students with more Jewish knowledge than their peers in the community Hebrew School. Some kids attend a Jewish camp and wish to continue the experiential Jewish learning during the school year.
Then there are the Bar/Bat Mitzva kids. For many families, learning to chant the Torah portion is an important part of the Bar/Bat Mitzva experience but frequently the kids themselves demand a more meaningful pre- or post-Bar/Bat Mitzva learning alternative. Modern Hebrew, contemporary Jewish issues, questions about Judaism and spirituality tend to be put on the back burner in many Bar/Bat Mitzva preparatory programs. Many students (and their families) feel the loss.
Online Jewish learning is one alternative that can provide a convenient and meaningful Jewish educational experience that addresses the students’ and families’ expectations for high quality Jewish enrichment. The non-profit JconnecTLearning program is now in its fourth year, offering interactive supplemental Jewish activities to students aged 11-14.
JconnecT students include all of the types of learners mentioned above — children of military personnel, pre-teens and adolescents who don’t live near a congregational school, youngsters who went to camp and came back inspired and both pre- and post-Bar and Bat Mitzva kids whose families want them to have a meaningful and spiritual Jewish learning experience.
JconnecT meets once a week, on Sunday mornings, online. There the participants explore various subjects and enjoy online experiences that provide them with a basic grasp of Judaism and of the Jewish world’s connect to the land, people and State of Israel.
The program also includes two yearly Shabbatonim. JconnecT students from all over the country meet at the Margolin Hebrew Academy of Memphis to interact with the Margolin kids and with each other over a weekend of Shabbat singing, discussions, socialization and, of course, wonderful Shabbat food.
The 2013-2014 school year began in October but students can still sign up and begin their JconnecT journey.