As schools have wound down and people are reflecting on their varied experiences of distance learning, I’ve been thinking about my own early experiences teaching online.
Almost eight years ago, full of passion for teaching Torah but without a local outlet for that passion, I did some networking and discovered TorahTutors.org.
Founded by Rabbi Chaim Brovender in 2010 as an affiliate of WebYeshiva.org, part of the Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions (ATID), TorahTutors was designed to offer just what it said: tutoring in Torah subjects. The novelty – and now we’re more used to it, but at the time it was something of a novelty – was in the ability to connect students and teachers around the world to find a great match and provide resources where none, or too few, existed. (See here for a 2012 article largely about WebYeshiva, including discussion about pros and cons of online learning.)
My first TorahTutors students were a group of girls in a small community on the west coast, and some of the most mundane aspects of our learning blew me away. It can be hard to schedule local tutoring when kids need after-school hours but adult tutors with kids of their own might not be available then. With a three-hour time difference, I was able to put my kids to bed in Cleveland, then sit down to learn uninterrupted with students who weren’t even due at the dinner table yet.
(Of course, there were other interruptions, like when storms in Cleveland occasionally knocked my power out while my students sat bemused in the sunshine. But not too often.)
Next, I was connected with a young woman living in a small community who had increased her Jewish learning and observance as an adult but never had the chance to learn Hebrew texts in the original. Though she had many friends and even learning opportunities, there was no local venue through which she could develop text skills; with a full-time job, she couldn’t travel easily to take classes. I was thrilled to be able to offer what she was missing, all the way from Cleveland.
She’s still learning with me today, as are some of the west coast girls.
People have asked over the years why I started teaching online, and whether I like it, and I am entirely honest: I started out of necessity, and it will never match the experience of sitting together in a beit midrash or classroom.
But when it’s what there is – it’s amazing what one can do.
Other students have included: the younger sister of one of my first students; a recent high school graduate looking to cram in some summer Torah before starting college; and a mother and daughter whose family was unaffiliated, who were interested in learning something Jewish in advance of the young woman’s bat mitzvah celebration. And of course, other TorahTutors tutors could tell stories of their own, about homeschoolers, retirees, and more.
There are so many different reasons to look for Torah study opportunities beyond one’s local institutions, and along with all the other changes wrought by living through the COVID-19 pandemic, those reasons have broadened for many. Some adults have found themselves with more time on their hands when they might be able to squeeze in Torah study; some kids have found themselves in new educational situations, with parents looking for creative ways to provide them with Jewish learning.
More fundamentally, openness to online learning has broadened along with a general surge in creative approaches to all areas of life, from shopping to celebrating to learning and more.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a school administrator friend about different reactions to the realities of the pandemic. We talked about how some teachers jumped right in, experimenting with ways to connect with their students that flew in the face of all their classroom-based training, while others had trouble shaking their training and thinking outside the box. “You can roll over and play dead (understandable in light of all sorts of enormous challenges), or you can think critically about what’s important in your class and how to achieve as much as possible of each important element.”
We’ve all had different experiences at home over the past few months, and society as a whole will likely be discussing and learning from it all for years to come. For many of us, part of the experience has been a renewed appreciation for the potential that rests in the internet and, more importantly, in us – and appreciation for the fact that even when things are not ideal, it’s amazing what we can do.
If you’d like to learn more about TorahTutors, please visit our website, www.TorahTutors.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Rudolph is Director of TorahTutors.org.