To help ensure their students are able to reach the crucial milestone of becoming b’nai mitzvah during the pandemic, Beth El Congregation’s religious school has instituted a Zoom-based program that focuses on assisting students with their education in Hebrew prayers.
Beth El students in second to sixth grades partake in a weekly, 20-30 minute Hebrew prayer instruction session, said Amy Goldberg, Beth El’s religious school director and a resident of Towson. Normally scheduled between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., the individualized sessions have each student working one on one with a Hebrew instructor, the majority of whom are Towson University students in either graduate programs or their final years of undergrad. The personalized nature of the sessions, Goldberg said, “really has shown that they’re able to progress at a much more meaningful and quicker speed than we’ve had in years past.”
In addition to teaching students how to correctly recite the prayers, Goldberg explained, the program is also focused on conveying the deeper meaning behind the prayers. While preparing students for their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, the program is also meant to help them continue to engage meaningfully in Hebrew prayers for their whole lives.
The students participate in these sessions in addition to the regular Hebrew school instruction they receive on Sundays, Goldberg said.
Before the pandemic, Beth El would normally hold in-person classes two days a week, typically on Sundays and Tuesdays. One benefit to moving the Hebrew prayer instruction online, Goldberg said, has been that it gives students more flexibility. The students can now schedule their sessions at times that are convenient for them.
The switch to the online format began after the start of the pandemic, Goldberg said, with some parents asking for personalized instruction. The program continued through the summer, despite Hebrew school being out for the season, and was made into a formalized program for the new school year.
Goldberg and another teacher, Sydney Marantz, designed the program.
Marantz, a senior at Towson University, is the program’s lead Hebrew instructor. She said that while the older students tend to be more serious minded about their work, lessons for the younger students have to be more on the entertaining side.
“Personally, I sing the ‘Aleph Bet’ song with them,” she said. “I play bingo. … I try to make it as interactive as possible, especially while sitting at a computer screen.”
A favorite prayer of her fifth graders, Marantz said, is “Lecha Dodi.” The students request it again and again.
Goldberg said the program has been successful, and is likely to continue even when in-person classes resume.
“Overall, I have seen the students excel far beyond the classroom setting,” Marantz said.