Students gathered around the screen in their Millburn classroom to have a conversation with Shiri Mass in Rishon Letzion.
“Is it hot there?” one asked. “How often do you get bomb attacks in the area where you live?” “What did you do for Yom Ha’atzmaut?” “What do you think of President Obama?”
As they peppered her with questions, Mass did her best to respond despite a poor connection that sometimes made following her comments difficult.
While some teachers are trying to get students away from screens, Janice Colmar, religious school director at Congregation B’nai Israel, delights in using their favorite medium to help her kids forge a connection with Israel.
“I don’t care so much what information they actually get from the conversation. This is more about the ‘coolness’ factor and connecting it all,” Colmar said in her office just after the Skype session had ended on May 22. Later that day, third-graders were also scheduled to chat with their teacher, Dina Leifert, who was participating in a Birthright Israel trip.
“The concept of calling Israel is cool,” agreed Miriam Engel, 11, of Millburn. But she added, “I think it all kind of depends on what kinds of questions are asked and what the answers are.”
What does she want to know? “I’d like to learn about people’s lives in Jerusalem — what it’s like in the capital. And then I’d like to have a comparison with other places — like Eilat and Tel Aviv — to see how people’s lives differ from one place to another.”
Problems with the connection colored the experience for the students. “I’d want to continue doing this, but it would like it better if I could understand what she was saying,” said 11-year-old Alexis Ash of Short Hills.
And having some relationship with the person on the other end of the call also seemed to make a difference. Aaron Ehrlich of Springfield, 11, said he preferred a previous call in February, when Colmar herself was in Israel with a synagogue trip, speaking to the students from a coffee shop in Jerusalem. During that chat, she even showed the class members some of the tchotchkes she had picked up in Israel that would become prizes for student achievement. Ehrlich said, “That was cool because we could understand you better, and because you showed us the stuff you got there.”
Colmar giggled as she described herself disrupting the patrons of the shop as she yelled into her computer, until she invited everyone to say hello to her kids at B’nai Israel. “They loved it,” she exclaimed.
Colmar loves to play with technology herself and knows how to use it to capture her students’ attention. The school has produced a virtual yearbook this year for the seventh-grade class, an idea Colmar plans to take school-wide next year. Students regularly turn in study projects on flash drives.
Mass was familiar to families at the synagogue, having served there, from fall 2006 through spring 2007, as one of the “Rishonim,” young Israelis brought in as informal ambassadors under the auspices of the Legow Family Israel Program Center of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
A third videochat was held in March featuring Emanuelle Moscobitz, who joined the synagogue trip to Israel in February as youth director.
Looking forward to next year, Colmar said she hopes to arrange chats with an Israeli soldier, and ultimately to expand the project to other religious school kids around the country.
“The goal is to connect with Jewish communities,” she said.