As the spread of Covid-19 has shuttered schools and closed community spaces, schools and camps are turning to digital programming to maintain their relationships with children and their families.
Abrams Hebrew Academy
It’s been nearly one month since teachers at Abrams Hebrew Academy, a non-denominational school in Yardley, Pa., started to learn how to use the popular video conferencing app Zoom and to prepare their curricula for remote instruction. And on Monday, March 16, following a week of teacher preparation, remote instruction began.
“For us, it is a major victory in really keeping the school going and also reaching out to the parents and communicating regularly in bulletins and videos,” said Rabbi Ira Budow, director of Abrams Hebrew Academy.
Budow told NJJN he’s concerned with the well-being of the school community and empathizes with the loneliness of grandparents who can’t be with their grandchildren on Passover — in fact, he and his wife purchased a new swing set that his grandchildren won’t be around to use.
In this light, he shared with parents a (controversial) ruling by some Orthodox rabbis in Israel giving people permission to use video conferencing for a Passover seder in this “time of emergency,” as long as the device is turned on before the holiday begins and left on throughout yom tov.
Synagogues in the Mercer-Bucks community report success with online learning and opening up the classroom to parents.
“By and large the parents seem really happy,” said Sharon Diamondstein, director of congregational learning at The Jewish Center (TJC) in Princeton. “They are excited about the engagement — the kids are enjoying seeing each other and interacting with each other on the screen.”
Diamondstein was an early convert to Zoom technology. She tested it out in September thinking it would be a great option on snow days — keeping the students learning and the teachers at work. She said her familiarity with the program enabled her to quickly move her teachers online, where they are now using Shalom Learning, a K-seventh-grade curriculum on prayers and Jewish values that is designed for traditional or virtual learning. For Hebrew language, children are assigned an hour to an hour-and-a-half of work to complete at home, where they are able to record their reading in Hebrew out loud so teachers can provide feedback.
Diamondstein and her students have learned how to connect remotely and she makes time to speak with them individually. During this time she reads a book from the PJ Library collection.
Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pa., said the switch to online learning provides parents a first-time opportunity to observe classes. “It is an interesting dynamic,” he told NJJN in a telephone interview. “Parents aren’t ever in the classroom. In this case the parents are getting to see what is happening. They are hovering close by with their children, making sure that they stay on task.”
The lessons are a work in progress and as the weeks go by schools are experimenting with what works best.
“We are finding new ways to teach Torah and keep our students engaged and continue to help prepare them for Jewish life,” Gaber said. “We are trying to figure out how to create the sense of closeness that you have sitting with someone and giving them feedback.”
JCC Princeton Mercer Bucks and Abrams Camps
JCC Princeton Mercer Bucks and Abrams Camps offer year-round programming. Already accustomed to running programs for all age groups, they were able to turn on a dime when this pandemic brought in-person programming to a screeching halt.
“What we did is turned our programming into virtual programming and online content,” said Wendy Soos, executive director of JCC Princeton Mercer Bucks and Abrams Camps, in a telephone interview. “We are trying to bring the community into the home.” The summer camp site is located in East Windsor Township.
Their JABRAMS365 virtual programming, developed for the pandemic and led by camp staff, is a combination of recorded programs, such as exercise, crafts time, and Abrams Laila Tov story time, as well as live events like trivia contests. Everything is available at jccabramscamps.org/abrams-365.
“We wanted to offer a respite to our camp families and all these children going through isolation,” Soos said.
At Ruach Shabbat, a weekly live Friday evening event, the camp community welcomes Shabbat together by singing songs and blessings.
“Since our camp community is about 50 percent unaffiliated, this is a great chance for them to feel connected to their Judaism,” Soos said. To help expand their connections to other Jewish communal agencies, JCC staff created a newsletter with links to other services and activities in the Jewish community.
“I’m hearing about people tuning into services in synagogues and Shabbat because they can do something they have never done before from their own home in their pajamas. It is a new way to connect them to their Judaism —everyone right now needs their faith, hope, and strength,” Soos said.
She also said she’s feeling “confident” about camp opening on June 22 as originally scheduled. “We have all our plans ready and in motion,” she said. “In fact, 85 percent of their expected registrations are already in.”
But she’s also aware of the fluid situation the pandemic has created. “We are taking this day by day and also working on alternative plans in case we are forced to have a delayed opening.”
When it does open, the camp is following guidelines of the local board of health and national affiliated organizations such as JCC of North America and American Camping Association of North America.
“We are hopeful,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine a summer without camp, and I don’t think anyone could imagine a summer without camp.”