In the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Jewish Journal, David A. Schwartz recently wrote about Rabbi Andrew Jacobs’ online bar mitzvah training program called Chai Tech:
When Evangelina Ruskin, 11, of Wellington has her bat mitzvah in two years, it will be at the same Plantation synagogue where her father Ryan Ruskin had his bar mitzvah.
But unlike her father who trained with an Israeli woman at her house, Evangelina will prepare for the ceremony with a new online program that allows her to learn at her own pace.
The Chai Tech bar/bat mitzvah system was developed by Ramat Shalom’s Rabbi Andrew Jacobs and Bay Harbor Island-based FYI Online Learning to meet the needs of busy students who often do not have the time to come to the synagogue regularly to prepare for the bnai mitzvah.
Online learning works around a family’s schedule and does not require driving to school at a particular time, Jacobs said. It also allows for flexibility and affordability. And most children today are very comfortable online, he said.
“I can’t change the way most extracurricular activities place a tremendous time strain on families but I can, hopefully, help change the way we teach our kids Jewishly,” Jacobs said in an email.
The online preparatory program is designed for children in grades 5 to 7 and they can move along at their own pace through the seventh grade, Jacobs wrote.
Each of the 36 lessons takes a week to a week-and-half to finish. It takes about 10 months to complete the program which gives the student the skills to become a bar or bat mitzvah, Jacobs explained. There is also about eight months of private Skype tutoring with the rabbi to perfect the Torah reading and Haftarah portion, he added.
“It goes from the motzie to the amidah to Torah reading” — the basics to what is holiness, Jacobs said in a phone interview. And there is the liturgy of a Torah service, he said. There’s even a link to Holocaust survivors who talk about Torahs being destroyed.
“It is a high quality, online learning experience,” Jacobs said. Built by tech people, the system has age-appropriate learning programs that allow a bnai mitzvah teacher to monitor the program online. The programs have text lessons that contain some video and audio, as well as creative assignments, he added.
“We might as well take advantage of the Internet and allow [students] to learn,” Jacobs said. “It does shake up the model a little bit.”
Jacobs and Marcy Ullom, vice president for strategy and innovation at FYI Online Learning, which built the Chai Tech program, said it is the first online program of its type.
Other online programs are oriented toward rabbis and tutors and use Skype lessons as well as online materials, Ullom said. “It’s a huge market. There’s plenty of space for an online course.”
People learn in different ways, she said. “It is one more opportunity for people who learn a little differently.”
“I see this as part of Judaism’s evolution,” Jacobs wrote in an email. “Rabbi [Mordechai] Kaplan taught that Judaism survived because we have always been an ‘evolving civilization,’ willing to change with the times. Online learning is part of this evolution. We are watching many schools, colleges and universities embrace online learning. It is time for the Jewish world to do the same and I am excited to be a part of this evolution.”
Jaclyn and Jared Sanders, 11-year-old twins who live in Plantation, are using the program to prepare for the bar and bat mitzvah.
Jaclyn, a gymnast, said she uses the program when she is not training at the gym. “I find it incredibly easy to use,” she said in a phone call. “You can learn about the history of prayer and how to say a prayer. It says everything I need to know on the side [of the screen] or in front of me.” She added, “When I do have free time, I get to go online.”
Originally published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel