Beth Samuel’s small religious school perseveres through pandemic
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Wes, left, and Owen Weisberg participate in BSJC's online learning. Photo courtesy of Sara Braun
Sara Braun. Wes, left, and Owen Weisberg participate in BSJC's online learning
Religious SchoolBeth Samuel Jewish Center

Beth Samuel’s small religious school perseveres through pandemic

Educators, congregational leaders and families partner on online formula that works

Main image by Sara Braun. Wes, left, and Owen Weisberg participate in BSJC's online learning

Beth Samuel Jewish Center preschoolers and religious school students are slated to celebrate Purim much the same way thousands of other children will this year: on Zoom. On Feb. 21, BSJC will offer storytelling and songs, followed by a Jewish scavenger hunt and prizes.

Being together in person is preferred, but given the pandemic, BSJC is doing what it can to make the most of virtual events, explained Barb Wilson, BSJC’s director of programming and operations.

Each Sunday, BSJC offers online instruction for young learners. The 20 students are divided by grade level: seven students are in the preschool; six students are in grades K-1; three students are in grades 2-3; and four students are in grades 4-6.

The school is small, but provides a meaningful Jewish education, said Nicole Homich, a BSJC graduate and teacher.

Rich Wilson, a paramedic, reads “Avi the Ambulance,” a PJ Library book about an ambulance and his medic in Israel, to students during Preschool Story Time. Photo courtesy of Barb Wilson

BSJC is located in Ambridge and attracts members from surrounding areas including Sewickley, Moon, Beaver and Aliquippa. Even prior to the pandemic, BSJC’s staff realized that interest in religious school was declining, so they revamped the curriculum and introduced an educational experience focused on cultural Jewish aspects and social action, which they thought would better resonate with families, said Wilson.

Once COVID hit, even more changes needed to be made.

Because most of the kids are on Zoom for multiple hours each week for school and other activities, BSJC has been deliberate in adapting its curriculum to ensure that screen time for religious school is well spent, said Wilson.

Preschoolers meet for 30 minutes on Sundays, with each session including videos, activities and story time, featuring a different guest reader every week from across the United States and from Israel, Wilson said, offering a chance for students to broaden their awareness.

Older students have hour-long Sunday experiential activities and discussions, complemented by asynchronous Hebrew language lessons, said Homich. During a recent session, a conversation about the Torah’s mandate to care for pets was followed by a crafting activity in partnership with Repair the World Pittsburgh. Participants made a chew toy for dogs and a catnip pretzel for cats. The items will be donated to the Beaver County Humane Society, and a future project is planned with PJ Library.

Jonah Snider practices Hebrew. Photo courtesy of Bill Snider

Sewickley residents Dan Weisberg and Sara Braun have two sons, 9 and 7. Both boys are enrolled in BSJC.

The congregation is very kid-friendly, but there was a period of initial adjustment after the religious school went online, Weisberg said. In the beginning, kids were a little reluctant to participate on Zoom. Prior to the pandemic, when school met in person, “our kids would stay after and run around for an hour with their friends, and that part is not there anymore.”

Even so, BSJC’s staff quickly figured out how to pivot, said Weisberg.

They were able to adapt to remote learning even faster than the public school, said Braun.

Apps, like Ji Tap and Padlet, have helped.

“My kids like to watch the videos that the other kids have posted,” said Weisberg. “It inspires them to do their homework and study their prayers so they can make their own videos.”

“As both the president of Beth Samuel and the parent of someone in the school, I’ve been happy on both sides,” said Bill Snider. “We’ve learned a lot. We’ve learned what works and doesn’t work to get kids to come online and stay focused.”

Snider said wearing two hats — one as a congregational lay leader, and one as a parent of a BSJC student and a child who’s bar mitzvah occurred during the pandemic — has reminded him of the need to be both patient and flexible. Throughout this period, both the congregation and parents have had to adapt, he said. Ultimately, BSJC educators have created an environment “that’s worked out well.”

“They’ve allowed us to have kids come together, see each other, and interact with each other and their teachers,” continued Snider. “I’m very happy with what Barb and the other teachers have done to make sure the education keeps going and that it remains.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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