Supplemental religious schools adapt to meet challenges of pandemic
COVID-19Hebrew, Judaica and Zoom

Supplemental religious schools adapt to meet challenges of pandemic

COVID-19 outbreak forces some congregations to move classes online this fall

Supplemental religious school will look different this year. Here, fourth-graders learn the basics of havruta learning at J-JEP in 2017. Photo courtesy of J-JEP
Supplemental religious school will look different this year. Here, fourth-graders learn the basics of havruta learning at J-JEP in 2017. Photo courtesy of J-JEP

Pittsburgh area religious schools and b’nai mitzvah tutoring are going to look different this year as area educators make accommodations to safely navigate the coronavirus crisis.

“We’re doing our best to make sure it’s accessible in a healthy way,” explained Rabbi Larry Freedman, director of the Joint Jewish Education Program, a partnership between Congregation Beth Shalom and Rodef Shalom Congregation for students in kindergarten through seventh grade.

Due to the pandemic, J-JEP plans to begin this school year virtually with an eye to reenter physical classrooms Oct. 25, according to Freedman.

J-JEP offers after-school Hebrew lessons and Judaic instruction as well as Sunday school.

In preparation for the new school year, J-JEP switched to a new curriculum, Shalom Learning, used by 100 schools in the country. The curriculum is designed to be used in the classroom and online, Freedman said, and allows J-JEP to “pivot back and forth more nimbly.”

Beth El Congregation of the South Hills also has invested in a new online curriculum, according to its director of education, Rabbi Amy Greenbaum. The DVASH Hebrew system the school uses also is being transitioned into its online offerings.

The Conservative congregation’s religious school launched its virtual education program last spring, when the pandemic first forced quarantine. “It went very well,” Greenbaum said, “but we’re going to make it even better.”

Beth El’s instruction will include both Judaics and Hebrew and will feature one-on-one sessions with teachers who will meet virtually with students for between 20 to 30 minutes. Greenbaum also plans to have madrichim – high school students trained to help teach – meet with students for an additional session of 15 to 20 minutes.

Temple Emanuel of South Hills also will incorporate madrichim into its online courses this year.

“They’ll help with teaching, they’ll help in the breakout rooms,” explained Rabbi Jessica Locketz, Temple Emanuel’s director of education. “We’re also considering having madrichim be our techies and help run a Zoom classroom or help run some of the games like Kahoot! or Quizlet.”

The Reform congregation does not yet know when it will return to in-person learning and, at least for now, will continue the type of programming it offered last spring. That includes “shorter class periods with more intentional planning to make sure we are not only offering content but we’re also providing opportunities for connection and creativity,” Locketz said.

Temple Ohav Shalom plans to “do a once-a-month socially distanced program” in addition to meeting virtually, according to Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt.

The North Hills congregation uses Zoom and Ji Tap which, Weisblatt explained, allows the temple to put its curriculum online and “interact with our children in closer and more interactive and engaging ways.”

Ohav Shalom plans to offer more personalized learning opportunities, and will realign its traditional 90-minute Hebrew classes to include smaller groups with more individual instructions.

Congregation Dor Hadash is expecting 25 to 30 students to enroll in its religious school this year, said principal Karen Morris. The school year will begin online.

The Reconstructionist congregation, housed at Rodef Shalom, will offer Judaics and Hebrew, as well as instruction about holidays and prayers, through Zoom.

While the pandemic has forced classes to move online, Morris said parents are clear “they do not want that vision for the future.”

Unlike the Pittsburgh area Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations, religious education will continue in person at the various Chabad centers.

“As long as the Jewish day schools are open, then we’re going to meet in person, obviously with social distancing and masks,” explained Chabad of Squirrel Hill’s Rabbi Yisroel Altein. “We know that children will do much better when they’re in person.”

“We’re attempting to approach it the way we approach shul,” Chabad of the South Hills Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum said, “although even more careful.”

Rosenblum’s program will offer limited, in-person experiences for students.

“These are not easy times to prepare for,” he said. “We definitely have some parents who want some type of in-person – at least minimal – in-person participation. Many would prefer Zoom. Our approach is to at least offer partial in-person participation with all the safety guidelines in place.”

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s J Line, open to students in grades eight to 12, will offer a combination of the two approaches seen in area congregations.

South Hills instruction for J Line will begin the school year virtually, according to Chris Herman, division director of Jewish life. It has not yet been determined whether there will be in-person classes for the winter and spring trimesters, Herman said.

The Squirrel Hill J Line experience has been given a facelift, no longer meeting on Sunday mornings for 24 sessions. “Instead,” Herman said, “there will be small experiences within the J Line menu and those will all be held in-person.” The year will begin with an emphasis on current events and morph to focus on taking action for social justice in the winter.

“We have about five small group experiences that will begin in October and go through May,” Herman said.

Other teen JCC programs, including Diller Teen Fellows, Samuel M. Goldston Teen Philanthropy and Rosh Chodesh, all will be meeting in person, following CDC guidelines.

Like many area religious schools, freelance b’nai mitzvah tutor Hal Grinberg has shifted to online instruction, tutoring students through FaceTime.

It took his students some time to get used to the idea of virtual tutoring and Zoom b’nai mitzvahs, but now, Grinberg said, everyone is used to it and expects it to continue in the fall.

And, while Grinberg, the former religious school principal at Dor Hadash, thinks that parents and students have adjusted to the online tutoring, one downside to FaceTime lessons “is the absence of the scroll.”

“Practicing from the school and chanting from it that morning and carrying it around the sanctuary has a lot of emotional and historical meaning for the students and their families,” he said.

Whether virtual or in-person, J-JEP’s Freedman said there is value in a Jewish education.

“What we do is still important and it’s still meaningful and it’s still urgent,” stressed Freedman. “Even though it won’t look the same, don’t cut back on your child’s spiritual education. Don’t cut back on your child’s connection to their heritage.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at

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