Have internet, will tutor

Some people live miles away from a synagogue that shares their philosophies and values. Others might have no shortage of resources but have overbooked lives that make fitting in yet another off-site commitment for their 11- or 12-year-old a near impossibility.

Through their new online venture, MyBarMitzvahTutors.com, sisters Danielle Gobuty Eskow and Marisa Gobuty hope to bring bar and bat mitzvah training to clients with geographical challenges and scheduling variables alike.

But the sisters’ program is by no means exclusively targeted at those who can’t easily find the place or the time for face-to-face tutoring. Online though it is, MyBarMitzvahTutors.com aims to spark students in all locations to participate and enter into the Jewish community.

“If a program like this had been around when I needed a tutor, it would have made my life a lot easier,” Gobuty said. “I wasn’t in a place where it was so easy for me to get access to have a bat mitzvah.”

For the record: Marisa’s bat mitzvah was in Israel. Her tutor: older sister Danielle, who was still in high school at the time. Marisa was her first student, and Danielle has spent the past seven years tutoring students online. In fact, the Web site — designed by Gobuty — is loaded with testimonials from Eskow’s satisfied clients. 

“I was living in the San Fernando Valley, in Encino, at the time of my bat mitzvah, and I had a wonderful tutor who inspired me to become a rabbi,” Eskow said of Yossi Dresner, ritual director at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue.

My Bar Mitzvah Tutors (MBMT) offers 32-week courses in both Hebrew and bar/bat mitzvah training. Students take a Hebrew evaluation/assessment test to determine whether they will need the Hebrew program as well as the bar mitzvah prep. Some clients end up taking both programs; others can go straight into bar/bat mitzvah prep.

Students receive a customized netbook equipped with specialized learning software tailored to their learning needs.

Between the homework they do on the computer and the one-on-one weekly online sessions with their MBMT tutor, the students gradually master their Torah and their haftarah melodies. The tutorial also includes Shabbat prayers and access to weekly Torah portions prepared by Eskow — a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. By offering these additional features, the sisters hope to get the entire family — not just the students — involved and interested in the process.

“The purpose of this program is to reach Jewish families who would not otherwise have been reached, and not just through bar mitzvah tutoring, but through outreach,” Gobuty said. “We want to connect people and bring them back into the synagogue.”

Gobuty is largely in charge of the Hebrew training component of MBMT, while Eskow handles the bar/bat mitzvah training. Their program, developed last summer, went live in December, and My Bar Mitzvah Tutors currently has five students. Eskow and Gobuty, who live in New York, are tutoring students from Nebraska to Northern California.

Kimberly Robinson of Omaha, Neb., found the program via a Google search. It was January. Her son Brett’s bar mitzvah was scheduled for June, and Brett’s early preparation had resulted largely in frustration.

Robinson interviewed Eskow, and Eskow had a Skype meeting with Brett. Under Eskow’s tutelage, Brett the “sports boy” has proved to be a more than capable student.

“It’s been unbelievable,” said Robinson, herself a teacher. “She for sure has built his confidence in terms of his bar mitzvah study. She made a not-so-great experience amazing for him.”

Eskow and Brett meet twice weekly, with Eskow accommodating her pupil’s busy baseball and basketball schedules. Sometimes Brett’s mom listens in on the sessions, but even when she does, she immediately receives a post-session e-mail from Eskow, reporting on her son’s progress.

“The follow-through is perfect,” Robinson said. “She keeps us on task and keeps him on task. She is just the kindest and most encouraging, patient person I have ever met.”

“She’s really nice to me,” Brett agreed. “She helps me a lot, and I can get stuff done now.”

The Web/online component of the program has proved to be a substantial enticement to students who enjoy the interactivity.

“We have parents of kids who didn’t want to have a bar mitzvah, saying that their kids are talking about this to their friends,” Eskow said. “Students who would have chosen soccer practice over having a bar or bat mitzvah are excited about logging on and getting their netbooks in the mail. We’re getting incredible feedback.”

“This is the communication of our generation. This is the future, and I don’t think anything is lost by communicating online,” added Gobuty, who studied for the Medical College Admission Test online. “We’re young and we’re friendly, and it’s easy for students to relate to us and for us to relate to what they’re going through.”

As the program grows, the sisters’ roles figure to evolve. Eskow, who has two more years at the Jewish Theological Seminary, expects MBMT.com to complement what she hopes will be a flourishing rabbinate. Gobuty is finishing her bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University and plans to go to medical school, at which point her MBMT.com work likely will be part time.

In the course of their young lives, the Gobuty sisters have lived in California, Canada, Israel and New York. The next stop will be Boston, where Eskow’s husband will join a law practice.

A Web-based bar/bat mitzvah training program travels easily. When asked whether, in this technological age, actual bar mitzvah ceremonies could shift online as well, the sisters said, yes, but with caveats.

“At the end of the day, bringing people into a synagogue is crucial,” Gobuty said. “It’s not about just completing a bar mitzvah. It’s about gaining that community feeling so that you become part of something and get that exposure to a synagogue environment.”

“In order for someone to feel further connected, for the actual service, someone needs to do it with you in the community,” Eskow added. “You need to be very present as opposed to online.”

Counselors in demand as college applications soar

High school seniors don’t have it easy during this year’s college application season, which is expected to be the most applied-to year on record.

Just ask Jeremy Friedman, who is juggling 12 applications in addition to his class work and a part-time job.

“I didn’t think applying would be this stressful and difficult. I didn’t realize how many essays I’d have to write, how much organization it takes, how much research there is to do,” said Friedman, 18, a Beverly Hills High School student who is applying to Northwestern, Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania, to name a few. “You want to try to get an edge on everyone, because you really never know what the schools are looking for.”

To gain that elusive edge, Friedman worked hard for solid grades and strong test scores, and got help forming his college list from his school’s guidance department. But that’s not all — he and his family also hired two independent college consultants to make sure nothing was overlooked.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing any schools that would be of interest to me,” he said. “I had already done a lot of research, but maybe they had other ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of before.”

Friedman isn’t the only one looking beyond the confines of his school building this fall for extra help getting into the right college. A growing number of families are turning to private consultants to allay the competition that marks modern college admissions, local consultants and school officials say. And in the class of ’09 — which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts will be the largest graduating high school class on record — some students are looking for all the edge they can get.

“Putting together an application is a very complicated process. We help demystify it,” said educational consultant Jeannie Borin, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based consulting firm College Connections. “People use personal trainers to motivate them to stay in shape. Singers might hire a voice coach to reach the high notes. Coaching is common in countless fields. So it’s not such a crazy thought — if you’re going to make such a large financial investment as going to college, you want to get it right.”

Consultants cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on whom you use, and for what.

According to U.S Census Bureau statistics, college enrollment rose 17 percent from 2000 to 2006. As the applicant pool grows, so do students’ fears of being turned away from the school of their choice. This translates to students sending out more applications than ever — often as many as 12 or 15, Borin said.

“It used to be the case that when someone was qualified to go to a college, they knew they would get in,” she said. “Astonishing candidates are now being turned away. It’s somewhat of a crapshoot. Students are covering their bases and applying to more schools — that’s one of the factors that’s making this more competitive.”

Borin, formerly the admissions director at Valley Beth Shalom Day School, helps college hopefuls compile a list of appropriate schools, offers interview tips and aids in the process of honing the all-important — and much-dreaded — college essay. Students come to College Connections as early as their freshman or sophomore years to discuss their classes and extracurricular activities, so Borin can begin making recommendations based on their interests.

But do all students need another level of supervision as they select and apply to colleges? Not necessarily, say some high school guidance counselors. It just depends on what each family needs to feel safe.

“We’re finding that more and more, even the ninth- and 10th-grade parents are so worried about the college process they see coming a couple of years down the line,” said Leanne Domnitz, head guidance counselor at Beverly Hills High School. “We have over 600 seniors going through this process. Some of them are self-contained, they’re right on top of it, and they’re fine. At the other end of the spectrum are kids who are completely overwhelmed by this process and need their hands held. I understand that for some families, it’s just too much.”

Guidance counselors handle about 300 students each at Beverly Hills High, Domnitz said, so they don’t have hours on end to spend with students who need lots of one-on-one help.

Students, particularly in the public schools, often can’t get time from their overburdened high school guidance departments, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), based in Fairfax, Va. Rising demand for experts who can devote more time to students has fueled a striking growth spurt in the consulting industry: The number of educational consultants in the United States. has doubled in the last five years, and Sklarow expects it to double again in the next five years.

“In an average public school in America, there are 600 students for every counselor,” he said. “It’s worse in California than in any other state. Counselors are simply playing triage — they give a student what they can, but it’s often not very much.”

That isn’t the case at some of Los Angeles’ private Jewish schools, according to the guidance departments at Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). At NCJHS, for instance, guidance counselors only handle 50 students each and can give kids more of the in-depth help that some seek, said Celeste Morgan, director of college guidance at the West Hills school.

“We really work with students on brainstorming topics for their essays, helping them edit them and making sure their college lists are balanced so they have as many options as possible in the spring,” said Morgan, who previously worked in the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania and read as many as 23,000 college applications during her time there.

She doesn’t believe her students stand to gain anything from a private college consultant that New Jew’s guidance department doesn’t already offer. “At smaller, independent schools, where they have resources like our department available, that’s all they really need,” she said.

Joe Blassberg, director of college guidance at Milken, agreed. “The process that we take our students through gives them the tools they need to make the right choices about where they should be applying,” he said. “Certainly, if my skill set or experience doesn’t match what the student’s needs are, then I’d be happy to help that student find additional support services. But I haven’t run into that situation yet.”

Milken senior Jonathan York, 17, said he’s taking full advantage of his guidance counselor’s support as he works on his stack of 15 applications. “It’s not rare for me to stop into my counselor’s office every other day, if only to ask a quick question,” the Stanford hopeful said.

With all the aid he’s getting from Milken, York hasn’t felt the need to seek extra guidance from an independent consultant — but he admitted that he will be asking family members to read over his essays.

“Every kid doesn’t need an educational consultant,” said Sklarow, director of the IECA. “The best reason to hire a consultant is to cast a wide net. You’re looking not just for a college, but for a place where you’re going to grow up over the next four years. An educational consultant will help you make that match more effectively.”

IECA members must visit at least 50 campuses a year, so they have a wealth of first-hand knowledge that many high school guidance counselors lack.

This knowledge extends to Jewish life on different campuses, according to Borin of College Connections — how large the Jewish population is at a given school, whether the students sustain a thriving Hillel and whether it’s viable to keep kosher on campus.

Alexandra Dumas Rhodes, founder of Santa Monica-based Rhodes Educational Consulting, also considers it an asset that she can work with clients during the summer before senior year, when many students have limited access to their school’s counseling department.

But the cost of hiring a college consultant bars many families from doing so, said Mary Charlton, a guidance counselor at Van Nuys High School.

“If a student needs to be walked through the process, and you can afford to do that, great. But if you’re strapped for cash and can get good guidance from your school counselors, it’s superfluous,” Charlton said.

Ultimately, most agreed, what students need most is a level head and a realistic approach to the application process. If students focused more on themselves and less on the competition, said Morgan of NCJHS, the fall season might lose some of its frenzy.

“They don’t need to frame the process as something where it’s them against more students than have ever applied before,” she said. “What they need to look at is: have I done my best?”