Jewish Virtual Education in the Time of Coronavirus

March 24, 2020
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

With schools shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents are turning to online resources to educate their children from home. In an effort to ensure ongoing Jewish education, one of those resources is OpenDor Media, a nonprofit that creates Jewish educational content via its YouTube channel, Unpacked.

OpenDor is a hub for 400 educational institutions across the globe and has more than 25,000 subscribers. In response to the coronavirus outbreak, Unpacked has created videos, quizzes, feature-length films, classes and webinars for students in sixth grade through high school.

“We’re facing an unprecedented challenge. It’s not only the schools that are trying to figure things out, it’s the parents,” said Noam Weissman, OpenDor Media’s senior vice president of education, who is based in Los Angeles. “They’re now dealing with teenagers being home and managing them, while hoping they learn in a meaningful way.”

Already, YULA Boys High School, YULA Girls High School and Milken Community Schools are some of the local partners using OpenDor Media’s resources. On March 23, OpenDor launched a new livestreaming 30-minute class. Classes also will have well-known guest speakers. Upcoming guests include author Yossi Klein Halevi, journalist Bari Weiss and speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz.

Another online resource providing access to its content is Aleph Beta, which is normally $7.50 to $15 per month but now is free for one month. It also is giving teachers access so they can build virtual classrooms.

Aleph Beta’s website is geared toward Jewish children and features cartoon videos on biblical subjects. Aleph Beta Director of Torah Research and Development Beth Lesch told the Journal if this were any other year, the site would be putting out a lot of Passover content at this time. Now, however, in addition to Passover videos, it is doing what it can to support the Jewish community.

“We’ve set up a resource page where people can find high-quality, curated recommendations for how to pull together Pesach under stressful circumstances; how to support your kids and how to care for your own mental health,” she said.

“We’re facing an unprecedented challenge. It’s not only the schools that are trying to figure things out, it’s the parents.” — Noam Weissman

To encourage kids to keep reading books at home, the National Library of Israel (navigate to English page) is offering free audio books as part of Pocket Library, an initiative from its Israel National Center for Humanities Education, in partnership with the Ministry of Education. Some of the audiobooks on the ICast app include “The Moroccan Boy’s Love” by Dorit Orgad, “Uncle Arie’s Adventures in the Tibetan Ocean,” by Yannets Levi and Orit Bergman’s “Diary of a Shark Catcher.”

A group of U.S.- and Israel-based Jewish children’s book authors called The Book Meshuggenahs are offering free online activities inspired by their books. They include coloring pages, cut paper illustration lessons for Passover and instructions on how to write haiku with Jewish themes.

“It is important for kids to stay occupied and interact with children’s books to keep their minds and imaginations alert, growing and ready to dive back into school,” said Amy Losak, who is a member of The Book Meshuggenahs. “Also, these activities are a reminder that learning and reading are fun.”

To help parents navigate their homeschooling tasks, the World Center for Jewish Education (WCJE)  is offering a 24-hour hotline for educators by educators, free advice on distance learning, substantial subsidies for shipping educational materials and guidance on technical troubleshooting.

WCJE CEO Mickey Katzburg said the organization can help parents and children maintain some semblance of stability. “Ongoing learning keeps them engaged and positive, which is important for mental well-being,” Katzburg said. “Maintaining their bond with their teacher and classmates provides them with a sense of stability and connectedness during this period of increasing isolation. The time that the students are engaged in distance learning also provides an important break for their parents.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Amy Losak runs The Book Meshugganehs.

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