Using Tech To Cut The Shlep Factor


This is second in a three-part series. Part 1 is “Flex Time for Students, Parents.”

Rabbi Melissa Buyer feels strongly that, for a Hebrew school to be effective, kids need to engage with the material more than once a week.

But since “two days a week is hard for a family in Manhattan,” the director of lifelong learning at Temple Israel of the City of New York, on the Upper East Side, has offered a 21st-century alternative: telecommuting.

Through TiLearn, an alternative track piloted this year, instead of shlepping in to temple Mondays and Wednesdays after school, fourth through sixth graders can replace the Monday class with a Sunday morning class online.

While this “blended-learning” option has generated positive feedback overall, the biggest problem has been helping teachers who are accustomed to on-site classes translate the lesson to a digital venue, Rabbi Buyer said.

“You have to have engaging material, not just putting everything onto a computer screen,” she said.

Next year, she hopes to get that material through ShalomLearning, a new system developed by two Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneurs.

With iTunes, digital streaming, smartphones, social media and other technology having freed 21st-century families to customize seemingly everything in their lives and access it whenever and wherever they want, Hebrew schools are struggling to respond. Online classes and the nondenominational ShalomLearning — whose tagline is “innovative, customized, convenient” — are among the emerging efforts to adapt part-time Jewish education to the needs of overscheduled kids and their parents.

ShalomLearning offers a full curriculum for grades four through six, with each year consisting of seven four-week units structured around a Jewish value, such as Teshuvah (which it defines as “taking responsibility for your actions”) and Gevurah (“using one’s inner strength to do what’s right”). It incorporates Rosetta Stone content to teach Hebrew, and each unit includes activities and materials for use in a family-education setting, an online video classroom, self-directed learning projects and a traditional classroom.

The curriculum and structure are flexible enough that Hebrew schools (or JCCs or home-schooling parents) can adapt them —substituting online time for face-to-face or vice versa, adding content, or changing the family-education component for example — and can use as much or as little as they want.

A for-profit startup based in Washington, D.C., Shalom Learning was created two years ago by friends Devin Schain and Andrew Rosen, two entrepreneurs with experience in the field of educational technology. (Rosen is a founder of Blackboard, one of the first and largest online platforms for Internet learning and course management, and former CEO of Presidium, an online platform for colleges and universities that was recently absorbed into Blackboard.)

Both were members of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Bethesda, Md., but Hebrew school wasn’t working out for their children.

“My kids play sports, do dance and take music,” Schain said in a phone interview. “Plus I travel a lot and my wife volunteers a lot. Hebrew school wasn’t convenient for the kids, so we pulled them out and had them tutored.”

Then, during a conversation with the rabbi, Schain, who had himself dropped out of Hebrew school and then been “tutored to pass the test,” was disturbed to learn that only children in Jewish day school or the synagogue religious school were allowed to mark their bar/bat mitzvah in the sanctuary.

He called Rosen and asked if his kids liked Hebrew school.

When Rosen answered “of course not,” Schain suggested they put their professional expertise together to develop an alternative track for their children and others not happy with the synagogue’s existing Hebrew school structure.

Since then, the two have collectively put in hundreds of thousands of their own dollars and attracted two additional investors who don’t want to be identified publicly, bringing the total to approximately $1 million. In addition to hiring curriculum developers, they snagged three big-name advisers — Erica Brown (scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a columnist for The Jewish Week), Jonathan Woocher (chief ideas officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America) and Rabbi Sid Schwarz (author, organizational consultant and senior fellow at CLAL, the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership).

So far the program has been used in five institutions, including Beth El. But the company has big ambitions. Sarah Steinberg, ShalomLearning’s newly hired CEO, said the company expects to have 20-25 institutions as clients in the 2013-‘14 school year (Temple Israel, which is Reform, and the Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue are the only New York institutions that have committed so far.) The hope is to be in about 200 synagogues nationwide “in about three years,” Steinberg, a former vice provost at Johns Hopkins University, said.

In addition to working with synagogues, ShalomLearning has a partnership with the JCC of Greater Washington and is also hoping to develop a fully online version so that cohorts of families in different geographic locations — particularly military families and others living far from synagogues — can study with one another.

Although ShalomLearning is registered as a for-profit, Schain said he is less concerned with getting a financial return on his investment than with creating a “legacy” and “doing good.”

“My preference is to make money so we can continue to do good things with it, but it’s more important to make sure this entity is self-sustaining,” he added.

ShalomLearning’s ambitions may eventually bring it into direct competition with the New Jersey-based Behrman House, the dominant textbook publisher for the Hebrew school market. In recent years, Behrman House has ventured increasingly into digital products, last year launching an “online learning center” — which includes classroom-management software and online access to lesson plans, educational games and other materials.

JESNA’s Woocher emphasized that, in serving as an unpaid adviser to ShalomLearning, he is not taking sides.

“My general rule is, if I’m asked to serve on an advisory board I’m happy to do it if I think it’s going to advance learning,” he said, adding that he sees ShalomLearning as one of many innovations “worth trying to nurture.”

“There has to be room for multiple players, we can’t function with a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.


At Schain and Rosen’s synagogue, ShalomLearning is one of several options — among them a three-day-a-week program and a two-day-a-week program.

“One of our mantras is one size doesn’t fit all, you need to offer people choices,” said Rabbi William Rudolph, who, before becoming Beth El’s spiritual leader, spent years working in the headquarters of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

With 38 kids, the ShalomLearning classes enroll only a fraction of Beth El’s religious school students and “will never be the dominant model,” but the classes have been “very successful,” he said. The two main challenges, he said, are how to build community “when people are not in the synagogue as much” and how to manage Hebrew instruction, which he said is “not as easy to teach online.”

Shifting to online does not eliminate the need for good teachers, he said, noting that if anything, online courses require better teachers because “kids are very easily distracted.”

Beth El Hebrew, a Reform temple in Alexandria, Va., piloted ShalomLearning this year, with six seventh graders, a small percentage of its 225 K-12 enrollment. Religious School Director Barry Smith, said that as it expands, he thinks the program will help the temple serve families for whom “it’s too hectic” to bring their kids in twice a week.

“A number of our kids are good athletes or are into drama, and while their parents are dedicated to giving their child a good Jewish education, they don’t want to tell them, ‘You can’t go to your practice you have to go to Beth El’ — and we don’t want that either.”

At Beth El Hebrew, the Shalom Learning class meets twice a month online, has one week of independent study and one week of “family chavurah study group.” The kids still have to come every Sunday. “This is not a substitute for two days, just an alternative to the Wednesday class,” Smith explained.

One pleasant surprise, Smith said, is that the ShalomLearning parents, who join their children at the temple one Thursday night a month as part of the program, “have built a community” and had “incredible discussions.”

“I think the key is, unlike other family-ed programs, it’s a small group,” he said.

Somewhat similarly, Temple Israel’s Rabbi Buyer argues that going to a partly online model — which approximately half of her school’s eligible students have opted for — has strengthened, rather than weakened, social connections among students.

“Most people believe when you go to a virtual classroom, you’re losing community,” she said. “I think you’re extending it … kids don’t have to be in someone’s face to confirm friendships and social ties, they can do it through texts and chatboxes.”

For those who are shy in-person or have certain learning disabilities the virtual classroom can make it easier to interact, she said.

“They can do it in their own pace, time and way, and then when they’re back together on site, they’re able to continue the connection: it breaks the ice.”

“I had one parent tell me this is the first year her fifth grader, who has been coming since kindergarten, has felt he had friends in the religious school,” she added.; @Julie_Wiener

Next in the series: Merging school with family time, and other models developed through the Jewish Education Project’s “Coalition of Innovating Congregations.”

ShalomLearning Basics:

Founders: Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneurs Andrew Rosen and Devin Schain.

How it works: A modular system and curriculum enabling synagogues and JCCs to offer a “blended” learning component for Hebrew school kids and their parents. Includes a learning-management system and platform for running synchronous online classes, as well as a Hebrew prayer app for mobile devices and online lessons and games.

Who’s using it: This year, just five institutions, but the company plans to expand to 25 in the coming year and 200 within three years. Temple Israel of New York City and Park Avenue Synagogue are its first New York customers.

How much it costs: Institutions pay an annual fee of $3,000 plus $350 per-student to use Shalom Learning. The price includes teacher training, access to the materials, tech support, and assistance adapting the program to their specific needs.