Going One-On-One For A Rite Of Passage


Samara Lipsky, a staff member of the Union for Reform Judaism and an online doctoral student at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, has privately tutored undergraduate psych students for a few years. Last year Lipsky, who graduated from the Ramaz School, a Modern Orthodox institution on the Upper East Side, and has served as a Hebrew teacher at the neighborhood’s Reform Temple Israel, decided to parlay her Jewish background — she branched out into tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students.

“This was my strength,” she says.

Lipsky found her first tutoring match, a girl who will become bat mitzvah later this year, in Lower Manhattan, through a web-based job-finding service. “She’s a very quick learner,” Lipsky says. “We have a lot of fun.”

Lipsky is part of a growing trend in Jewish education, one that tracks the wider story of a burgeoning freelance economy in the country in the years since the Great Recession. According to many observers, more Jewish families than ever are turning to private tutors, instead of traditional synagogue-based religious schools for their children’s bar and bat mitzvah lessons; and more men and women than ever are supplementing their incomes by serving as such tutors.

“It’s definitely on the rise,” said Todd Shotz, founder of Los Angeles-based Hebrew Helpers.

A standard Hebrew school education often “doesn’t work for contemporary families — it pits Hebrew school among competing needs for a student’s free time,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC in Manhattan. She is also founder of the Jewish Journey Project, which, in collaboration with local religious schools, coordinates classes “all over the city” in venues that include parks and fitness studios.

Parents “want a really good experience” for their children, “and they don’t see that in traditional Hebrew school formats,” Rabbi Levitt said.

Tutors are particularly effective for families who live in an isolated region, away from a shul or religious school (Skype and teleconferencing technology can also help with this issue), and for special needs children who require the concentrated attention that an individual tutor can provide.

No formal studies are available, but anecdotal evidence indicates that at least scores of men and women are offering their services as private bar-bat mitzvah tutors, an increase over the handful doing this a generation ago.

At the same time, recent decades have witnessed what observers of Jewish education describe as a decrease in both the number of children enrolled in synagogues’ religious schools and the number of teaching jobs available in those schools.

Partly a response to the growing dissatisfaction with students’ experiences at Hebrew schools, partly an example of the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Judaism trend among some segments of the Jewish community, partly a reflection of the “gig economy” that has seen an increase in the number of people serving as freelancers, independent contractors or temps, this phenomenon has brought a change both for the teachers and the religious schools.

The number of people doing part-time work “grew to 32 million from just over 20 million between 2001 and 2014, rising to almost 18 percent of all jobs,” The New York Times reported last month.

Private bar and bat mitzvah tutors mark a return to an old tradition.

In the old country, and among new immigrants in this country, boys studying for their bar mitzvah — this was before the introduction of the bat mitzvah ceremony a century ago — a melamed, always a male scholar, often wandering from community to community, would tutor the student in his Haftarah and other requirements for leading a worship service.

This was before synagogues’ religious schools largely took over this job.

Today, a growing number of Jewish families are engaging private tutors, many of whom are women, as an alternative to, or sometimes as a supplement to, the synagogue-based religious school system. With more and more Jews choosing not to affiliate, they see no reason to join a synagogue, and pay steep membership dues, just for the sake of a child’s bar or bat mitzvah; many opt to hold the ceremony and/or celebration offsite.

For people interested in using their training in education and knowledge of Jewish subjects, it means more opportunities to do something they enjoy while supplementing their incomes — tutoring positions often pay better than teaching jobs in religious schools, according to observers of Jewish education.

Is the turn-to-tutors trend good for the Jewish community?

“This is a very good thing” if the parents have high expectations for their children’s bar-bat mitzvah training, if they want the ceremony to be “meaningful,” Rabbi Levitt said. Studies have found that students in any subject who learn one-on-one “learn more” than in a classroom setting where students compete with classmates for a teacher’s attention, the rabbi said.

For the religious schools, it has meant a re-examination of how they operate. Many have started to ask themselves what they are doing wrong, why they are losing students, and what they can do better. A growing number of synagogue-based schools, and think tank-type programs, have come up with curricula that are highly experiential, very personalized to the students’ interests, and often include the students’ parents in the learning process.

“Many of them [religious schools] are changing,” adding an emphasis on “Jewish history simulations,” family retreats and Shabbaton programs, said Jonathan Woocher, president of the Lipman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, an independent organization that awards grants to innovative educational projects. He formerly served as chief ideas officer of the now-defunct Jewish Educational Service of North America. “There is more emphasis [on a curriculum] that forces the student to engage with the material.”

At the religious school level, projects such as innovatingcongregations.org, the Reconstructionist movement’s Reconstructionist Learning Network, Shalom Learning, and the Union for Reform Judaism’s B’nai Mitzvah Revolution are in place.

“We see that many congregations are working to provide a b’nai mitzvah process that is engaging and transformative both for the learner and his/her family,” Suri Jacknis, associate director for congregational learning of the Jewish Education Project, said in an email interview.

The downside of one-on-one learning?

No interaction with other Jewish students, and less opportunity to become part of a wider Jewish community. “A synagogue offers” by definition “a synagogue community,” said Cyd Weissman, former director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at JEP, now director of the Reconstructionist Learning Network at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

One freelance tutor, Howard Blas, began to sense the beginnings of the independent learning trend some 30 years soon after graduating college in St. Louis. At the time, he was working as a Hebrew school teacher, and he would get calls from principals of other synagogue religious schools; they wanted him to work one-on-one with some students “who the school didn’t know what to do with.” His background in social work and special education made him a natural fit.

Now based on the Upper East Side and working as director of the Tikvah Program for adolescents and young adults with disabilities of Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., he continues to serve as a private tutor for Jewish students who can’t adjust to a standard religious school setting; many are preparing for the bar and bat mitzvah. He does this at night and on Sundays.

Lee and David Degani, a “transdenominational” couple who live in Boca Raton, (she’s a cantor; he, a rabbi) founded Shirat Shalom (shiratshalom.org), a synagogue without walls, 25 years ago. Almost immediately they began hearing about families with bar-bat-mitzvah-age children who didn’t belong to a congregation, didn’t want to enroll their kids in a traditional religious school, but were looking for someone to serve as a tutor for the religious coming-of-age ceremony.

Previously residents of New Jersey, “we thought everyone belonged to a synagogue,” Cantor Degani said. She and her husband began working with the youngsters, first in the couples’ houses, now mostly online through Skype. “Word spread,” she said. “Children kept on coming to us.”

All the tutors who spoke to The Jewish Week said they typically go beyond training students how to read unfamiliar words, as was often the case in earlier bar-bat mitzvah preparations; they teach what the words mean, the concepts behind the haftorah and prayers, as well as related education about Jewish history and holidays.

Most of the families whose students the Deganis tutor are unaffiliated but who become affiliated (annual dues are $300) by joining Shirat Shalom.

Tutors are reluctant to state how much they charge, but said usual hourly rates in the field range between $50 and $200. “People are used to paying for services,” Blas said.

“It would be very difficult for people to make this their [only] job,” he said — but it’s a nice second income.

Todd Shotz, founder of Hebrew Helpers, which offers “mentors” to work with bar-bat mitzvah students in one-on-one sessions or in “cohorts” of a few students, said some of his in-demand tutors can earn $20,000-$40,000 a year.

Robert Schwartz, a resident of Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill section, said that two years ago a friend helped him find a Hebrew Helpers tutor for his son Demitrius’ 2014 bar mitzvah. “It was like meeting a friend every week,” Schwartz said. Both Demitrius, and his parents, learned the meaning of the words he was reciting.

Samara Lipsky said she has been invited to attend the September bat mitzvah of the girl she has been tutoring. She plans to attend – and afterwards, she plans to keep tutoring bar and bat mitzvah students. “I like to make a difference in someone’s life.”