Educators Reach Adults, Build Connections with Move to Online Teaching
Congregation Agudas Achim’s Modern Hebrew-Level Bet class meets over Zoom Wednesday evenings. Credit: Sharon DeKoning Kessel
By Tonyia Cone
Along with pretty much everything else, Austin’s Jewish organizations pivoted when COVID-19 upended Austin in March, and are now offering adult education opportunities online. Leaders say the experience has had some silver linings, however, and they may continue using online platforms like Zoom in some way for adult education even after people are able to return to classrooms.
Shalom Austin Adult Jewish Learning is a series of high-quality Jewish learning opportunities that provides a cohort experience for individuals of all backgrounds and beliefs. AJL provides ﬂexibility to students as each person is able to choose the best learning opportunity for them based on topic, instructor and time. Classes meet via Zoom until further notice, Monday evenings, 7-9 p.m. Each month features a new topic and a new teacher presenting a month-long module around a speciﬁc theme.
Alachua Nazarenko, Shalom Austin education and engagement director, said, “With everything virtual, students from outside of Austin are taking classes and joining in on events too, which is pretty cool.”
Chabad of Austin
The convenience offered by Zoom classes has led Rochel and Rabbi Yosef Levertov of Chabad of Austin to connect and study with people they would not see otherwise.
“They could be on the other side of the world,” said the Levertovs, adding that offering classes virtually eliminates the need for registration, and allows participants to come and go as they please. “It’s very accommodating in today’s day and age.”
Chabad makes recordings of classes available on Facebook so people can access the information whenever it is personally convenient.
Providing classes online also gives Chabad more flexibility to accommodate individual requests for classes.
“Austin is growing, so there are more people who want to connect and study,” they said.
Congregation Tiferet Israel
Congregation Tiferet Israel President Arthur Altman explained that because of COVID-19, CTI moved all its adult education classes, previously held in person, to Zoom.
“There had been skepticism in the past about adding virtual to the mix, including how many students would be willing and able to adapt to attending classes remotely. COVID-19 forced the issue for us and for them,” he said.
Since moving classes online, CTI has seen adult education attendance increase and grow to include people from outside Austin. Altman explained that the classes are designed to be drop-in friendly. For the most part, attendees can join a session, miss a session, and jump right back in without missing a beat, which works well in a time of constant change and uncertainty.
“I expect it will stick around in some fashion for the foreseeable future; now that the camel’s nose is in the tent it’s not likely to leave,” said Altman. “However, we also know that in general mixed classes, where some are in person and some are remote, have their own challenges, so we will be feeling our way forward as to how much of each kind of delivery we will be able to offer with high quality.”
Congregation Agudas Achim
Brooke Hersh-Thompson, Congregation Agudas Achim vice president of education and head of adult education, explained that at CAA, there continues to be a consistent message and desire for community and connection, whether it is through prayer, services or classes. CAA offers a variety of classes and study groups for adults, including Hebrew language, Mindful Movement, Ask the Rabbis, Living a Jewish Life: Bonding and Belonging, Living Judaism: A Guide to Jewish Awareness and Practice and CAA Book Club/Sefer Club.
Davida Charney and Cynthia Winer teach Congregation Agudas Achim’s crash course in Hebrew reading over Zoom. Credit: Davida Charney and Cynthia Winer.
The one exception Hersh-Thompson has noticed is parents in the community. Many say they are overwhelmed, and have expressed that less is more while trying to navigate new routines during the pandemic.
“CAA continues to do our best to adapt and respond to the times, providing meaningful and engaging programs without overloading,” Hersh-Thompson said.
CAA educators have modified some classes for the new format, Hersh-Thompson explained, with shorter classes in order to avoid Zoom fatigue and capped class enrollment, especially for classes that are interactive and discussion oriented.
Teaching classes online has also made more accessible opportunities like CAA’s Virtual Taste of Israel, an exploration of ancient sites, stories, archeology, holidays and aspects of Israeli life and culture, culminating in a weeklong virtual tour of Israel through the Jewish National Fund.
“On some level it’s actually more accessible to do it via Zoom. For some people it’s easier to just hop on a class or do a lunch and learn or hop on the computer and do some Torah study, even during the middle of their workday, than to travel to a different location. So for many it’s providing access to learning opportunities more fluidly,” said Hersh-Thompson, who emphasized that CAA’s adult education offerings are open to the entire community, regardless of membership status.
Congregation Beth Israel
Ken Davidson, Congregation Beth Israel executive director explained that CBI began offering distance learning opportunities long before COVID-19.
“For us, the biggest difference is that now we are strictly online instead of a hybrid format,” Davidson said.
Each year, CBI’s Child Development Center provides a month-long series of developmental info sessions for each age-group at our school. Historically, the class has been held in person, but this year was presented online. The CDC is also planning a digital panel session to address fears about returning to school during the challenges of COVID-19, and how the school is maintaining a healthy and thriving community despite these challenges.
“This will be open to current families, wait-listed families, and the larger Austin Jewish and early childhood communities,” said Davidson.
In addition to CBI’s adult education offerings, CBI member Rabbi Kerry Baker offers weekly Torah study and Mussar classes through the congregation.
“Overall, CBI has worked hard to ensure that rather than limit our offering due to contact limitations, we have instead retained all of our content, added a bit more, and then retooled our presentation of that content to fit the online medium.”
Congregation Shalom Rav
Sheila Frankfurt, Congregation Shalom Rav board member at large, explained that adult education is one of Congregation Shalom Rav’s cornerstones, and the congregation has had a robust and varied program of teaching since its earliest days as the Heart of Texas Havuarah.
“Rabbi Monty Eliasov has offered our entire adult education program online for many years, so the onset of COVID-19 caused little change to the program. If anything, classes became even more popular than they already were, as members crave the connection and enjoy the extensive discussions along with the learning,” Frankfurt said.
Congregation Shalom Rav members from coast to coast are active in the educational program, she explained. Courses usually fill before the end of the registration period, and Eliasov keeps the program fresh and well-attended by offering new topics each year. Courses offered in recent years have run the gamut from a basic Introduction to Judaism to advanced topics such as the Midrash, the Divine Feminine in Jewish Texts, and the Baal Shem Tov.
“Education in Congregation Shalom Rav is not limited to formal courses – Rabbi Monty teaches as a part of every service, drawing on the Talmudic teaching from Rabbi Abin haLevi that we should ‘go from the Beit Knesset (house of gathering) to the Beit Midrash (house of learning).’ Congregation Shalom Rav offers its members many educational paths to maintain an informed and ever-searching Way of Torah,” Frankfurt added.
Temple Beth Shalom
The past few years, Temple Beth Shalom began exploring streaming and teleconference learning options. When the congregation constructed its building, they included video projection in the sanctuary and started using imagery during some services, especially family services.
“These were our first steps in using technology in our services,” said Mark Salmanson and Carly Johnson, Temple Beth Shalom Lifelong Learning co-chairs. “We were in the process of looking at streaming hardware and options about the time that COVID-19 hit.”
COVID-19 caused the congregation to move faster toward adding new material to class offerings and topics from previous years, like Project Zug, a program that connects Jews in Israel and America through one-on-one havruta Jewish learning.
“The material is perfectly suited for small group study and exploration,” said Salmanson and Johnson, adding that Project Zug material is designed so that anyone can facilitate a class.
“You don’t have to be subject matter expert to facilitate a class. All you need is a computer and a Zoom account,” they said.
During the month of Elul, prior to the High Holy Days, Temple Beth Shalom offered six groups of congregants the opportunity to study some of the prayers and liturgy from High Holy Day services. The groups met six times in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah.
“The real beauty of the material was that it allowed us to create six different groups that met at different times of the day and days of the week,” said Salamanson and Johnson.
Recently, they wrapped up an 11-week study of poet and musician Leonard Cohen.
“What we have learned through the entire process that participants really enjoyed the small group study environment. We offered programs at times that were convenient to the participants and facilitator via Zoom. Best of all, we found that those who participated found their connection to the Temple Beth Shalom community strengthened and reinforced by reconnecting with old friends and making new friends,” said Salmanson and Johnson.
The group has elected to stay together and explore another topic, which Salmanson and Johnson said is “a great testament to how well the group came together to create community.”
Temple Beth Shalom offered another class, Recipes and Reminiscences, after Rosh Hashanah as a way for participants to share recipes and memories of family honey cake served during the holiday. The format proved so successful that they will repeat it with other topics and have created a Temple Beth Shalom food blog.
“We plan to continue to use learning opportunities like Project Zug in addition to in-person classes as soon as we are allowed to. The community building opportunities of Chevruta, or small group learning, is wonderful and reinforces our culture of warm and welcoming through Lifelong Learning. Whatever the new normal becomes, streaming and teleconferencing will be a part of everything we do,” they said.
More Adult Learning Opportunities
Chabad of Round Rock jewishroundrock.com/
Chabad Young Jewish Professionals yjpaustin.org/discussions-and-classes
Congregation Beth El bethelaustin.org/education-2/
Congregation Havurah Shalom chstx.org/
Congregation Kol Halev kolhalev.org/
Congregation Shir Ami shir-ami.net/learning/
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