Kids tune in, not out, as they prep for bnai mitzvah

Matt Friedberg runs through the motions as casually as any other teenager would.

He grabs a CD, pops it into his computer and, within minutes, he is listening intently to the newest installment on his iPod.

Only Matt is not listening to the latest from Fall Out Boy or Linkin Park. Instead, he is studying for his bar mitzvah. It’s part of his daily routine.

“My tutor makes CDs with study lessons for me,” said Matt, who studies with San Mateo-based instructor Patti Moskowitz. “I take the CDs, put them on my iTunes, and then I copy the lessons on to my iPod. A lot of the kids I know have iPods, so we’re all very comfortable studying our lessons this way.”

Matt’s case is an increasingly common example of how parents, teens and instructors are embracing emerging media trends to help kids train for the important coming-of-age rite: the bar or bat mitzvah.

Like Moskowitz, George Rubin of Palo Alto also mentors young teens studying for their upcoming bar or bat mitzvah. To help with the preparation procedure, Rubin seemingly employs every important development in computer programming over the past decade.

With his iBook, Rubin creates an audio file of a specific passage from the Torah with the music production program Garage Band. When the audio file is complete, he either burns the session to a hard disc to give personally to his pupil, or keeps it on his computer, where he can retrieve it whenever needed.

For Rubin, the process is essential for delivering the most effective training method.

“For one, we used to use cassette tapes to record passages, but it’s pretty hard nowadays to find a cassette tape player,” said Rubin. “With programs like Garage Band, where I can record onto my computer, I can easily email the study sessions to my pupils and they can take them down, put them on their iTunes and then into their iPod immediately.”

New-media study tools are not limited to audio performances either, as the advent of digital cameras gives students the ability to view actual manuscripts within the confines of their own home.

“It’s really amazing what we can do now,” said Moskowitz. “We can take pictures of the Torah scroll with a digital camera and kids can bring that image to their computers and see the text as it actually is.”

Seeing the Torah text beforehand, notes Stephen Saxon, who works with b’nai mitzvah students at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, avoids last-minute surprises when youngsters step up to the bimah.

Saxon, who has a background in IT and recording experience, has set up a computer-based digital recording system to help students train, and encourages students to use their iPods. He is also a firm proponent of Tropetrainer, a software program he began using this year that identifies and prints out the correct Torah text, and he uses iTunes and Playlist “extensively.”

Matt’s parents, Phyllis Tankel and Larry Friedberg, are equally enthusiastic about the advantages of studying Torah in a comfortable environ. The family hails from the Peninsula, near the hub of Silicon Valley, so they are well aware of the benefits of staying technologically modern.

“My husband and I do try our best to stay current with trends, especially living in this area where there are so many amazing innovations,” said Tankel.

“But beyond that, I think it is so important for people who work with children to keep up with technology, whether it’s with religious studies or in a secular classroom, because it can be such a powerful learning tool.”

While new media has proven to be an invaluable tool in helping children prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs, tutors also stress that iPods and computers cannot replace the importance of personal human interaction.

“The new technology can be extremely helpful, as long as it’s used in conjunction with good, old-fashioned one-on-one contact,” said Moskowitz. “It’s important for a study mentor to employ these new methods while maintaining a presence throughout the process.”

Matt Friedberg, for one, agrees. He said he could not complete the process without Moskowitz’ timely advice and helpful teachings.

“It’s good having a tutor to help me — I really hadn’t read Hebrew before, and I didn’t really know how to pronounce any of the vowels or anything. Patti is definitely a great help when I have any questions.”

As his rigorous learning process drew to a close — Matt celebrated his bar mitzvah in late April at Peninsula Temple Beth El — he reflected on his studies in a positive light, knowing the passages he learned through the earphones of his trusted iPod would probably stay with him for quite a while.

“I was happily surprised I was able to study for my bar mitzvah this way,” he said, “because I really wasn’t sure what to expect heading in.

“My brothers see how I’m studying for it, and I think they’re definitely a little jealous.”