Screen time is a good thing when it comes to Hebrew school

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I have done a lot of online learning. I did much of my master’s by distance and have taken more professional development courses than I care to think about, all online to one degree or another. Some of those online learning systems were wonderful and left me feeling connected and engaged, while others were tedious and frustrating and left me with only a headache.

This is a brave new world and, more and more, learning opportunities are moving online, whether that’s through the flipped classroom movement, YouTube tutorials (that’s how you got a dinosaur cake for your third birthday, buddy), or more traditional course work with modules, assignments and exams. But when I heard from another small-town Jewish community leader that her kids were attending the Hebrew Virtual Academy online, I was pretty skeptical. I couldn’t quite picture our busy 7-year-old son sitting in front of a screen, actually paying attention.

But when you’ve made the decision to live outside of the Jewish geographical mainstream, you have to get creative. So much of what gets taken for granted in the big city requires ingenuity and perseverance to accomplish out here in the hinterland of Northern Ontario, Canada.

We’ve just restarted our little synagogue Hebrew school after several years of dormancy. Our son is the oldest in the group and he needs both a little extra challenge and an opportunity to work on his Hebrew literacy without it always being directed by his mother. Frankly, I need that, too.

Virtual Hebrew school is a great option when you live in rural Ontario. photo/jta-shutterstock

So every Sunday morning he sits in front of the laptop and waits for the other faces of Jewish kids from all over the continent to pop up on the screen. There is only one rule: You have to wear clothes. Pajamas are fine. (Apparently nudity has been a problem in the past.)

The teacher is, in my books, a miracle worker. He manages to keep these kids engaged and mostly on task in spite of them being thousands of miles apart. They even seem to look forward to their class. Our son logs onto the Behrman House website to complete his homework, and I’ve caught him singing “Modeh Ani” to himself as he plays in his room — victory!

Meeting these other kids online also helps him not to feel so alone; there are other Jewish kids out there, living a very similar experience to his own. We’re not the only small-town Jews.

We love living here in Northern Ontario. We have unparalleled access to the natural world and live within walking distance of several lakes. The kids can play outside on their own anytime they want, and we know our neighbors. We can afford a standard of living here that we could never imagine in a bigger city, and we have a close-knit community that is supportive and friendly.

But there’s a narrative in certain corners of the Jewish world that you can’t be really Jewish, not Jewish in the “right” ways, unless you live in one of the Jewish hubs. It’s very gratifying to have a connection to other Jewish families that are making the same choices and managing to give their children a Jewish education, by hook or by crook.

So while I fight the fight over screen time on a daily basis, Hebrew school is exempt. For that hour every Sunday, bring on the screen!

Emily Caruso Parnell
is a full-time arts educator, part-time ballet teacher and volunteer synagogue president in Northern Ontario, Canada.