Educator Spotlight: Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman
As a religious school educator in Los Angeles, Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman contended with the usual challenges. Her students’ schedules were jammed with school work, extracurricular activities and family obligations. Plus, they had to travel the clogged highways of Southern California. To make it easier for her students and their families to attend religious school, Rabbi Melissa offered a new model: students could attend class in person one day a week and virtually the other. Rabbi Melissa was fascinated with the growing field of educational technology and was eager to apply EdTech methods to Jewish education.
“Without any curriculum whatsoever, I just dove in and said ‘We are going to try this,’ ” Rabbi Melissa said of her early experiments with blended learning.
When Rabbi Melissa moved to Temple Israel of the City of New York, where she is the Director of Lifelong Learning, she brought her new model of blended learning with her. TiLearn, Temple Israel’s blending learning program, is open to students in grades 4-6. Each year, approximately 60 students participate in the program. (This year 67 students are enrolled in TiLearn and 26 attend the traditional religious school program.) Students in TiLearn follow the same ShalomLearning curriculum as their peers who attend class in person two days a week.
Technology plays a key role in the Temple Israel’s Religious School. “By using technology we are allowing our students to see Judaism as relevant,” Rabbi Melissa explained. Rabbi Melissa always encourages teachers to use new technological tools in the classroom. Students in grades 1-6, use the ShalomLearning curriculum, an online and blended learning platform. Students practice their spoken Hebrew skills by recording voice memos and sending them to their teachers. Teachers experiment with ways to harness student’s cell phones for educational activities. Each classroom has a SMARTboard.
“Technology has helped us extend learning, especially with ShalomLearning. There are always more learning opportunities for students,” Rabbi Melissa said.
Temple Israel’s use of technology has helped students sharpen their learning habits. Rabbi Melissa said that TiLearn students must develop a different skill set in order to be successful as online learners. Without a teacher in the classroom, TiLearn students are responsible for ensuring they are paying attention to the instructor. TiLearn participants quickly learn the differences between virtual and in person communication.
“Participating in a virtual classroom really forces students to take accountability for their learning,” Rabbi Melissa said.
Rabbi Melissa has also watched as Temple Israel’s teachers have developed new pedagogical techniques for new technologies. TiLearn teachers have had to adjust their teaching style for online platforms. In addition to monitoring each video screen and questions in the chat box, TiLearn teachers must constantly assess the tone of their voice and body language.
“Some of the performance aspects that we don’t think of as part of teaching become important in an online setting,” Rabbi Melissa said.
Rabbi Melissa and the Temple Israel religious school faculty regularly meet to try and come up with innovative ways to engage students. She encourages teachers to bring in new ideas and techniques they have acquired in other settings and share them with the entire Temple Israel faculty.
“Technology pushes us to innovate,” Rabbi Melissa said. “Technology has forced us to take a deep look at what we do and what we provide to students in the classroom.”
Congregational schools like Temple Israel’s face unique challenges when it comes to integrating EdTech into the curriculum. “The biggest difference is funding and time,” Rabbi Melissa said. Most day schools have dedicated faculty and separate departments wholly dedicated to EdTech, in addition to separate funding. Day school students could spend hours a day participating in EdTech initiatives. At Temple Israel, students attend religious school for three hours a week.
In her 17 years in the rabbinate, Rabbi Melissa has watched EdTech transform the fields of education and Jewish education. Participating in virtual networks through JEDLAB and the Association of Reform Jewish Educators has helped Rabbi Melissa further her professional learning. Virtual resources like Sefaria have provided her with new ways to connect with students. For congregational educators, Rabbi Melissa sees EdTech as another pedagogical tool for creating meaningful Jewish experiences.
“I think EdTech is about diving in and seeing how we can use it to harness better educational goals and make Jewish education much more relevant, fun, exciting and innovative for our students.”
Gabriel Weinstein is Project Manager, Digital Content and Communications, for The Jewish Education Project.