Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mitzvah Tools: Virtual Learning for Bar and Bat Mitzvah Students

Scrolling through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago, I noticed that the young woman whose bat mitzvah I officiated just weeks after being ordained as a rabbi a dozen years ago had walked down the aisle as a bride. That, combined with the realization that my oldest child will become a bar mitzvah early next year, caused me to feel nostalgic and also to consider how the bar and bat mitzvah training process has changed over the years.

While the bar mitzvah ceremony is a relatively new institution in Judaism, it hasn’t changed much in terms of what the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl actually does in the synagogue service. Of course, the ceremony differs from synagogue to synagogue, and what a girl is allowed to do for her bat mitzvah ceremony varies in Orthodox congregations and in some Conservative congregations.

What has certainly changed in recent years is how these Jewish teens are trained for their coming of age ceremony and how the synagogues handle the process. During my final year of rabbinical school I was serving a fledgling synagogue community in Northern Virginia while attending classes in New York City and living in News Jersey. The few b’nai mitzvah students I had to train that year met with me mostly over a speaker phone. I remember that when I had the opportunity to meet with these teens in person during one of my weekend visits to the congregation I realized how much of the important interaction I was missing because I couldn’t see their faces during our tutoring sessions. The technology to tutor them virtually through video conferencing was not yet available.

Today, many bar and bat mitvah tutors are training Jewish teens who live hundreds or even thousands of miles away thanks to the advent of such video conferencing apps as Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom and Apple FaceTime. Even beyond these communication apps, there are other technological tools being used to allow for a more interactive bar mitzvah training experience. Many online tutors use the Trope Trainer application, a computer software that has lessons, blessings and full readings for students. There is no shortage of online options for the parents looking for virtual training for their child’s bar mitzvah preparations. In many cases, it is the family that is unaffiliated with a congregation that is looking to use technology for training. However, with busy extracurricular schedules for the teens and hectic work responsibilities for their parents, it is oftentimes easier for teens to be trained at home in front of a screen.

Online training websites and virtual tutors for bat mitzvah

All of these new options for bar mitzvah training mean that congregations need to keep track of where and how their teens are being trained. They also have to manage the entire process of training and meeting the several benchmarks in place for the b’nai mitzvah program.

One rabbi in Canada is bringing the bar mitzvah management process into the Digital Age. Vancouver Rabbi Dan Moskovitz has created a groundbreaking b’nai mitzvah management platform to make the process much easier for congregations utilizing distance tutoring in a more personable way. He is the rabbi of a large congregation, but as a hobby he develops software programs to help manage synagogue operations and education programs. He recently released Mitzvah Tools 2.0.

Many congregations in the various Jewish denominations across North America already hold subscriptions to the original version of Mitzvah Tools, which is the first cloud-based management system for b’nai mitzvah. Over the years, congregations of all sizes have relied on this desktop app to maintain recordings of Torah readings, schedule appointments with students, track tutoring notes, participation honors and handle assignments. Thirteen years later, Moskovitz has teamed up with a cantor to augment the original software.

The new version of Mitzvah Tools is completely cloud-based and mobile friendly. It promises to transform the bar and bat mitzvah educational process for congregations making critical information and valuable resources easily accessible to participants like tutors, clergy, students and parents. Rabbis, cantors and bar mitzvah tutors will be able to use the Mitzvah Tools app to make multi-media rich assignments and tasks for students, maintain service notes, schedule appointments, initiate video chats for remote learning and maintain their congregation’s own limitless online resource bank of audio, video and text files accessible to each student at any time.

“The expectations placed upon the b’nai mitzvah in the training process has not changed much in several generations, but the students, educators and parents have changed dramatically,” Moskovitz explains. “Students now have more demands on their time, with extracurricular activities and hours of homework making huge demands on them. Mitzvah Tools allows students to study wherever and whenever they can with all of their materials right on their phone, including initiating a Skype/FaceTime session with a tutor with just a click of a button.”

For parents, who are managing multiple calendars and projects, Mitzvah Tools creates organization. The app syncs appointment calendars, online scheduling, instant threaded messaging with the education team and an online resource bank that has every kernel of information about the b’nai mitzah process. Moskovitz correctly points out that with today’s prevalence of intermarriage in the Jewish community, many parents of Jewish teens did not experience the bar or bat mitzvah training process in their youth so an application like Mitzvah Tools is helpful in that regard as well.

For educators, Mitzvah Tools provides one place for notes, files, assignments, calendar, honors during the service and important contact information. In a previous generation, many tutors kept a binder, which was never seen by rabbis or cantors. Now, however, everyone can be on the same page. In multi-clergy/multi-tutor environments this is an extremely helpful program.

“Until Mitzvah Tools came along, in order to keep track of the more than 100 students under my supervision or tutoring, I had to carry around a 4 inch ring binder, in which each child had their own pages,” said Cantor Mark Britowich of Temple Judea in California. “With Mitzvah Tools, I can now manage these students easily. Everything I need to know is visible on whatever device I use and I maintain each child’s file so that everyone on our staff can see exactly what the student is working on.”

Mitzvah Tools is the perfect solution for distance learning with an online project management system, remote video chat and threaded discussions between students and educator the tutoring room in now in the cloud. In small, rural communities in which it is challenging to find bar mitzvah tutors, an online tutor can be engaged and with the use of Mitzvah Tools, the rabbi or other congregational designate can monitor the student’s progress from the online dashboard and join in the process every step of the way.

“It is not like the Internet was just invented, but if you’re still getting CDs and photocopies from your congregation, having to call to schedule appointments you’d never know it,” Moskovitz said. “Mitzvah Tools changes all that for the better.”

“Mitzvah Tools has been such a huge help for our son and his bar mitzvah studies,” said Sharon Goldberg of Florida. “Having all of his recordings online and being able to schedule or reschedule his tutoring sessions from my phone makes it so much easier to stay on top of this whole process.”

Twelve year old Jewish teens will continue to celebrate their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies as their grandparents did before them, but the preparation process has been changed thanks to new technology. Online training websites and virtual tutors will become the norm for how these teens prepare for their milestone event on the Jewish lifecycle and new applications like Mitzvah Tools will help ensure the process is organized and managed appropriately.

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