Louisville to San Diego: hi-tech bat mitzvah prep

With meetings via skype

by Tzivia Levin Kalmes

Working at the Temple Hebrew School, I frequently observe young b’nai mitzvah students walking purposefully down the hallways with thick folders containing their Torah portions, prayers and speeches.  However as a fourth grade teacher, I merely see these children passing by while I focus on instilling the fundamentals of Hebrew letters and vowels to younger students.

This year, I experienced my first entree into the world of b’nai mitzvah preparation in a more unconventional manner. On one of my trips to San Diego to visit my family, I was sitting around the table discussing my cousin, Lily’s, upcoming bat mitzvah with her and my aunt. When the topic of her potential teacher arose, I started listing off many qualified people that I knew in San Diego. After a few quiet seconds, Lily asked me if I would like to be her teacher. I was surprised and flattered as there were many other people living in San Diego who could have easily mentored her.

I quickly realized that this process was not going to be as simple as walking into a synagogue or a student’s home on a regular basis. We decided on Google chat as our vehicle of choice to conduct biweekly online sessions, And after solving a few technological glitches, we developed a workable study system.

Since San Diego is three hours behind Louisville and Lily’s school ends at 3:30 p.m. we usually “met” around 7:30 p.m. Louisville time during the week, and on Sunday during in the afternoon. There were often date changes due to my evening work commitments and her extracurricular activities.

Each session was forty-five minutes long, and we alternated between studying her parsha, Parshat Korach, and Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. I selected Pirkei Avot as an additional text because I felt that there were many life lessons applicable to Lily both as a 12 year old and a young Jewish adult.

Each time we connected, I could sense if she was tired, upset or had a good day, just as I can easily gauge the mood of a child in the classroom. Sometimes, I could hear her dog, Henry, barking in the background if he wanted attention!

We would briefly talk about her day before delving into study. I gave her homework assignments to ensure that she was grasping the material, including the Hebrew text of her parsha. Lily would submit her work via email and I would send back corrections.

When it was time to write her speech, we emailed drafts back and forth until a final version was completed. On June 8, Lily celebrated her bat mitzvah and I attended in person! It was very rewarding to see her hard work applauded by her family and friends.

Though faced with unique obstacles such as time zones and technology, Lily and I worked together to create a successful and innovative method of bat mitzvah preparation.


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