Bar mitzvah training goes online in a digital age

USA TodayAugust 15, 2013 

Everything’s going digital. Even bar mitzvah preparation.

Some tech-savvy parents are signing up their kids for a more modern brand of bar mitzvah lessons, rather than schlepping them to the synagogue for the traditional one-on-one lessons in person.

Take Andrea Moody. Last January, Moody, then living in central Massachusetts, discussed with her family taking a different approach to readying her son for his coming-of-age ceremony.

She called Glenn Sherman, a cantor based in Delray Beach, Fla., who gives bar mitzvah lessons online through his Easy Bar Mitzvah program, and then conducts the service at any location — in any country, for that matter — of the family’s choosing.

For about six months, Geoffrey Moody would log on to his computer, turn on Skype and sit back as Sherman sang with him, discussed Jewish history and helped him write his bar mitzvah speech. Geoffrey continued going to Hebrew school and the family remained members of the synagogue, but they wanted a unique bar mitzvah experience.

“Skype has changed everything,” Andrea Moody said. “We had a face; it wasn’t just a voice. We looked forward to it.”

In the digital age, programs like Sherman’s are becoming more common.

“People are hesitant sometimes because they are used to the traditional one-on-one with a rabbi in person,” said Rabbi Zalmen Stiefel, a bar mitzvah tutor for torahteacheronline.com. “But once they try online, they stick to it. I don’t have any student who canceled out.”

In the Jewish religion, the bar mitzvah at age 13 for boys and bat mitzvah, typically at 12 or 13 for girls, are seen as rites of passage into adulthood. The process involves months of practice, culminating in a service where the teen reads from the Torah and leads services, among other traditions.

Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah literally means becoming a son or daughter “of the commandment.” A Jewish adult must obey the commandments listed in the Torah.

Although the numbers aren’t overwhelming, many of those who give online bar mitzvah lessons say their students are typically not affiliated with a synagogue or don’t have the time in their schedules for tutoring in person.

Rabbi Yosef Goodman is the chief technology development director for jewishonlineschool.com, a virtual Hebrew school program of more than 600 students. Part of the program, he said, is one-on-one bar mitzvah lessons.

Online learning lets Goodman get creative. He shows his students videos of others during their bar mitzvahs so they know what to expect.

Rabbi Monte Sugarman, who runs a program called Digital Bar Mitzvah, an online service based out of Upstate New York, turned to online learning after recognizing its potential a few years ago. No prior knowledge of the Hebrew language is required, and he sends most teaching material through e-mail.

“We work online just like they were together with me,” Sugarman said.

Beyond Skype, other technological tools allow for a more interactive experience. Sherman uses a program called Trope Trainer, computer software that has lessons, blessings and full readings for students.

Cantor Sally Neff of Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack, N.Y., said she occasionally uses Skype to teach her own students when they can’t make it to their lessons. But she disagrees with the use of these services for those who aren’t affiliated with a synagogue.

“Becoming a bar mitzvah is primarily about becoming an adult member of the Jewish community,” Neff said. “When people decide they don’t want to devote the time or expenses to joining a community and then sidestep it and do the bar mitzvah, they’re missing the point.”

Some families, like that of Andrea Moody, don’t leave their primary synagogues when turning to online lessons. Moody called Sherman when, just months before Geoffrey’s bar mitzvah was to be held at the local congregation, the rabbi that the family had developed a long-term relationship with didn’t get his contract renewed.

So they decided to do something different. For the Moodys, an interfaith family, this meant a week-long trip to Barbados, where they met Sherman. He conducted the service with his own Torah inside a 350-year-old synagogue.

“When we finally met him in person, we felt like he was an old family friend,” Moody said of Sherman.

Andrea Moody said she plans to use the same service for her daughter next summer.

“I don’t know where we’ll go — maybe Barbados again,” she said. “But there is no question that we’ll be working with him again.”

The State is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service