When Grace Whitmore stood on the bimah for her Bat Mitzvah on April 20, it was only the second time she had been in University Synagogue. Grace and her parents live in a small town in Oregon called Hood River, an hour east of Portland along the Columbia Gorge.
Living in a small town with no synagogue, Grace hadn’t had much of a Jewish upbringing, except for getting together with Jewish friends for holidays. “When I was growing up,” said Liz Whitmore, Grace’s mother, “I went to Hebrew school and had a Bat Mitzvah.” Liz remembered what a wonderful experience her Bat Mitzvah was and how special she felt sitting in the rabbi’s office talking about her Torah portion. “I wanted her to have a similar experience as well as an infusion of Judaism in her life. I wanted her to feel connected to her heritage.”
“Because there were no synagogues in Hood River,” said Liz, “it would mean driving an hour or more to an unknown synagogue in Portland where we didn’t know anybody. That really didn’t appeal to me.” What to do!
Liz’s parents, Al and Sally Phillips, are longtime and very active members of University Synagogue, so she asked her parents if they thought it would be possible to have Grace’s Bat Mitzvah there. Would Rabbi (Arnold) Rachlis support it and how could it be done?
Rabbi Rachlis said “yes” and discussed the issue with Sue Penn, director of education, to see what could be arranged. “We had to come up with a program,” said Penn. “We had just brought our virtual platform for Hebrew instruction online, so I was sure we would be able to accommodate Grace in learning Hebrew, and I was excited about exploring Skype options with her tutors; so we decided to make it work.”
Grace’s tutorial program began with Hebrew training with teacher Amit Hirshberg. Once she was brought up to speed in Hebrew, she moved on to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah training with teacher Liora Cohen. The Skype training was complemented with other media, including the basic telephone. Grace was able to practice trope and meet with Rabbi Rachlis and Cantor Ruti Braier to complete her studies.
“Grace learned five sections of her Torah portion,” said Liz, “which was a challenge; but she was amazing. I really had no idea how much she had studied and accomplished until the day of her Bat Mitzvah. And she loved the experience. I know it drew her closer to her own Jewish identity,” she added.
Grace not only enjoyed the learning experience but was also excited that her family and friends were gathering just because of her. “When we set this whole thing up,” continued Liz, “we were a little worried that she wouldn’t have many friends from Hood River who could attend. But that was not the case at all.” About 25 friends flew down to celebrate with Grace and her family.
“Friends of my parents that have known me since I was a little girl attended,” said Liz. “That made it very special as well.”
Because of the Skype-tutoring program, Grace was able to have her Bat Mitzvah at University Synagogue and with Rabbi Rachlis, which meant much more to them than going to a synagogue in Portland.
Meanwhile, in London…
“Actually, I didn’t know about Skype tutoring,” said Janet Yesk, “but I did know that we wanted to have Jake’s Bar Mitzvah at University Synagogue and not here in London where we are living. We don’t really know anyone here; and there is no Reconstructionist synagogue here. In addition, it would be very expensive for anyone to come to London to attend his Bar Mitzvah. University Synagogue is where our family is, where Jake was named, and Orange County is near our extended family and where my mother is buried.” Janet emailed Rabbi Rachlis just to see if it was possible and, if so, how. The rabbi said “yes” and set the wheels in motion.
“While the local synagogue does have a person who knows the American trope,” said Janet, “given the differences between the US and the UK and between Reform and Reconstructionist, I felt it was better to work with someone from University.” And so Jake became the next student to benefit from the on-line tutorial.
“Jake really enjoyed his Hebrew tutoring, with Amit, a young Israeli with whom he could really identify,” said Janet. With his Bar Mitzvah scheduled for December 21, 2013, he is now working on learning the text and prayers. “The opportunity for Jake to learn in the tradition I embrace, and to know that he will become a Bar Mitzvah in the community I am so powerfully connected to, is wonderful,” added Janet.
…And in Wrightwood
Sharon Rosen and David Spray, parents of Jonathan Spray, are former members who moved to Wrightwood but still feel connected to University Synagogue. As the time for Jonathan’s Bar Mitzvah was approaching, Sharon sought help from Penn, who introduced Jonathan to the Skype tutorial.
“It’s now become another program we can offer students at University,” commented Penn.
Since Jonathan isn’t as far away as Grace who lives in Oregon, or Jake who lives in London, he is able to attend the Adventures in Jewish Education Program (AJE), a monthly experiential religious school alternative.
AJE is a monthly religious school in a camp setting that weaves Jewish learning and Hebrew into an all day, once-a-month, active outdoor experience. While students play at camp, they learn the traditional values of Judaism and improve their Hebrew skills. Students become familiar with the prayers and their melodies, learn about and enhance their Jewish identity and integrate the all-important Jewish values into their lives. The program runs from September to May, one Sunday a month from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It is held at the state-of-the-art Irvine Ranch Outdoor Educational Center and is taught exclusively by University Synagogue teachers and counselors.
“It’s wonderful that Jonathan can be tutored on-line, yet also have the contact with other young people at the synagogue,” said Penn.
“I pride myself in personalizing every child’s Jewish education,” said Penn. “Not every child learns the same way.” Whether they are auditory learners or kinesthetic learners, Penn designs a program to meet those students’ needs. The Skype tutoring program and the AJE are just two examples of her innovative approach to education.
“Using different learning methods is a must, regardless of how the student learns or what challenges the student may have,” added Penn. “I believe that every child can learn, and being able to connect students with their Judaism, in their way, is the most gratifying work a religious school and its teachers can have.”