Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah in the 21st century has its benefits. Students can make compact discs or rip MP3s (music via computer file), purchase trope training software, or even have a computerized voice chant Torah! But with all this technology, it is important that we keep the sacredness and the personal nature of Torah in the hearts and minds of each of our students. Therefore, I utilize technology in my teaching, but only to support the teaching of Torah, never to supplant the role of actual human beings in the teaching process.
Over the past few years, I have grown away from a personal one-on-one model of tutoring my students for several reasons: 1) I found myself teaching the same prayers over and over during the course of a day; 2) I gave the same lessons about how to study over and over; 3) in learning in a one-on-one fashion, the students became too comfortable in my office and were very timid on the pulpit, especially as the ceremony approached. Therefore, I created a team-model approach to tutoring.
My “Torah Corps” involves a personal one-on-one meeting with a student and his/her parents, outlining the process of study. At the beginning, I make sure a student receives two CD’s, one of prayers and one of their Torah and Haftarah portions chanted, one aliyah per track. I also sign the student and his/her parents up for a Yahoo! group. A “Yahoo! group” is a free Web site on which I can manage calendars, group e-mails, databases, bookmarks, and files which my students or parents can easily access with the help of a Yahoo ID. They can download sound files of blessings and see my schedule, which is relatively easy and keeps me in touch with all of my students very quickly.
Once a student has met with me, I put them into Torah Corps formally. We meet once a week for an hour in our sanctuary. With the lights on, the sound system on, and students sitting one to a row, I can accommodate up to twelve students in one hour. We begin by practicing prayers and blessings together with everyone seated. Occasionally, I will ask a student to lead the prayer in order to give them practice from the pulpit in leading a congregation.
The next stage involves teaching the students how to be good leaders and how to be good congregants. I invite each student, one at a time, to be at the pulpit, chanting their assignment in front of the group. The group must be able to navigate the khumash and follow along. I use Jolly Ranchers as incentives for the students who can find the page number of the biblical citation! I will have a student either chant an aliyah or a part of their Haftarah, depending where they are in their studies. The positive peer pressure that is built up is a great motivator, and the students do encourage one another. I teach the group to wish the student who is chanting to say Yashar kokhakha (to a boy) or Yashar kokheikh (to a girl) and the student being complimented to reply, B’rukhim tihyu. Equally important as mastering their part in the service is the feeling of being part of a community and learning how to support each other.
With the “Jewish Question of the Week,” I teach my students that Jewish learning does not end at a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony but is a lifelong endeavor. Each student is asked to bring in one Jewish question about anything even remotely pertaining to their Judaism; no question is off limits. I have gotten questions ranging from, “What is kosher?” to “If a non-Jew dies, does something different happen to him or her than if a Jew dies?” During the last seven minutes of the hour, I have a personal 1-on-1 check in with each of my students, giving them feedback and giving them an assignment for the next week.
With just a little technology and some restructuring, I have a format that better meets the students’ needs, the parents’ needs and my needs. The results and feedback have all been overwhelmingly positive. The parents love the idea of their children getting used to being in front of a congregation, the students appreciate the feeling of “being in the same boat,” and my schedule is freed up considerably. Although I may spend less time meeting individually with each student, the access to the support they need is increased through the group approach and the resources online. In addition, they are learning valuable lessons about how to continue to be students and members of our worship community after the ceremony is over.