Leo McFarland, 9, of Aquadilla, Puerto Rico, has been riding his skateboard a lot lately. Like other children on the island devastated by Hurricane Maria last September, he missed nearly two months of school due to lack of electricity, water, and other basic services. Although the school he attends finally reopened, powered by a generator, he and his brother, Felix, 6, remained in the dark for five months as far as their Jewish education goes. Without internet service, they were cut off from their primary connection to Judaism: their weekly lessons with the Nigri Jewish Online School.
Their parents, Amy and Brad McFarland, former Peace Corps volunteers, are teachers at the Ramey Unit School on the local United States Coast Guard military base in the northwest corner of the island. Out of nearly 400 students, Leo and Felix, 6, are the only Jewish students. After the hurricane, the McFarlands swung into action to help their neighbors through the Water Filters for Puerto Rico project. “I’ve been giving out water filters together with my mom, and we’ve given out 1,000 water filters so far!” Leo reported.
Before moving to Aquadilla, the McFarlands lived in El Salvador in proximity to a synagogue and a Jewish community. Moving to Puerto Rico seemed reasonable since it has the largest Jewish population in the Caribbean. However, their home is a two-hour drive from San Juan, the center of the island’s Jewish community. Amy realized she would have to make a concerted effort to provide Jewish education for her boys.
Her solution was to enroll them in the Nigri Online Jewish School, which caters to an international student body made up of children in remote places without access to a Jewish school.
Remote Places Without Access to Jewish Education
Sponsored by a grant from Lillian and Meyer Nigri of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Nigri Jewish Online School has been in operation for eight years, and currently serves about 200 students. Under the auspices of the Shluchim Office at Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, it offers three programs: Hebrew school, once a week; day school, which offers sessions either twice a week after school or four mornings a week; and online individual bar mitzvah lessons.
Students log on from such far-flung international locations as South Korea; Sentosa, Singapore; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Barrhead, Alberta; Madagascar, and across the continental U.S., including Ruidoso, N.M.; New London, Conn.; Annapolis, Md.; and Fairfax, Va.
While classes are small, ranging from four to twelve students, teaching from a computer screen presents its own set of challenges. “You have to be there 120% and give it your all in a very innovative way,” explained Bryna Cohen, who has been teaching online for four years and counts the McFarland brothers among her students. “Unless you are very engaging, the students will literally just get up and walk away!” she tells Chabad.org. Cohen uses props like puppets and keeps the lessons very interactive. “Even though we are in a virtual classroom, the impact can be very strong.”
NJOS principal Chaya Margolin explained that the friendships students form are as important as the academic learning. “Jewish friends were non-existent for many of our students before enrolling in our school. We give them the opportunity to create lasting friendships with families they would otherwise never have met.” She cited two bat mitzvah-aged girls who became best friends two years ago—Neshama, who lives in the tiny Oregon town of Cottage Grove, and Shira, from Midland, Texas, who now talk on the phone after each class.
The students also connect on the Jewish Online School’s Facebook page under the hashtag #StudentSpeak.
Kids and Grownups Shout Out About the School
Leah Silva, 9, of Winnemucca, Nevada, is homeschooled together with her brother, and attends Jewish Online Hebrew School every Sunday. “We’re the only kids in Winnemucca who go to JOS, because we’re the only Jewish kids! I enjoy learning about the holidays and teaching my brother some of the letters.”
“I’ve been in the Jewish Online School since kindergarten,” said Noah Clarke, 11, of Annapolis, Md. “The teachers tell us stories that you don’t hear anywhere else and play games with us. I know how to read better and I can learn the parshah (weekly Torahportion) faster.”
Many students and their families tend to get involved in Chabad activities, and the curriculum often supplements Chabad programming. “If you don’t run a Hebrew School, or are working with Jews in rural towns, the Nigri Jewish Online School is a great resource,” said Chaya Sara Cunin, associate director of Chabad of Northern Nevada in Reno. “Three students from the online school joined us at our camp this summer.”
“It is an honor and a privilege to pioneer the Jewish EdTech revolution,” said Rabbi Gedalya Shemtov, director of the Shluchim Office. “The Nigri Jewish Online School ensures that every Jewish child, regardless of location and background, can receive the education they deserve.”
Back in San Juan, Rabbi Mendel and Rachel Zarchi, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Puerto Rico, said the online school helped strengthen their relationship with the McFarlands, who join them for holidays whenever they can make the long trip. “We feel very welcomed by the Zarchis at Chabad,” said Amy McFarland.
The internet connection has just been restored in Aquadilla, and the McFarlands are thrilled to resume their studies. Amy, too, looks forward to joining her boys in their lessons with her split headset so she, too, can continue learning Hebrew.
“The transition to a place so far from a Jewish community was very difficult,” she said. “Discovering the Jewish Online School helped ease our family’s feeling of isolation in a big way.”
By: Tzipora Reitman