Bar and bat mitzvah preparation, colloquially referred to as maftir lessons, have been a rite of passage for Jewish boys and girls for generations. Traditionally, children approaching their 13th birthdays spend several months in close study with their synagogue rabbi or a trained bar mitzvah coach, learning how to read from the Torah and Haftorah (Writings of the Prophets) and recite the blessings that accompany those readings.
Now, those study sessions are available online.
Danielle and Marissa Gobuty are among numerous entrepreneurs to offer Internet-based bar and bat mitzvah tutoring. The sisters, whose family hails from Winnipeg, established MyBarMitzvahTutors.com a year ago, when Danielle was in her third year of rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Already an experienced maftir and Hebrew tutor, Danielle was approached to provide bar mitzvah lessons to a boy living in Washington. She eagerly took on the challenge, teaching and communicating with her young student over the phone and via Skype. Although they never met face to face, the bar mitzvah boy reported feeling prepared and confident about his rite-of-passage ceremony.
"MyBarMitzvahTutors.com grew out of that wonderful and fulfilling experience," Gobuty explains.
"We realized that if there was one student who needed that kind of service, then there were many more students we could help reach regardless of geographical location," she says. "We found a void within Jewish education and found a creative and meaningful way to fill that void and reach all types of Jewish students."
MyBarMitzvahTutors.com has clients across North America. Students and tutors interact via video conferencing and email and rely heavily on an interactive trope program. Trope is the notation system or cantillation marks for chanting Torah. There are 27 tropes in total.
Geographic location or isolation is not the only reason families turn to online preparation for this important life-cycle event. For many, the flexibility and convenience of the online lessons are a major attraction. So, too, is the fact that for most children today, working or learning online is second nature. Preparing for their bar mitzvah in a virtual classroom does not strike them as unusual.
Online bar mitzvah preparation is just one of many Jewish learning experiences currently available via the Internet. Increasingly, pulpit rabbis are turning to YouTube as a platform for their weekly lessons and sermons. Traditional congregations, such as Winnipeg's Shaarey Zedek, are experimenting with audio and video streaming of prayer services, holiday celebrations and ritual ceremonies. This modern means of communication allows spiritual leaders to reach out to and embrace those who are unable or unwilling to attend synagogue.
For some Jewish community members, the synagogue experience is being replaced by a virtual one. At OneShul.com, the world's first online congregation, Jews of all denominations participate in Sabbath and holiday services, Torah study groups and bar mitzvah preparation classes while sitting in front of their computer monitors. They can even receive spiritual counselling via Skype.
"As the only online, lay-led Jewish community, OneShul believes Jewish institutions need to be where Jews are," explains Patrick Aleph.
Aleph is the executive director of PunkTorah, the user-driven Jewish spirituality and learning hub that launched OneShul.com as a post-denominational, egalitarian virtual synagogue dedicated to "Judaism without borders."
"Jewish people, like everyone else, live on the Internet and that is why we are there," says Aleph.
"Most people treat the Internet like it is a tool, (but) it isn't," he explains. "The Internet today is more like a place, and it is a unique place, because the ability to connect with anyone, at any time, and to have any kind of experience one wants is unique to the Internet."