June 21, 2011
Have internet, will tutor
Some people live miles away from a synagogue that shares their philosophies and values. Others might have no shortage of resources but have overbooked lives that make fitting in yet another off-site commitment for their 11- or 12-year-old a near impossibility.
Through their new online venture, MyBarMitzvahTutors.com, sisters Danielle Gobuty Eskow and Marisa Gobuty hope to bring bar and bat mitzvah training to clients with geographical challenges and scheduling variables alike.
But the sisters’ program is by no means exclusively targeted at those who can’t easily find the place or the time for face-to-face tutoring. Online though it is, MyBarMitzvahTutors.com aims to spark students in all locations to participate and enter into the Jewish community.
“If a program like this had been around when I needed a tutor, it would have made my life a lot easier,” Gobuty said. “I wasn’t in a place where it was so easy for me to get access to have a bat mitzvah.”
For the record: Marisa’s bat mitzvah was in Israel. Her tutor: older sister Danielle, who was still in high school at the time. Marisa was her first student, and Danielle has spent the past seven years tutoring students online. In fact, the Web site — designed by Gobuty — is loaded with testimonials from Eskow’s satisfied clients.
“I was living in the San Fernando Valley, in Encino, at the time of my bat mitzvah, and I had a wonderful tutor who inspired me to become a rabbi,” Eskow said of Yossi Dresner, ritual director at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue.
My Bar Mitzvah Tutors (MBMT) offers 32-week courses in both Hebrew and bar/bat mitzvah training. Students take a Hebrew evaluation/assessment test to determine whether they will need the Hebrew program as well as the bar mitzvah prep. Some clients end up taking both programs; others can go straight into bar/bat mitzvah prep.
Students receive a customized netbook equipped with specialized learning software tailored to their learning needs.
Between the homework they do on the computer and the one-on-one weekly online sessions with their MBMT tutor, the students gradually master their Torah and their haftarah melodies. The tutorial also includes Shabbat prayers and access to weekly Torah portions prepared by Eskow — a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. By offering these additional features, the sisters hope to get the entire family — not just the students — involved and interested in the process.
“The purpose of this program is to reach Jewish families who would not otherwise have been reached, and not just through bar mitzvah tutoring, but through outreach,” Gobuty said. “We want to connect people and bring them back into the synagogue.”
Gobuty is largely in charge of the Hebrew training component of MBMT, while Eskow handles the bar/bat mitzvah training. Their program, developed last summer, went live in December, and My Bar Mitzvah Tutors currently has five students. Eskow and Gobuty, who live in New York, are tutoring students from Nebraska to Northern California.
Kimberly Robinson of Omaha, Neb., found the program via a Google search. It was January. Her son Brett’s bar mitzvah was scheduled for June, and Brett’s early preparation had resulted largely in frustration.
Robinson interviewed Eskow, and Eskow had a Skype meeting with Brett. Under Eskow’s tutelage, Brett the “sports boy” has proved to be a more than capable student.
“It’s been unbelievable,” said Robinson, herself a teacher. “She for sure has built his confidence in terms of his bar mitzvah study. She made a not-so-great experience amazing for him.”
Eskow and Brett meet twice weekly, with Eskow accommodating her pupil’s busy baseball and basketball schedules. Sometimes Brett’s mom listens in on the sessions, but even when she does, she immediately receives a post-session e-mail from Eskow, reporting on her son’s progress.
“The follow-through is perfect,” Robinson said. “She keeps us on task and keeps him on task. She is just the kindest and most encouraging, patient person I have ever met.”
“She’s really nice to me,” Brett agreed. “She helps me a lot, and I can get stuff done now.”
The Web/online component of the program has proved to be a substantial enticement to students who enjoy the interactivity.
“We have parents of kids who didn’t want to have a bar mitzvah, saying that their kids are talking about this to their friends,” Eskow said. “Students who would have chosen soccer practice over having a bar or bat mitzvah are excited about logging on and getting their netbooks in the mail. We’re getting incredible feedback.”
“This is the communication of our generation. This is the future, and I don’t think anything is lost by communicating online,” added Gobuty, who studied for the Medical College Admission Test online. “We’re young and we’re friendly, and it’s easy for students to relate to us and for us to relate to what they’re going through.”
As the program grows, the sisters’ roles figure to evolve. Eskow, who has two more years at the Jewish Theological Seminary, expects MBMT.com to complement what she hopes will be a flourishing rabbinate. Gobuty is finishing her bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University and plans to go to medical school, at which point her MBMT.com work likely will be part time.
In the course of their young lives, the Gobuty sisters have lived in California, Canada, Israel and New York. The next stop will be Boston, where Eskow’s husband will join a law practice.
A Web-based bar/bat mitzvah training program travels easily. When asked whether, in this technological age, actual bar mitzvah ceremonies could shift online as well, the sisters said, yes, but with caveats.
“At the end of the day, bringing people into a synagogue is crucial,” Gobuty said. “It’s not about just completing a bar mitzvah. It’s about gaining that community feeling so that you become part of something and get that exposure to a synagogue environment.”
“In order for someone to feel further connected, for the actual service, someone needs to do it with you in the community,” Eskow added. “You need to be very present as opposed to online.”