By Matt Robinson/JNS.org
While soaring tuition costs put Jewish day school out of reach for an increasing number of families, and other families seek alternatives to brick-and-mortar schools because they simply want to rethink their children’s education, Boston-area teacher Rabbi Yosef Resnick has taken to the Web to address this much-debated communal concern.
Resnick has a master’s degree in education, is a sofer stam (Jewish religious scribe), and is the father of five homeschooled children. About six years ago, he created the online Jewish learning program Room613 (www.room613.net), whose name derives from the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. Room613 offers a full range of real-time Judaic studies classes in a virtual classroom.
“One of the goals of Room613 is to explore the depth and beauty of Torah learning, and to cultivate a love of God, Israel, and the Jewish people,” Resnick tells JNS.org. “I want to make Torah learning available to all Jewish children and to provide a stress-free, nonjudgmental environment where students can learn purely for the sake of learning, and not for the coercion of prizes and grades. The result is that my students love to come to class and learn.”
Raised in what he calls a “secular, nonobservant Jewish family,” Resnick felt what he describes as a certain “spiritual lack” in his life when he reached his mid-20s.
“I felt I was missing, and needed, some type of spiritual path or discipline,” he says.
Inspired by what he calls a series of incidents of hashgacha pratit (divine providence), Resnick embarked on his own path of self-directed Jewish learning, one that began with his reading of Aryeh Kaplan’s book “Jewish Meditation” and eventually led to him to study in the mystical Israeli city of Safed, together with his wife Yael.
Resnick says his own journey of self-discovery and study led to his desire to share the gift of Torah with others.
“As Ethics of the Fathers states, the obligation to learn Torah never ends,” Resnick says. “My own learning experience, which is ongoing, has been one of discovery and one of great awe, love, and respect for the Jewish wisdom that has been passed down to us. I want to teach children in a way that reaches their hearts and minds without any feeling of negativity or judgment—just the pure joy of learning Torah.”
In a “flash of inspiration,” Resnick says he decided to “combine Jewish education, online education, and homeschooling.”
“I was involved in all of these things separately, and it just made sense to bring them together to benefit other families,” he says.
Room613’s classes include Chumash (the books of the Torah), halacha (Jewish law), Jewish holiday observance, and Jewish thought. There is also a free online “davening circle,” where all Jewish children are invited to join together for morning prayers.
While the program’s virtual classroom is where the formal classes take place, the Room613 website offers a different service—an “online community” featuring articles, blogs, discussion forums for parents and kids, and a growing collection of original curriculum materials that can be downloaded for free.
“The Room613 website is an online community that welcomes all Jewish families, particularly those who homeschool, but it’s really for anyone who wants to discuss educating their children and connect with other families about Jewish education,” Resnick explains.
When Resnick began developing Room613 six years ago, online learning was still a relatively new concept, especially in the Jewish world.
“Room613 was really the first fully developed program of its kind,” Resnick says. “There are a few others now offering programs approximating what I am doing, but usually they are very expensive, and often geared toward a learning level that is closer to that of an afterschool program than a comprehensive curriculum. I have made a point of keeping my program extremely affordable, and the depth of learning I offer is unmatched in other programs.”
While the cost of Jewish day school across the U.S. now often exceeds $20,000 per year, annual tuition for access to all courses on Room613’s main schedule is $1,800.
Though it was primarily intended for—and is primarily used by—homeschooled children, anyone can enroll in Room613 classes. Resnick offers supplementary programs for students who attend Jewish day schools.
“My classes have students joining from all over the country, and even some from other countries,” he says. “Most of my students are homeschoolers, but I also have students who come home from public school and catch my last class of the day.”
Resnick has also branched out his efforts to meet the needs of specialized groups of students, such as early childhood, teen girls, and adults. For adults, Resnick created Mercaz Machshava Tova (The Center for Jewish Positive Thinking), where he writes about self-improvement and spiritual growth and offers online classes. Membership is free.
As Room613 grows, Resnick continues to pursue his other passions and interests. He has been a musician for almost 40 years, and taught guitar in the Boston area for years. He is also currently studying towards a degree in holistic health. Yet Room613 remains his primary focus. He suggests that the program offers opportunities and benefits that other forms of education do not.
“I still remember fondly an image over the [Room613 virtual classroom] webcam from several years ago,” Resnick recalls. “A mom walking through her house, and stopping to kiss her son on the head while he was in class. It was a touching moment that she probably doesn’t even remember. This kind of thing obviously cannot be done in a traditional school. Parents are always welcome to sit in on my classes.”
“I think Room613 combines the best of all worlds,” the rabbi says. “Kids are in a safe environment [with] no bullying, no cliques, yet they are engaging in an extremely high quality, challenging Judaic studies program that is tailored to their needs. I think this is how Jewish education should be.”
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