Beth El Congregation in Phoenix is making its religious school available to its students online.

The new program, called "Beth El Online," kicked off earlier this month. Janette Silverman, education and youth director, said that grades five and six are already functional, and the plan is to have grades two through eight up and running as soon as possible.

Webcams and microphones have been installed in all of the classrooms, and students who are unable to attend for any reason can watch a live feed of their class. If the student has access to a webcam and microphone, he or she can also interact with classmates and the teacher in real time, according to Silverman.

"This is something I've been dreaming about, probably for decades," said Silverman. "How do we get the kids who can't get to religious school ... involved and integrated into the community?

"I realized as technology was becoming more and more accessible, and as more and more of our congregants, young and old, became computer-savvy ... that we ought to make use of the technology that we have easily available to engage people who otherwise might not be easily engaged."

Attendance has risen since the program started, according to Silverman. She said that students who normally come to class still do, and those with transportation issues or other conflicts now log in online. Children who log in live get credited with attending the class; those who are unable to watch in real time also get credit for attending if they watch a recording of the class and complete a special homework assignment before the next class.

The program is of no additional cost to the families already enrolled in the religious school, and classes are hosted on a private website so that "a random person surfing the net will not stumble onto a classroom where we have children," Silverman said.

Online availability will expand to adult education, starting with a crash course on reading Hebrew taught by spiritual leader Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky at the end of October, and Silverman said the plan is to eventually broadcast other events at the synagogue, too.

For more information, contact Silverman at 602-944-3359 or jsilverman@bethelphoenix.com.

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