B'nai MItzvah (Bar and Bat Mitzvah) Tutoring: Pandemic Style

March 10, 2022Rabbi Sharon G. Forman

Last week, while I drilled tongue-twisting Hebrew words with a bar mitzvah student, my dog, who usually naps on top of my feet during these weekly FaceTime tutoring sessions, began to bark like an agitated member of a police department's canine unit. In addition to my mispronunciation-sniffing dog, I have faced other online b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah) tutoring obstacles, including, but not limited to weak internet signals and a student who regularly appeared sideways on my computer screen. Most challenging of all, however, is the psychological experience of engaging in virtual relationships with very real young people.

After two years of teaching remotely and watching far too many movies and television series on Netflix on the same computer screen I use to interact with these students, I wonder if I feel less connected to these "virtual" students than the hundreds of young people I taught in person over the past decades. My brain processes the fact that these pandemic era students exist and are real. But on some visceral, emotional level of my brain, they reside in a neighborhood not too distant from the citizens of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, whom I also befriended during the almost 200 episodes of Gilmore Girls I binged during the pandemic.

The last time I sat in a synagogue next to a breathing and singing b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah) student was on March 3, 2020. If students lost their place chanting from the vowel and punctuation-free text, I dropped my finger down to point to the correct word, and they could continue without any interruption. During the first few moments of tutoring, I could catch up with students' lives to chat about swim meet results, reviews of favorite movies and music, and college football coaching strategies (when you write tuition checks to University of Michigan, somehow your football IQ multiplies). I knew which kids had sparkles on their folders, and which students had organized their papers like museum curators. When they chanted, the air in the room filled with thousand-year-old music and words and not aerosolized microbes.

Don't get me wrong. I have adored getting to know my online b'nai mitzvah (bar/bat mitzvah) students over the past two years. The kids' upbeat attitudes, flexibility, determination, and humor fill my computer screen with energy and intelligence. I am grateful to discuss our heritage, culture, and sacred texts.

But I can't pretend that teaching online is the same as teaching in person. Pre-Covid, on the last day a student's lessons, a nostalgic sense of grief and loss would wash over me. The office staff at the Temple would smile at me with compassion, as they, too, marked the unrelenting evidence of the procession of time. This week, when a bright young man wound down his tutoring sessions, I felt a version of the familiar pang of separation from a cherished student. Yet, the feeling was different from pre-pandemic last classes and resembled the wistfulness of completing a season or series on Netflix.

Admittedly, tutoring online offers some perks. I don't have to worry about icy roads, rushing home to make dinner, or transmitting or catching this stealthy virus. But I also don't have the opportunity to experience that real-life proximity to another human. Many years ago, my grandmother taught me the meaning of the word, "propinquity." My Russian-born bubbe was convinced that despite quirks and annoyances, we humans just can't help ourselves and often fall in love with the people around us.

For now, my students are treasured characters in a weekly interactive video experience. As I embark on Season 3 of this long-running series, "B'nai Mitzvah (Bar/Bat Mitzvah) Tutoring: Pandemic Style," I will try to make more time to get to know my virtual students and look forward to the moment when I can substitute parasocial relationships for actual ones. I can't wait for the day when the only response to a student's sneeze will be a fearless "Bless you," as I hand the student a tissue and turn to the next verse of Torah.

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