The Boulder Jewish News “sat down” with Rabbi Evon Yakar from Adventure Rabbi: Synagogue Without Walls to learn about their Distance Learning Program for youth and adults.
BJN: Recently, we spoke to you about Adventure Rabbi Kids, your alternative religious school for kids in grades k-6th. Today we would like to hear more about the Adventure Rabbi Distance Learning Program. Word on the street is that it is growing so fast you have hired another full time educator to teach. Let’s start with some basics. Who are your students?
Rabbi Evon Yakar: We teach all age kids and adults and they can be interested in general learning or students learning for a specific goal like conversion, Hebrew learning, Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
BJN: Why do they want to be online instead of joining your religious school?
Rabbi Evon: Some don’t live here. Others come to us because they agree with our philosophy or style. Others need a specific schedule. Others need a faster or slower speed, different content or concentration than is offered in the school.
BJN: Where is the farthest away one of your students has lived?
Rabbi Evon: We had a student in Pak, Iraq. It was an amazing experience to learn about the Iraqi Kurd culture through this young person’s eyes. Rabbi Jamie met his family in Israel for the ceremony. We have also had students in rural and outlying places like Morris, MN and Lopez Island, Washington. That one was beautiful!
BJN: What is the closest?
Rabbi Evon: We actually have online students in Boulder. We have a ski racer who just can’t make the schedule of our Bar Mitzvah class and adults who want to squeeze their own study time into a busy day. Sometimes it’s just a better fit to work one-on-one with the rabbi or educator. Individual students can influence the content of the learning and the style of teaching plus students are really at ease at home.
BJN: What are some of the challenges?
Rabbi Evon: The biggest challenge is using Skype is technology itself. We have a professional version of the program, but even so, there are occasional technology challenges.
BJN: How do overcome these obstacles?
Rabbi Evon: The technology is constantly improving. 13 years ago we had a student in Bankok and back then, we had trouble simply hearing each other over Skype! That doesn’t happen much today. We coach our families through the technology woes and sometimes its as simple as setting them up with up to date software. We have some big tech guys on our team, so we are always getting better at this pieces.
BJN: Rabbi Jamie [the founder of Adventure Rabbi] was named as one of the 28th most inspirational rabbis in the US. One of the reasons given was that she created a program where kids are motivated to work. What is the secret of that?
Rabbi Evon: It comes down to one thing – relationship. We create an exciting and engaging program and truly engage with them. Then, they want to honor that relationship and they don’t want to let me down. That’s how I get them to do the work – they like what they are learning and they like working with me.
BJN: I see you offer Distance Learning for B’nei Mitzvah students, conversion students and adults who just want to learn more. But what about other kids? For example, let’s say I have a 12, 10 and 7-year old. My 12-year old can study with you, but what about my other kids? What do I do with them?
Rabbi Evon: We offer learning for families, kids and adults – all stages of life. In fact, we have had so much demand for online learning that we have added another full time Educator to help teach them. We would be thrilled to work with your younger kiddos too. We have families that have worked with us for several years before entering our B’nei Mitzvah program and students who work with us post-Bar Mitzvah too.
BJN: What is a day in the life of the Adventure Rabbi like? I picture you leaving the house at dawn to bag some peaks and then once you have worn yourself out, then and only then sitting in front of your computer teaching the afternoon and evening away as the sun sets behind the mountains.
Rabbi Evon: Your picture is not so far off! My days typically involve about 4-6 hours of Skype calls or phone calls. However, there are many other parts of those days. In the winter (read: Ski) season, I start with a backcountry ski near my home in South Lake Tahoe, then spend some time with my toddler son and wife and then sit down to go through email. Then its online with students, all ages, all parts of the world.
In the summer (read: Bike) season, the day has a lot more flexibility because of the increased daylight and most of our students have more flexible schedules when school is out. But the day is similar in that it involves a couple hours outside biking or hiking either on my own or guiding a group, before I sit down at the computer. And the reality is that its time in front of the computer is a part of the day that allows us to connect with others and help them prepare for a wonderful, and adventurous, experience of celebration!
BJN: What a contrast! you are such an active outdoor athlete and yet you spend so many hours on the computer. This leads me to my first struggle. The Adventure Rabbi Program is known for and loved for the outdoor activities you offer. You take B’nei Mitzvah students up mountain peaks! You take adults hiking on Shabbat! Even your religious school is movement oriented. But then you offer this online program. I don’t get the connection.
Rabbi Evon: An important thing to know about Adventure Rabbi is that while often our adventures are physical outdoor adventures, other times they are mind adventures like the learning that takes place in cyberspace over Skype. The adventure comes from stretching Judaism so that it makes sense in 2014. It might be a physical adventure, but it might not.
BJN: Do you bring the outdoors into your online teaching?
Rabbi Evon: Yes, often I give our students assignments to get outside, to experience Shabbat on a hike or on skis. The natural world is always a topic of conversation and often used as an analogy for teaching lessons. We often talk about the role nature plays in Judaism and share stories about what we have learned from being outside.
BJN: Ok this is my other struggle with your program. My favorite part of Sunday School was the friends I made. Frankly, I’m not even sure I learned much about Judaism, but I loved my friends. I still keep up with them on Facebook. But your students study alone, one-on-one with you. I get it that its a huge honor to spend 10 months studying with the rabbi. I think I only ever met with my rabbi twice. But how do you compensate for the lack of peer group and community?
Rabbi Evon: It is a good, and very real, question. We know that the one short comings of distance learning is the sense of community and the connection to Am Yisrael – The People of Israel. Ironically, this was the same problem I faced when I worked in a traditional congregation! We had great community but people didn’t always feel part of it.
I really push kids and families to engage in Jewish community. Some come on our retreats, Shabbat Hikes or Shabbat ski days. Some go to Jewish summer camps or join local youth groups. Sometimes I pair students up and they work with another students online with me. But some people don’t want community. One on one study with the rabbi or educator is all they are looking for and that is ok. Not everyone is looking for the same thing – and that is what makes individual program so awesome.
For more information about the Adventure Rabbi’s Distance Learning options, visit www.AdventureRabbi.org