Taking Jewish day school education online
By Ilan Preskovsky
You don’t have to have any children in school (or any children at all, really) to be acutely aware that school fees are one of the biggest expenses and greatest worries of nearly any Jewish parent in this country. The monthly cost of sending even one child, let alone a whole brood of kids, to a Jewish day school is enough to make medical aid expenses look reasonable. And, this is before you start paying for extra lessons, extra-curricular activities, set work books, or overseas programmes like Kfar.
This would perhaps be easier to swallow if there was just a single thing to be blamed, some machine to be raged against, but there isn’t. Schools need to pay their teachers a fair wage, and, by all indications, a large portion of a child’s school fees are dedicated to exactly that. Jewish day schools are private schools with private-school levels of education and private-school levels of expenses, but also have a whole additional expense of Jewish studies.
Further, in lieu of government subsidies, private Jewish schools rely on the support and generous donations of private individuals and organisations, and it is to their eternal credit that Jewish day schools in this country do as much as they can to accommodate the financial realities of your average South African Jewish family. No doubt there isn’t one of us who hasn’t heard of or even been approached to support one of the numerous community initiatives to bring down school fees and/or support those who can’t afford them.
And, yet, this still isn’t enough. Sending your children to Jewish schools is still a major financial burden for far too many Jewish parents. Solutions are clearly extremely tough to come by, but perhaps we can look overseas to the often highly innovative approaches to education that major Jewish communities in places like Israel or the USA have come up with to come up with some of our own ideas.
This is where the New-Jersey-based Melamed Academy comes in.
The first Torah-based online school
Before diving into this truly quite incredible initiative, a disclaimer of sorts: The point of this article is not – and I can’t stress this enough: not – to denigrate South Africa’s Jewish schools or to offer a replacement for them. The realities of Judaism in America are vastly different to what they are here, with many of their greatest weaknesses being our greatest strengths and vice versa. If nothing else, the fact that the American Jewish population is in the order of one-hundred times larger than the entire South African Jewish community, makes the two communities difficult to compare.
Despite all of this, the Melamed Academy is a fairly extraordinary organisation that may at least offer some clues and inspirations for where Jewish education in South Africa is to go in the upcoming years and decades – as well as an all-new option for parents to explore. Indeed, though affordability is a major part of the Melamed platform, it was created as a response to something that may be much more of an issue for the expansive American Jewish community than the much more concentrated and close-knit community in South Africa, but the full range of what Melamed actually offers makes it plenty relevant to our situation in South Africa too, in ways that go well beyond just the financial.
Founded in 2012, the Melamed Academy is a not-for-profit online school that offers extensive Torah and secular classes to Jewish students of all backgrounds. It offers courses for students from kindergarten all the way through twelfth grade, as well as courses in GED (high school equivalence certificate) preparation, and a university-degree programme where students can get undergraduate degrees in a variety of subjects.
Rather than regurgitating the entirety of it here, head over to the Melamed Academy website at https://melamedacademy.com for a detailed look at how Melamed actually works and how its different components fit together. There simply isn’t enough space in this article – or four articles like it – to delve into the intricacies of what Melamed has on offer. For our purposes, then, here are some of the standout features of the organisation, as well as an overview of the types of courses they have on offer.
Versatility and Easy Access
While South Africa’s Jewish community is, by an overwhelming majority, concentrated in just a couple of major cities, with significant Jewish infrastructure built around them, the Jewish communities of the United States are significantly more spread out. Yes, there are major concentrations of Jews in places like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, but there are many Jews that, for various reasons, live far from America’s Jewish hubs. These individuals are often far removed from the sort of Jewish life that most of us take for granted, not least of which is a Jewish education.
With little more than a computer and a decent internet connection, kids in these communities can connect to Melamed and its rich curricula of both secular and Torah studies. Shira Moncharsh, an administrator at Melamed, notes a particularly poignant case of a Jewish teenager in Alaska who, despite living in one of America’s least Jewish states, found himself becoming increasingly interested in his Jewish roots. While doing some of his own research about Judaism on the net, he came across the Melamed Academy website and, seeing a tremendous opportunity for growth, he signed up for some of its Torah classes.
More than just easy-access to Jews living in the farthest reaches of the United States, though, the Melamed Academy also takes into account the often wildly different needs of their different students. This teenager in Alaska, for example, would have almost entirely different education requirements than someone who had been in a Yeshiva school in Monsey, New York, since pre-school. While the latter might be looking for in-depth Talmud classes, the former needs to start off with the basics in Chumash, Hebrew, and perhaps some courses in general Jewish studies. Melamed was specifically set up to deal with exactly these kinds of eventualities and they gave this questioning, seeking teenager from Alaska an elementary Jewish education that was comprehensive enough that he ultimately landed up going to yeshiva after graduating high school.
It’s not hard to see how such a system could be so beneficial for some South African Jews who, for example, still live in small country communities, but the beauty of an online school as personalised, as diverse, and as flexible as Melamed is that it can cater to Jews from any number of backgrounds, in any kind of circumstance. Whether it’s Jewish children who are committed to their Judaism, but who find themselves in a secular public or private school, or extremely gifted students who have outstripped what their particular Jewish day school has to offer in terms of Torah education, an online school like the Melamed Academy – which is, indeed, available to Jewish children throughout the world so long as those children can speak English – is the perfect solution to both.
A secular education from a Torah point of view
That the Melamed Academy is a major boon for those without access to extensive Torah education or who are looking for additional courses in Torah subjects is a given, but what about the secular aspects of the school? It’s demonstrably not just a yeshiva, as is made abundantly clear by looking through the wide variety of academic courses on offer, across all age groups, but what does this aspect of Malemed offer that your average, halfway decent brick-and-mortar school does not?
The simplest answer, of course, is just the flip-side of the way it services Jewish kids who are far removed from getting a basic Jewish education. In recent years, it has become a trend in more “frum” circles for parents to take their kids out of high school and to let them finish their teenage years in yeshiva or to send them to certain Jewish schools that cater almost exclusively to Torah studies, with much less emphasis on a standard secular education. Putting aside the philosophical differences of opinions between different streams of Torah Judaism, the issue may well be for some people opting for that course of action to ensure that their child has the ability to make a living in any half-way developed nation in the 21st century.
Melamed Academy isn’t just a great solution to Jewish kids in such circumstances because of the wealth of secular subjects on offer, or even the fact that they can get a fully-accredited high school diploma (and more), but because, as a Torah school that is aware of the different kinds of Jews out there, it offers curricula that – though always sensitive to Torah values – range from the “Mesivta Basic Track”, which offers a more restricted selection of subjects, but that do meet the basic education requirements for a high school graduation in the State of New Jersey, to the “College Prep Track”, which offers the kind of expansive selection of subjects that would allow Melamed graduates to go head-to-head with any other American college student in their field of choice.
This, then, shows exactly why the Melamed Academy isn’t some second-rate alternative to a more regular school for Jewish kids with limited choices, but is a serious, fully-accredited school that offers Jewish students a top-notch Torah education and a comprehensive secular education at the same time. With a full complement of qualified teachers on hand to provide personalised learning opportunities for all students, Melamed makes the most of cutting-edge technologies to provide vivid, graphics-rich, and interactive lessons in all of its very many subjects and courses.
The fact that it caters to all kinds of different Jews from often wildly different backgrounds is also key to understanding some of the major advantages that this kind of online school has over its brick-and-mortar counterpart – advantages that may provide inspiration for “real-world” schools, but are, overall, all but impossible to fully replicate.
Diversity, affordability, customisability
The beauty of an online educational platform is just how flexible it is in so many different ways. Shira Moncharsh is quick to stress that the Melamed Academy is constantly evolving according to the feedback that they receive from parents and students alike. It’s something that hasn’t been tried before in this form, so elasticity is crucial as Melamed serves an increasingly large and diverse group of students. Crucially, this versatility is not limited to just one area, but is something that is central to every element of the school.
It’s not often, after all, that you come across an academic institution that caters to everything from kindergarten all the way through to university. It’s rarer still that the institution offers both a fully-accredited high school diploma, on the one hand, and courses for a GED on the other – or, for that matter, a high school that offers college credits (including up to a whopping 84 college credits in Jewish subjects) and a college course that does not require a high school diploma! Traditional schools are, understandably, set up to offer very specific sorts of educations and, as can be seen by the number of smaller schools that have sprouted up in South Africa in recent years at a rate that totally belies the dwindling overall Jewish population, usually for a very specific “target audience” – an online school like Melamed, on the other hand, need not limit itself in this way at all.
Even as students (or their parents) are able to select exactly the kind of education they’re looking for through the seemingly endless combination of subjects, qualifications, and education ‘tracks’, Melamed itself is amazingly versatile in its implementation. It can and has been used as the entire basis for a home-schooling education; its courses have been folded into the existing curricula of traditional schools (both of these with the option of customised “kosher computers” with restricted internet access); and its various courses and educational options are perfect supplements to students at traditional schools who would like to expand their own knowledge and qualifications. Even South African students in one of our Jewish day schools, for example, can sign up for the GED course to supplement their South African matric with a diploma that may well “travel” better internationally.
And, bringing it all back to where we started, all of these options are offered at rather affordable rates. It’s still much cheaper for Americans than South Africans, as they don’t have to convert their currency, but without the physical expenses that come with most traditional schools, the Melamed Academy offer their courses at extremely competitive rates. It may not be a catch-all solution to the financial woes of Jewish South African parents, but with this level of versatility there must be something that South African educators, parents, and students alike can take from this ground-breaking approach to Jewish schooling.