For many years, I’ve been involved in planning adult education programs for our community in Stamford. When the coronavirus exploded on us earlier this year in March, we were forced (as were all other communities) to immediately make alternate plans for the programming that we had in place.
The Shabbat scholar-in-residence weekends we had booked had to be cancelled, of course. However, we thought we might be able to pivot—and continue to offer the regular weeknight shul classes and the onetime weeknight guest scholars online via Zoom (a technology that I had heard about pre-COVID, but admittedly never had used before March).
Truthfully, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of attendance—and how our community members would accept learning Torah online.
In short, we were pleasantly surprised. Regular classes that had drawn 10 to 15 attendees began attracting 20 to 30 people online. Special classes with scholars that might have drawn 25 to 50 people suddenly attracted 50 to 100 people online.
Why the increase? In short, people liked the convenience of being able to attend classes at home. And the Zoom platform made it extremely easy to navigate the program (once you learned how to mute and unmute yourself)! Young families didn’t have to pay a babysitter to enjoy a Torah class together. And without any movies, theater and simchas conflicting with evening and Sunday classes, our members were actually searching for other things to keep them busy.
Now that we finally can see a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it will be interesting to see whether Zoom classes will continue to be part of the mix when it comes time to once again plan adult education programs after the vaccine has been distributed.
We will almost certainly see the return of in-person scholar-in-residence programs on Shabbat weekends. However, I am guessing that we also will see Zoom classes continue post-COVID for non-Shabbat classes … not only because of the benefits to attendees, but more so because of the many advantages it offers to shuls and to the scholars and teachers themselves.
Here are a few of them:
1) Scholars do not have to schlep to communities to teach their classes. They can conduct classes directly from their homes.
2) The honorariums that shuls pay to visiting scholars will be lower, saving the shuls money in their adult education budgets. We found that guest scholars were willing to take half their usual fee if they could present their classes via Zoom from their homes. Whether this figure will hold post-COVID remains to be seen.
3) There is an entire group of talented teachers living in Israel who suddenly become more accessible to teach classes via Zoom. Yes, the time difference likely limits the available slots to Sunday morning or afternoon (or a secular holiday). But being able to offer a class taught by one of the many scholars in Israel without worrying about travel is a huge benefit. We were able to book Rabbi Shlomo Riskin for a program in the summer, a presentation that could never have happened if it weren’t for Zoom.
4) It’s a small cost, but shuls invariably had to spend money on refreshments to serve after in-person programs. Cookies and coffee/tea were a necessity to offer attendees after a class. With Zoom, the only cookies you have to worry about are the ones embedded in your computer!
5) Zoom offers you the opportunity to record a class and then post it on YouTube for posterity on your own personal video channel. That allows members of the community to tune in and watch a class at a later time. Some shuls have audio recordings of in-person classes, but it was rare that you would find video recordings. With Zoom you can easily record a video of an entire class and post it for future use.
6) Zoom offers an easy and efficient way to moderate questions and make sure they are appropriate for a class. We muted attendees for the programs we offered via Zoom, and asked any attendees who had questions to post their questions in the chat function. A moderator would then screen questions, and only ask the ones that were most appropriate. This avoids the common practice of people making long and rambling speeches rather than asking a question, and allows you to streamline the program and make it more enjoyable for all attendees.
7) Zoom does not limit you to only enjoying classes from remote locations. Anyone can tune in and enjoy a Torah class from their favorite teacher, regardless of where they live. My wife and I tune in to a couple of regular classes each week that are taught by two of our favorite teachers. If it weren’t for Zoom, we would not be able to join the classes.
Time will tell what will happen with Zoom classes once we turn the corner on the coronavirus and are allowed to have in-person classes once again. I’m hoping that we will still see at least some Zoom programming as part of the adult education classes at our shuls. We shall see.