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By Christopher Dela Cruz
c. 2007 Religion News Service

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. — As David Magid studied for his bar mitzvah, his instructor directed him to an important blessing the 12-year-old would have to recite at the ceremony.
“Barchu et Adonai ha-m’vorach” (Bless the Lord, who is to be blessed), David said, speaking into the microphone attached to his computer in his East Brunswick home.
From a laptop in Brooklyn, Rabbi Yosef Goodman listened carefully to David’s words as part of his online tutoring session at barmitzvahlessons.com.
“I’d like to hear you say it nice and slow,” Goodman said, his voice booming through the speakers on David’s computer. “Point to the words as you read it.”
The year-old Web site is among several Internet venues for religious students to receive instruction amid increasingly hectic schedules for parents and youngsters. QuranReading.com and Islamicity.com provide connections between Muslim students and their teachers, some of them on the other side of the world.
For David, the sessions on barmitzvahlessons.com, which cost $30 each, replaced weekly trips to the synagogue to study for the ceremony marking his passage into manhood. And for Goodman, who is active in local Chabad centers, offering religious instruction over the Internet seemed a logical way to make lessons more accessible. On this day, he was working in Brooklyn and able to give instruction from his laptop.
“No more missing soccer practice,” Goodman said.
At QuranReading.com, young Muslims three times a week read the foundations of Islam and use software to point at specific letters and lines. The operators boast that most tutors have several years of Quranic teaching experience.
Islamicity.com partnered with the Egyptian-based Arab Academy to offer one-on-one lessons in Arabic for kindergartners through 12th-graders. Most teachers are in Egypt.
Sumaya Abdul-Quadir, marketing and development coordinator for Islamicity.com, said the program works in America because many communities lack their Arabic-language services.
“Online learning makes it available to anyone, anywhere,” said Abdul-Quadir. “It’s valuable to so many people in so many places.”
Not everyone is enamored with the approach. Lynn Clark, co-author of the study “Faith Online” and editor of “Religion, Media, and the Marketplace,” said she is concerned that such online services make religious milestones like the bar mitzvah seem more like checking off a requirement than learning. It also makes the instruction detached from local religious communities, she said.
“Young people need adults in their lives, and religious education is one place where young people can make connections with adults and can actually observe how religious practices might be a part of those adults’ lives,” Clark said.
“Yes, the kid can perform, but he loses out on the opportunity to actually get to know the rabbi or another religious leader in his temple or synagogue.”
Robert Geraci, assistant professor at the department of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York, said such programs also raise concerns about the possible loss of a cultural connection.
“It is too early to tell whether it will encourage long-term identification with the Jewish people,” Geraci said of online programs.
“I fear it will not because this kind of study discourages both parents and child from being a part of their local community.”
But Goodman said his service contacts the synagogue of every student who signs up for barmitzvahlessons.com and encourages students to continue with religious training. It also shows students they are part of a worldwide community of Jews, the rabbi said.
“This is bringing people closer to the Jewish community,” Goodman said. “We try very hard and we focus on the community.”
Goodman also has set up an online Hebrew school for ages 5 through 16. More than 400 students currently are enrolled in classes of about 15 each, separated according to grade level. Because of Goodman’s worldwide contacts, a “classroom” could have a child from New Jersey and another from England taking lessons from a rabbi in Israel.
Yelena Magid, David’s mother, said the Web site gave her son a chance to have the religious education she lacked as an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. The online instruction provided a convenient way to have her son receive tutoring.
“We have busy schedules,” said Magid. “I’m working full-time, my husband too. Why not use the technology if it’s available?”
(Christopher Dela Cruz writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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