For Shoshana Schechter ’91S, ’93BR, associate dean for Torah Studies at Stern College for Women, assistant professor of Bible and director of the Mechinah Pathways Basic Jewish Studies Program, the devotion she has for her students hasn’t changed, but the way she connects with them has.
Forced to meet the challenges of teaching during the COVID-19 crisis, Schechter, like other professors across the University, is making the transition from the physical to the virtual as Zoom classrooms become her new teaching platform.
For Schechter’s Mechinah students, scattered as they are across the world, these virtual Zoom sessions have become a lifeline that helps them maintain the very special community they have developed with their beloved teacher through this program designed to strengthen their bonds to Judaism.
Stern College’s Mechinah program provides young women with little formal Jewish education an intellectual, spiritual and communal framework to build their own paths to knowledge and observance. Students immerse themselves in the practical and spiritual aspects of Judaism through Hebrew language instruction and textual studies, weekly chavrutas [learning partnerships], shiurim [lectures], and inspirational shabbatons led by teachers, mentors and community leaders.
For Alexandra Tolmasov ’21S, a biology major from Moscow, Russia, Mechinah is one-of-a-kind. “Many of us are international students trying to find our religious identities. Mechinah provides us with the family we need for our journey.”
Schechter reinforces and strengthens this special sense of community four times a week when she invites her students from as far away as East London, South Africa, Sao Paolo, Caracas, Paris, Marseille, Casa Blanca, Moscow and Vilna and as close to home as Great Neck, Long Island, into her home via Zoom.
She holds hour-long academic classes every Tuesday and Thursday morning, and to counter the social isolation many of her students are experiencing, she holds 30-minute “Schmooze” sessions on Mondays and Thursdays. Depending on the type of session, participants can vary from 10 to 30 students.
“Schmoozes” begin with words of inspiration from one of the participants. From there, the camaraderie builds as Schechter checks in with each student by name to see how she is managing at home. She may ask a student to share with the class a view from her window, which on any given session could be of the Eiffel Tower or a sparkling Panamanian beach. “It’s great way to establish a sense of place and to have them bond with one another,” says Schechter. “In fact, each time we login to a Mechinah Zoom session, we’re getting a virtual tour of the world.”
Schechter believes that these personal moments bring these young women closer together. “My students are coming from families that are not observant,” she notes. “They are trying to keep shabbat in their home when no one else is. They need a little strength to make it happen, and that’s what I hope we are providing them, that all-important feeling of belonging.”
That strength is especially important now with the arrival of Passover. Schechter points out that many of her Mechinah students will be having Seders on their own, unsure of whether their non-observant families will join in. “We’ve been preparing for this in our Zoom sessions,” says Schechter “and I know my students will have the resolve and inspiration to celebrate the Holiday.”
She is also aware of the irony of the situation. “Before COVID-19, we may have tried to unplug from technology to stay connected with one another. But what’s maintaining our relationships and keeping them strong now is technology.”
Virtual classes will never come close to a real classroom experience, but for the time being, “we can at least feel somewhat normal, connecting with our fellow Mechinah students,” observes Joelle Bassal ‘21S of Milan, Italy. “No matter how far away we are from one another, we are not alone.”