Nathan Corley sat at his desk and prepared to join the rest of his fifth-grade religious school class at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick.
The other students, however, were also at their desks — but in a classroom more than 4,000 miles away. Nathan lives with his family in Vienna and uses an iPad mounted on a tripod to join in learning with his classmates and their teacher, Bruce Tucker.
“It’s nice being able to interact with all my friends and my synagogue,” said Nathan during a Sunday morning session on Nov. 1.
Nathan and his parents — Johannes and Sharone, who are natives of India — left their East Brunswick home two years ago after his father, a food safety specialist for the United Nations, accepted an assignment in Vienna. The family is scheduled to return at the end of December, but Johannes said he has been offered a one-year extension of the Vienna assignment, and is still mulling over whether to accept it.
“Temple B’nai Shalom is our religious and spiritual home,” said Johannes, joining his son on the Skype connection. “We are grateful for this unique way to continue our bond with Temple B’nai Shalom. It is our intention for Nathan’s bar mitzva to be held there.”
Before leaving, the Corleys were concerned their son’s religious education would be interrupted. The synagogue came up with the out-of-the-box solution to have him “attend” class via Skype.
Tucker said he was glad to accommodate the family’s request for the unconventional arrangement, so that “after they return Nathan’s reintegration will be as seamless as possible. It’s great to make technology work in such a meaningful and positive way.”
Not only is Nathan with his friends in class, but he accompanies them wherever they go in the temple.
“When we go to music instruction,” said Tucker, “I just make the legs longer on the tripod and Nathan joins us. We are able to engage him in all different aspects, in lessons in philosophy or history. He is an asset to our class.”
Religious school also takes place in the late afternoon on Wednesday, but Nathan attends only the Sunday morning session because of the time difference; on Wednesdays, it would be almost midnight in Vienna. However, he also goes to religious school at Or Chadash, a congregation the family is attending in Vienna.
“It’s nice they have a Reform synagogue here, but it’s much smaller than B’nai Shalom,” said Nathan. “Also, at Temple B’nai Shalom they celebrate all the holidays, and here they just celebrate some of the holidays. But we still celebrate them all at home.”
He said the religious schools differ in their approach. While both teach Hebrew, the Vienna synagogue relies on learning the Hebrew alef-bet while B’nai Shalom focuses on prayers and songs to reinforce the language.
For his secular education, Nathan attends the Vienna International School, where much of the curriculum is in English. Ironically, Nathan has picked up some German by attending Or Chadash’s religious school, where German is the first language of most of the students.
Nathan said he has encountered no anti-Semitism in Vienna.
He said in the Austrian capital he likes to go to the park and take walks along the Danube River. “I’m enjoying being in a different city and learning another language,” Nathan said.
Nathan’s classmates have enjoyed having him around despite the distance.
“I think it’s really cool to have him with us and hear him sing,” said 10-year old Danielle Blaustein of East Brunswick. “He’s really good and he’s also more advanced, so he really knows his stuff.”
Mitchell Austin, 10, of East Brunswick pointed out that when Nathan is on his tripod, he is the tallest kid in the class.
“I’ve known him since first grade and he was able to skip a grade ahead of everyone else,” Mitchell said. “He would make sure everyone was correct in what they were doing. He was our leader.”
Ethan Storm, 10, of East Brunswick said Nathan is “coming back to us hopefully in December, and I look forward to seeing him again in person.”