Emily Isak’s 4-year-old son tunes in for Sing-Along Learning with Morah Onit just about every day from her Englewood, New Jersey, home.
In Givat Ze’ev, a town in the West Bank, all three of Yael Schottenstein’s children are dedicated viewers, even with the seven-hour time difference with Philadelphia.
And in Queens, New York, Rivkah Wittenstein often hears her two young sons singing Morah Onit’s songs around the house. (“Morah” means “teacher” in Hebrew.)
Only Isak knew who Onit Zisserman was when quarantine began. Now, Zisserman, a preschool teacher at the Chabad Garden School in Fort Washington, is drawing close to 2,000 viewers to her daily sing-along livestreams. They’re logging on everywhere from Georgia to Gibraltar.
So what makes her show so popular?
“I have no idea,” Zisserman laughed.
Zisserman, 40, lives in Elkins Park with her husband and their three children. She has a knack for finding success in unexpected ventures.
Teaching, for example. Zisserman studied at the Politz Hebrew Academy in Bustleton and Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was ready to do more than hit the books. She saw a future for herself in advertising, something she held onto as she obtained a liberal arts degree from Thomas Edison State University and a Morah L’Golah teaching certificate in Jerusalem. When she returned to the United States, an old friend asked if she’d be interested in teaching in the special needs program at Politz.
Onit Zisserman? The one who spent more than her fair share of time in the principal’s office? Exactly, her friend told her. It was Zisserman’s sense of fun, her friend said, that would make her an effective teacher for small children.
That was in 2001, and Zisserman never left the profession.
“And I love it. I love, love, love little kids,” Zisserman said. “If you make a connection with a child, and you can keep their eyes on you, then you can teach them anything.”
Zisserman has taught at the Chabad Garden School for about five years. In that time, she’s gotten used to teaching from home when there were snow days. So, when teachers and students went home on March 12, unsure when they would return, Zisserman was ready to roll.
It was important to Zisserman to provide as much continuity as she could for her preschool students during a confusing, upsetting time. But what, she thought, of preschool students outside of her classroom? How many of them could find safe, educational, Jewish entertainment spaces online that their parents could feel comfortable leaving them in front of for a little while?
That very first day of quarantine, March 13, Zisserman began a Facebook Live broadcast, singing a few songs for children about Pesach. She doesn’t remember how many people watched that day.
What she does know was that within 10 days, 1,000 viewers were watching her livestreams. Zisserman, cautious about being a public Orthodox face, vets every viewer before she allows them to join the Sing-Along Learning with Morah Onit Facebook group. Thus far, her livestreams have gone smoothly.
Part of the reason for the explosion in viewership, she believes, was how quickly she was prepared. Many schools had some level of preparation for distance learning, but preschools, Zisserman said, seemed to lag a bit behind.
Zisserman’s livestream, 11-11:45 a.m. on weekdays, gives some structure to formless days, according to Wittenstein. Her sons don’t spend a lot of time in front of screens, so Zisserman’s daily show is “a treat” for them, Wittenstein said. And speaking of treats, her sons are delighted when Zisserman says their name on the livestream, as she does when parents type their children’s names into the chat.
Isak and Schottenstein said the same.
“I feel so thankful that she has this online forum for children to learn about holidays, feelings,” Isak said. “She’s so in tune with children’s feelings.”
As her viewership grows, Zisserman said the daily responsibility is something she values deeply. And though she doesn’t charge to watch her show, she has started some modest
advertising here and there.
So what’s the secret? How has Morah Onit drawn a dedicated audience so fast? How does she put together a class?
“I grab a book or two, I think about it when I’m getting ready in the morning … and then I say a little prayer before I start: ‘God, give me the right words to say that will make this a good class.’ And then I just start.”
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