For thousands of years, Jewish education has involved several distinct objects: texts such the Torah and Talmud, a table, some chairs, debate, discussion and several people.
Recently, you can add a computer to that list.
Largely this century, Jewish online education has swept through the world of Jewish learning, creating a new, changing landscape in which Jews are studying and talking — or typing, as it were — often from their own homes, which begs the question: without a physical community of learners, how Jewish is online Jewish education?
That answer, according to Jewish education professionals, is not a black and white one, as many websites offer virtual classrooms allowing students to talk through video and web-chatting technology.
Gratz College offers Internet classes under the banner Gratz Online. Hebrew University of Jerusalem offers similar online courses; it seems universities not offering some online options are now in the minority. The growing trend now is Jewish learning not tied to any physical institution.
WebYeshiva credits itself as “the first interactive, text-based Torah study program on the web.”
“Interactivity is the way to go,” said Yedidya Rausman, founding director of the site. “It’s the only way to learn.”
Sitting at a study table at any Yeshiva in the country, that point is obvious. Online, Rausman explained, interactivity means, “you’re joining people from four corners of the world. But instead of committing to being at a certain place, you turn on your computer and you can be in pajamas. [WebYeshiva] is always there for you.”
The site is of a new breed of online Jewish education that fuses text study — Jewish texts have long been available online for anyone to read — with real-time conversation. Classes on topics like “Simcha and Bitachon in the Festival of Sukkot” connect students and rabbinical teachers through live video feeds, filling a computer screen with Hebrew text.
For a growing online student body — WebYeshiva boasts more than 4,000 students — the draw of convenience overshadows the lack of physical connections.
Jonathan Loring, a Pittsburgh outpatient therapist who came to the city in 2006 and is a member of both Beth Shalom and Shaare Torah congregations, said “It’s hard to get out at night to go to a class even with one child,” he said. “With two, it’s pretty much impossible.”
Loring first enrolled in a WebYeshiva class about three years ago — today “there’s more blog reading than actual learning,” he said — and enjoyed the new, international sense of community that came with it.
“Your chevruta (text study group) could be students from Poland, but you’d still have a similar background. A lot of the students had similar experiences to what I was exposed to,” he said. The trade off, he added, was that, “you’re not going to share that experience with the person down the block. It’s not like running to Giant Eagle and seeing someone from the Kollel.”
Upstart website TorahTutors, run by The Academy of Torah Initiatives & Direction in Jewish Education, which also runs WebYeshiva, offers one-on-one learning online for situations like homeschooled students or b’nai mitzva training. The site, which launched this month, uses online “highlighters, arrows and annotations to make the class more captivating,” said TorahTutors Director Ron Ami-Meyers.
Teachers save video and audio of each class for the student to review, said Ami-Meyers.
Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have also served to popularize online education. Most Jewish learning sites maintain active Facebook pages, collecting “friends” and “fans,” and Twitter is used to shoot out rapid tidbits of information more to direct prospective students to classes than to teach.
Dr. Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer of Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), assisted the launching of Twitter tag #jed21 (or Jewish Education 21). Now, when a Tweeter searches for the tag, he’ll be directed to notes from “dozens of different people contributing their announcements to this quick and convenient communication medium,” he said.
As a young generation grows up online, along side the rise of social media sites, many believe bringing Jewish learning to the web may just reinvigorate Jews’ thirst for knowledge.
Jerusalem Online University, a site that offers online classes with college credit transferrable through Touro College in New York, is meant to “teach kids that Judaism is relevant, even when many of them may not be interested,” said the site’s president, Amy Holtz. “It’s like Birthright. We are following that model.”
With that change in medium and focus, the Internet is “a tool that speaks to the mind of the modern person,” said Ami-Meyers. “[Young people’s] recollection of Jewish study is dusty old books. We can convey classic messages and age old ideas in new forms.”
Still, the central issue to both supporters and naysayers of online Jewish education is community.
“Some sites have put together packages that say ‘read this and take this test,’ but they don’t take advantage of the communication of Jewish learning,” said Donald Sylvan, president of JESNA. “It’s a wonderful tradition for many thousands of years. I’m not willing to toss it out the window. There’s so much going on online, it’s astounding. But information being transmitted and knowledge being transmitted are not the same thing.”
But the technology allowing for online Jewish education is not going away. Conversely, it is being further developed all the time — a cultural shift that, to Rabbi Scott Aaron, the Agency for Jewish Learning’s Community Scholar, Jews must embrace.
Jewish learning is “far more than the words,” said Aaron. “It’s the way we engage the words. The way we express ourselves. The food we eat around that table. The opportunities of when we get together.”
“Eventually, [online education] will meld [with traditional education], and it’ll be an augmentation,” he said. “But it’ll never replace it.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)