Torah Live: Bringing Jewish education into the 21st century

What Torah Live founder and director Rabbi Dan Roth called “the worst day of my life” turned out to be the inspiration for a completely different approach to sharing Jewish wisdom.

SHOOTING A Torah Live video (photo credit: Courtesy)
SHOOTING A Torah Live video
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah Live was born from failure.
What Torah Live founder and director Rabbi Dan Roth called “the worst day of my life” turned out to be the inspiration for a completely different approach to sharing Jewish wisdom.
Ten years ago, on his very first day of teaching, Roth entered a classroom of 18-year-old American Jewish boys who had been raised in religious homes but were no longer Torah observant. He was pumped and prepared to show them how the ancient wisdom of the Jewish sages was relevant to their lives.
Then his carefully planned lesson tanked.
With five small children at home, Roth was desperate to keep his job, and to reach his students. All he thought about was, “How am I going to hold these kids’ attention?”

Ten years later, Roth said that on that day of his greatest defeat, he benefited from “incredible siyata d’shamaya (help from heaven). Hashem opened a window.”
After that failed lesson, he started playing around with computer graphics and created a PowerPoint presentation of the material he had already prepared. This time, his students responded positively.
“They couldn’t get enough of it,” he reported.
Realizing that “multimedia presentations have the koach (strength) to get through to people,” Roth began giving his presentations to groups other than his own students. From there, he taught other teachers how to present his PowerPoint-based content and eventually made a video of himself giving the talk. Each step was intended to reach successively wider audiences, with Jewish educational content he knew was working.

TODAY, ROTH’S experiment with PowerPoint has matured into Torah Live (torahlive.com), a video-based online portal for Jewish education used by 950 schools, synagogues and outreach organizations all across the Jewish world, in every denomination, from secular to haredi.
The core Torah Live curriculum includes 35 courses, each with multiple units, on topics such as the laws of giving charity, celebrating Shabbat, the joy of mitzvot, making blessings, the importance of sanctifying God’s name in the world, the importance of guarding one’s speech and having faith.
To date, Torah Live has 355 videos and a total of 150 hours of content in its library, and more presentations are under development. Forthcoming courses include giving to others and biblical prophecies that have come true throughout the ages.
Torah Live’s Social Media team manager Hadassah Levy noted, “Ten years ago, the students [Roth taught] were the exception. Today, the idea of Torah Live is that any tool that Hashem has given us is a tool for good. If children are seeing exciting things in other aspects of their lives, let’s give it to them in [their Jewish education].”
Production Manager Sharon Katz highlighted Roth’s vision.
“Torah Live has to speak in the language of the modern media. That’s what kids want to see. We use all those attributes of social media, but we talk Torah with it, Torah concepts that kids accept because it’s in the medium they accept. Rabbi Roth is an incredible visionary. He sees every new media not as a challenge or a threat, but as an opportunity to teach Torah in a new way,” Katz said.
Yisroel Porath, director of Program Development, emphasized that although the content is designed for school-aged children, “it speaks to a range of ages, including parents and grandparents. This is a perfect medium for them to learn in a way that’s engaging. We focus on presenting what you need to know – why we do it and how we do it.”
Indeed, adults can gain value from watching the videos on their own. Entire cities, including Baltimore, Toronto, Miami and Norfolk, VA have signed up, providing every Jewish school, home and outreach organization with free access.
Katz emphasized that for so many of their subscribers, “their first glimpse of Eretz Yisrael is from Torah Live movies. They make a tremendous impression on parents and children.
“Torah Live has traveled through time and space for its videos. We’ve filmed all over the country, from the Negev to the Kinneret. We’ve also traveled through time – recreating the study of the Chafetz Chaim [and] a 1950s black-and-white movie (complete with the mysterious smoky rooms). We’ve worked with people of all ages and nationalities and animals, from sheep to attack dogs.”
Torah Live is “made in Israel,” Roth confirmed. “Living and working in Israel affords us the luxury of tapping into the wealth of Jewish history and landmarks around the country.
“When filming the video about tevilas keilim (immersing vessels in a mikveh prior to use), for example, we were able to do so overlooking Arvos Moav, the very place our ancestors were given this command over 3,000 years ago.
“Teachers in the Diaspora have commented that they particularly appreciate this aspect of Torah Live – showing their students footage from the Holy Land and connecting their students to their heritage and homeland.”

Before the school closings, the Torah Live market was comprised of 75% educators and 25% home users. Levy indicated that, between early March and the time of the interview, the site had 150,000 page views and 11,487 unique users. But that doesn’t account for the common practice of multiple people viewing a video together.
Torah Live contributes its high-quality content to multiple partners including Chabad.org, EL AL’s inflight entertainment system and Aish.com.
Two years ago, members of the staff of 35, all of whom work remotely, added Hebrew subtitles to all the videos. Working with the Ministry of Education and the Amit school network, there is a plan to bring Torah Live to Israeli schools. Additionally, some of their content has already been translated into French and Russian.
When schools closed due to the coronavirus, Torah Live opened its platform, and Premium account access, to all users for free, thanks to the philanthropic help of Dr. Paul Volosov of Baltimore. Almost 3 ,000 people and hundreds of schools signed up recently and Porath reported that, “every 45 seconds, someone is signing up.”
The staff at Torah Live created a special access code for Jerusalem Post readers. Go to www.torahlive.com/jpost and use the access code JPOST.

Gamifying Jewish learning
Rabbi Yaacov Deyo is a graduate of Harvard College and received his rabbinic ordination from Aish HaTorah in 1996. He is a founder of SpeedDating and Jewish Impact Films.
“I do new Jewish programming. That’s my specialty,” Deyo reported.
Working as a consultant for Torah Live, his job is to build out a website that will capture the 9-to-15-year-old Jewish student market through gaming.
To put the Torah Live investment in gamifying their content into perspective, Deyo shared that, “Between 2004 and 2012, 50 billion hours were logged on the online game called World of Warcraft. That’s an enormous amount of time!”
What’s so compelling about playing games online? Escapism is certainly at play for a percentage on the online gaming world.
But there is a more noble goal at work here. Referencing the work of Jane McGonigal, author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World, Deyo explained, “She claims that games present a more efficient and engaging learning platform. People log in because there is self-mastery involved in the gaming process.
“People learn from games. They love that. There’s a high level of skill involved,” he explained.
In addition, online gaming creates a sense of camaraderie and a strong social fabric.
“When I get a thousand kudos from people all over the world for attaining a certain level in a game, that’s real.”
What’s more, the online gaming world is a complete meritocracy.
“You don’t have to be attractive or rich. It doesn’t matter what gender you are. All that counts is how good you are.”
By immersing himself in gaming theory, Deyo distilled approximately a dozen major principles that are part of the gaming experience. He subsequently applied them to the Torah Live content.
The new site is set to launch in approximately 10 months. “With more funds, they could launch quicker,” Roth commented.
The gamified site will allow students to develop mastery of Torah Live content, independent of classroom teachers. They will accrue points as they work through tasks, such as watching videos, playing games and taking quizzes.
The new site will include prominently placed Leader Boards, allowing individual students to see how their progress through the site measures up to their class, their grade, their school, their city, their country or worldwide.
The primary market for Torah Live to date has been teachers. The launch of the new site will change all that.
“Gaming is a power trend in education,” Deyo explained. “This is a great next step for us. It will allow people to be home users and self-teach. This will become a core platform with hundreds of thousands of kids,” with the potential of revolutionizing Jewish education.
Torah Live’s high production values, Hollywood-level scripts, special effects and the forthcoming gamification of its content is impressive. But ultimately, it’s all just a means to an end, which is Roth’s overall vision.
“My dream is to show every Jewish man, woman and child what it means to live as a Jew – that mitzvot are real and the most satisfying,” Roth concluded.
Beyond Netflix
Productive ways for school-age children to spend time online in English include:
• ABCMouse (abcmouse.com) is offering a free 30-day trial of its comprehensive online curriculum in reading, math, science and art for children ages 2 to 8.
• ABCya (abcya.com) features over 400 educational games for children from ages 4 to 12 in topics such multiplication, parts of speech, typing, pattern recognition and more.
• Brain Pop (brainpop.com) offers resources in STEM, social studies, English, health, arts and music for upper elementary and middle schoolers. BrainPop Junior offers STEM, social studies, reading, writing, health and arts for children ages 5 to 8. Free access during school closures.
• Chinuch (chinuch.org) is a bank of Jewish educational materials, submitted by teachers in Jewish schools. They are currently featuring Chinuch at Home, a resource guide to enhance students’ at-home learning experience during the coronavirus pandemic.
• Funbrain (funbrain.com) has free educational games for kids from ages 4 to 14 with hundreds of games, books, comics, and videos that develop skills in math, reading, problem-solving and literacy.
• Highlights Kids (highlightskids.com) has science questions, jokes, games, crafts and kid-friendly recipes for children up to age 12.
• IXL (ixl.com) offers personalized learning and a comprehensive curriculum for children ages 6 to 18. Their Family Learning Hub help families and students stay engaged while schools are closed.
• Kids Discover (online.kidsdiscover.com) has a library of over 2,000 visually captivating science and social studies articles on topics ranging from why water is important to ancient empires, designed for children up to age 14.
• Lightsail (lightsailed.com) is providing all K-12 schools and districts impacted by the coronavirus with complimentary access to their literacy platform including 6,000 books.
• National Geographic for Kids (kids.nationalgeographic.com) has games, brain boosters, quizzes, animal facts and much more.
• Starfall (starfall.com) offers a full kindergarten English curriculum, a comprehensive pre-K curriculum and songs, books, and mathematics activities for students up to age 7, including a parent-teacher center with free resources.
• Storyline Online (storylineonline.net) is a website with videos of well-known actors, such as Annette Bening and Oprah Winfrey, reading kid’s books. The videos range from about five to 15 minutes.
• Switch Zoo (switchzoo.com) lets kids switch the animals’ heads, legs, and tails to create a new creature. Choose from 142 different animal. Site also includes animal games, music created from animal voices, a reference section, lesson plans, and poetry, stories and artwork created by site visitors.
• Time For Kids (timeforkids.com) offers online educational articles from Time magazine’s children’s edition, suitable for students ages 5 to 12.
• In mid-March, blogger Varda Epstein published Coronacation! Online Activities for Kids During COVID-19 (kars4kids.org/blog/health-safety/mental-health/coronacation-online-activities-for-kids-during-covid-19/).
Her comprehensive post includes links to museums around the world, such as the Boston Children’s Museum (bostonchildrensmuseum.org/museum-virtual-tour) and The Louvre in Paris (louvre.fr/en/visites-en-ligne#tabs) that offer virtual tours. She’s curated a list of zoo cams, such as the Elmwood Park Giraffe Cam elmwoodparkzoo.org/animal_cam/giraffe-cam/) and the Georgia Aquarium African Penguin Cam (georgiaaquarium.org/webcam/african-penguin-cam/) that allow site visitors to change the angle of the camera to spot more zoo animals.
Epstein’s list includes online tours of well-known sites such as The Great Wall of China (thechinaguide.com/destination/great-wall-of-china) and Houston’s Space Center (spacecenter.org/app/) and sites that allow remote visitors to famous places such as the Palace of Versailles in France (artsandculture.google.com/partner/palace-of-versailles) and Stonehenge in England (englishheritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history-and-stories/stonehenge360/#section-1).
Epstein’s excellent listing also includes links to classical concerts and ballets as well as information about GoNoodle (gonoodle.com/good-energy-at-home-kids-games-and-videos/) that offers a wealth of free resources to help keep kids moving with videos, activities and off-screen resources that can be done at home.