When Rabbi Chaim Brovender retired after 40 years of teaching in men and women’s
yeshivot here, this pioneer of learning programs for secularly educated
beginners and women’s Talmud classes announced the launching of WebYeshiva,
distance learning of serious Torah classes over the Internet. These sessions
would go beyond watching and listening.
In real time, students could send
in questions, comments and challenges from all over the world.
Hanukka, Brovender demonstrated at the Association of American and Canadians in
Israel center in Jerusalem. Several hundred of us were in the audience, enjoying
freshly fried jelly doughnuts during the class. Students on five continents and
different time zones were sending in questions and comments. Indeed, Torah from
While our experience of being in the actual classroom had the
benefit of experiencing the teacher’s presence, as well as the doughnuts, the
ability of the computerized class to reach isolated students was remarkable.
More than 6,000 students from 52 countries have taken part in such sessions over
the three years, and on the night of the Hanukka class, many came from far-flung
communities in North and South America, from Western Europe and one from
The Polish student, it turns out, is a regular. He studies Torah
at the WebYeshiva from 6 to 10 each evening and again from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. He
tries to catch another class midday. For 30 hours a week, Joel Nowicki, 34, from
Swiecie, a town near the Vistula River in the Pomerania district of northern
Poland, learns Torah from Zion.
“I always knew I was Jewish,” said
Nowicki by phone this week. We spoke English, one of the 10 languages he knows.
(His late father, he said, could speak 30 languages.) Nowicki was short of
Swiecie used to have a Jewish community and a synagogue, of
course. But in September 1939, the SS entered the town and murdered the Jewish
residents as well as the patients in the mental hospital.
declared one of the first towns which the Nazis had succeeded in making free of
Joel Nowicki’s grandfather, Baruch Naftali Goldmann, lived in a
different town, Tuchola. He enlisted in the Polish army as a horn player, and
was later incarcerated in several camps. He managed to escape and survive,
settling in Swiecie around 1950. Today he’s 94. Nowicki lives with him, and his
mother Chana Henya. They are the only Jews in Swiecie.
“When I was about
14, I began what turned out to be a long search to discover the meaning of being
Jewish,” said Nowicki. “You can’t imagine today how hard it was to get books and
teachers under communism.”
His grandfather wasn’t helpful. He’d lost two
of his sons in the Holocaust and wasn’t keen on his grandson’s open
identification with Judaism.
Nowicki studied medicine and music. He wrote
music, conducted choirs. He pieced together enough information to become fully
He came to Jerusalem to study Torah. But his religious studies
were cut short when his mother suffered a heart attack. Nowicki returned to care
for her and his grandfather. And then he got sick, too. A cold and wheezing
cough didn’t go away.
A physician in the same hospital where Nowicki
studied medicine gave him the dread news.
Young, talented Nowicki, who
had never smoked, had lung cancer. He began treatment. His former medical school
classmates, now practicing physicians, provided the medical care. His mom, whom
he’d come home to help, was now caring for him.
What about Judaism and
Torah? “The Internet is full of Torah classes, but about three years ago I
happened to find the WebYeshiva, which was a great fit for me,” he
Using a webcam, he took part in the classes, even as his need for
using an oxygen tube increased. He was, by all measures, a prize
“I would have loved to return to Jerusalem,” said Nowicki. “But
I couldn’t survive the trip.”
The Talmud tells the story of another prize
student, Rabbi Elazar, who fell sick and was visited by his teacher Rabbi
Yohanan. The sickroom was dark. Rabbi Yohanan bared his arm and light
miraculously radiated from it. He saw his morose student. “Give me your hand,”
he said. Rabbi Yohanan gave him his hand and raised him up.
rebbe must travel to his students, bring some light, hold his hand and raise him
up,” said Brovender, in Jerusalem.
WHEN BROVENDER began the WebYeshiva,
he was worried that the lack of comradeship that always developed in the study
hall would be absent. “Could a virtual yeshiva, no matter how interactive the
technology, allow for the human connection that I believe is necessary for real
growth in Torah study?” But fellow web students around the world chipped in to
pay for the journey.
Last week, Brovender flew to Poland to visit his
student Joel Nowicki. He was joined by his program director, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks.
They were met in Warsaw by Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.
fourth rabbi, a former student of Brovender’s who is serving in Poland, joined
them. The driver for the four-hour ride from Warsaw was a former skinhead turned
Gur hassid (but that’s another story for another time).
family rarely entertains guests.
The curious neighbors, who had become
accustomed to the strange loud study sessions coming from the Nowicki apartment
throughout the night, were astonished to see such a gathering of black-hatted
men. Like Rabbi Yohanan in the Talmud story, Joel Nowicki was overcome with
tears as they exchanged greetings and hugs. But soon, they got down to the
business at hand: broadcasting Torah lessons around the world to bring the
heavenly merit of fulfilling the mitzva of Jewish study toward Nowicki’s
Said Nowicki, “I was overwhelmed by the kindness, by the
ability to create such strong emotional bonds with people you’ve never met. But
I kept reminding myself that we are all part of a Jewish family.”
“The medical student in me says that when you are
emotionally happy, it creates endorphins and you feel good,” said Nowicki. “At
another level, when the rabbis were teaching Torah here, the room felt full of
light. I thought to myself: With such wonderful people, it’s worth fighting to
stay in this wonderful world.”The author is a Jerusalem writer who
focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel
Director of Public Relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of
America. The views in her columns are her own.