Hi-tech Torah learning

The Web Yeshiva brings the classroom experience on-line.

Torah 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Torah 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When David Kohn became sick last January, he thought his days of learning in yeshiva were over. The octogenarian Ma'aleh Adumim resident had been in the habit of traveling into Jerusalem a number of times a week to hear shiurim in a local yeshiva, but realized that the trips were taking a serious toll on his health. But as he recuperated at home, Kohn came across Web Yeshiva, a new initiative designed to bring the yeshiva experience to every home with computer access. Now, Kohn attends a Gemara shiur three times a week, and is an enthusiastic convert to the concept. "It's a satisfying, inspiring experience," says Kohn. "You feel like the teacher is right there." There are other on-line venues of Torah study, of course, and millions of megabytes of downloadable shiurim, but the Jerusalem-based Web Yeshiva is offering a different approach to Internet learning - one based primarily on the immediate experience of live Torah classes. Rabbi Chaim Brovender, who founded local institutions Yeshivat Hamivtar and Midreshet Lindenbaum, is the head and founder of Web Yeshiva: "Most adult education classes available around the world are given for tired people, by tired people," says Brovender. "I wanted to give people the experience of an 'event' of learning." The Web Yeshiva broadcasts shiurim at all hours of the day, with the goal of fitting into busy schedules - and a wide range of time zones. Brovender himself rises at 5 a.m. to teach a Gemara shiur heard at 10 p.m. New York time and 7 p.m. Los Angeles time. The yeshiva, now finishing its first semester, currently has about 100 students, from Australia Israel, Europe and the US. The Web Yeshiva enables students to see the teacher giving the shiur, as well as an on-line text the teacher can mark up or highlight to stress a certain passage or show the place. To the side of the text streams a video of the teacher, as well as up to six other participants. When students "raise their hand" electronically, a small ping informs the teacher, who then "calls on" the student by allowing him or her to be heard. The technical details are not difficult for most students to master, says Rabbi Jeffery Saks, but can pose a challenge for the teacher. "Teaching is always a juggling act," explains Saks, who teaches an on-line Gemara shiur as well as serving as director of ATID, the educational organization that sponsors the Web Yeshiva. "You always have to look out for what's going on with the students, paying attention to body language, as well as keeping track of the material. The technicalities of using the computer are just another ball to juggle." Beth Dastkovsky of Merion Station, Pennsylvania, says the Web Yeshiva makes available learning opportunities that would otherwise not be available in any one geographic location - especially for women. "The sort of shiurim the Web Yeshiva offers would not be available to any woman in the greater Philadelphia area," said Dastkovsky, a medical writer who first got involved in on-line Jewish study when preparing to help launch the area's modern Orthodox high school. Describing herself as "moderately computer-savvy," Dastkovsky has found that her fellow computer-classmates warmed to the possibilities of interactivity as the semester progressed. "One time, when Rabbi Brovender was late for a shiur, we used the chat room to have a whole conversation about haggadot. It was as if we were in a physical class." Students are asked to commit to attend classes for a semester, and the service carries a fee, partly as a means of discouraging "drop-in" attendees. All of the shiurim are recorded and are available to students to review or make up missed classes, but students are discouraged from using the archives as a replacement for the shiur. "The goal of Web Yeshiva is to have a live experience," says Brovender. "If a student asks a question, I want him to be seen by the entire class... otherwise it's just 'blank,' just attending - that's not learning Torah." Students are encouraged to prepare sources for the classes beforehand, preferably with the help of a havruta, or study pair. Some of the teachers even post a short video on the Web site that lists the sources for the following class. The site offers support from a technical team, which was originally designed to fix glitches in the system, but currently spends more time coaching the more computer-wary learners through such basics as fitting a Web cam so they can be seen by the teacher and other participants, or downloading Skype, a program that allows unlimited free calling - and, hence, free havrutot - anywhere in the world. While the technology is 21st century, the curriculum is similar to that which would be found in most modern Orthodox yeshivot. The backbone of the program is Talmud study, which is available on four different levels at a number of different time slots, and other courses include Halacha, Humash (Pentateuch) and Jewish philosophy. Also available is a Hebrew ulpan, aimed at potential olim who wish to improve their Hebrew skills before making aliya. The staff includes both male and female teachers from respected yeshivot and seminaries. The co-ed nature of the Web Yeshiva (with the exception of certain classes on sensitive topics) makes it stand out in the Orthodox world. Many of the staff teach at men- or women-only academies, while the students, who range from university students to professionals to retired grandmothers, are given an opportunity to study Torah in an unsegregated environment. Brovender speaks of a yeshiva without issues of "kavod" or (haughty) honor. Kohn sings the program's praises. "It's great," he says, "I can discuss the same sugiot [Talmudic topics] that my grandchildren are studying in yeshiva." "And the trip is delightful - from the kitchen to the computer room."