WebYeshiva: Offering free online Torah education long before COVID-19

Most online Torah study is done through transcriptions and recordings of lectures, but WebYeshiva offers something different: 60 hours a week of live classes online.

BROVENDER METHOD: Rosh Yeshiva and ATID president Rabbi Chaim Brovender. (photo credit: COURTESY WEBYESHIVA)
BROVENDER METHOD: Rosh Yeshiva and ATID president Rabbi Chaim Brovender.
Years before COVID-19 made online learning commonplace, WebYeshiva was offering Torah education to students around the world.
There are hundreds of places to study Torah online, but, since the 1990s, most of the available online Torah learning has consisted of transcriptions or recordings of Torah lectures. WebYeshiva offers something completely different – 60 hours a week of live classes – and almost all of it is completely free.
WebYeshiva’s offerings are organized into six departments: Talmud, Hashkafa (Jewish thought), Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), Hassidut and Kabbalah, Halacha (Jewish law) and Other Topics in Judaism.
WebYeshiva is a project of the Jerusalem-based ATID – The Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions in Jewish Education. ATID founding director Rabbi Jeffrey Saks explained WebYeshiva’s rationale for offering live classes.
“One of the reasons we committed to do it live is that real growth in Torah study happens from interaction with teacher and fellow student. We were pleasantly surprised at the degree to which relationships developed among students across the world. They review the material and learn together. This happens organically and doesn’t need to be managed by WebYeshiva.”
Even so, Saks noted that live classes have one major disadvantage. They are limited to those who are available at class time. Fortunately, the same video conferencing technology that allows WebYeshiva to offer live classes integrates directly with its website and archiving systems.
That means that students, no matter where they are in the world, can listen to a class later that day or the next day, depending on their time zone, and keep up with the rest of their class.
Live classes give people all around the world the opportunity to log in and study with the best teachers from Jerusalem. Additionally, WebYeshiva’s robust archiving system includes thousands of previous classes, allowing people to take classes years after they were delivered live.
In this way, WebYeshiva provides Torah instruction for people who are geographically isolated and unable to access live Torah learning. Additionally, even for those who live in Jewish communities where Torah study is readily available, WebYeshiva makes it possible for parents and working adults to study on their own schedule.
Another WebYeshiva innovation is that it provides Talmud learning opportunities for the underserved population of women, who are excluded from Talmud study in most other yeshivot.
Saks reported that WebYeshiva’s enrollment has increased since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, proving that people are more comfortable learning online than ever.
How WebYeshiva began
ATID, WebYeshiva’s parent project, was founded in 1999 to provide professional development and teacher training for Jewish educators working in Jewish schools outside of Israel.
Rabbi Chaim Brovender
is both the president of ATID and the rosh yeshiva of WebYeshiva. Saks characterizes him as “a pioneer in higher education for men and women from English-speaking backgrounds.”
Brovender was the founding rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Hamivtar (for men) and Michlelet Bruria (today, Midreshet Lindenbaum) (for women). He is perhaps best known for establishing the Brovender Method of Talmud study, which makes it possible for beginners to study Talmud. According to Saks, when Brovender left Yeshivat Hamivtar after 40 years, WebYeshiva was created “as a way for him to continue his teaching.”
That was 13 years ago. WebYeshiva is currently celebrating its bar mitzvah year, and Rabbi Brovender still teaches Talmud three times a week from Jerusalem. Any student with an Internet connection can study one of Judaism’s foundational texts with a world-class, master teacher, from anywhere in the world. For free.
WebYeshiva faculty and students
Considered a mainstream, Modern Orthodox institution, nearly all classes are open to men and women equally. According to Saks, “The teachers come from a variety of backgrounds. Our agenda is Torah study. Torah is an eloquent enough spokesperson for itself.” Most of the faculty have a previous connection with Rabbi Brovender and his institutions, and 80% are based in Israel.
Although most of the classes have no formal prerequisites, prospective students can get advice about which classes would be a good match for them based on their background and interests. It’s also possible to try almost any class to see if it’s a match.
There is not an easily defined typical WebYeshiva student. The student population is quite varied. The bulk of enrollments come from North America, followed by Israel. Students from other English-speaking countries, such as Australia and the UK, are represented, as are students from surprising places like Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, Japan and China.
WebYeshiva enrolls university students, retirees and everyone in between. Saks explained, “WebYeshiva has principally been delivering content in English, although we provide some classes in other languages, including Russian, Spanish and Hungarian. We’ve focused on English, partially because that’s the audience we identified worldwide most in need of opportunities and also it’s the world we came from and the world we knew.”
Well over 90% of WebYeshiva’s students are Jewish, but Saks said, “We have Christians who are quite sincere and are largely interested in studying Tanach.”
How does WebYeshiva make money?
WebYeshiva teachers are paid, and yet students are not charged tuition. How does that work? Saks explained, “When we charge [for our main program], our numbers plummet. It’s actually easier for us to raise money for something that has a lot of participants, so we give [classes] away for free and ask for charitable support.” In addition, although there is no formal tuition, many students make voluntary donations to help support the faculty and staff.
WebYeshiva also runs two fee-based programs. One is called Torah Tutors (torahtutors.org). Torah Tutors offers school-aged children the opportunity to learn one-on-one with a member of the WebYeshiva faculty. Torah Tutors is popular with Jewish home-schooling families or families who want to supplement their children’s Torah learning and/or help prepare them for their bar or bat mitzvah.
Halacha mastery program
For the more advanced student already committed to a life based on Jewish law, WebYeshiva offers the Halacha Mastery Program. Also tuition-based, the Halacha Mastery Program attracts the most serious and knowledgeable of WebYeshiva’s student population.
With a very specific curriculum, and culminating in a certificate, students in the Halacha Master Program take six courses – three required and three elective. According to Saks, the program was designed “to give people the skills to know the practical Halacha required to run your own life and home. In this program, we teach things that a knowledgeable Jew should know. The curriculum is focused on kashrut, the Shabbat kitchen, technology in Jewish life, laws of prayer and brachot [blessings], the laws of holidays and the laws of taharat hamishpacha [family purity].”
The Halacha Mastery Program, which was launched nine years ago, includes exams “as an incentive to keep up and review material,” Saks shared. To date, 70 people have finished the curriculum and earned certificates.
The Halacha Mastery Program is open to men and women. For men who complete the program successfully, an additional year of study can lead to rabbinic ordination “for personal achievement,” Saks noted.
“I can’t overemphasize the importance of Rabbi Brovender’s role as the founding visionary. [Over his career], hundreds of thousands of people were influenced by him. When he had the idea for WebYeshiva, he was at a point when most people would be retiring,” Saks concluded.