The Human Spirit: Long-distance learning

WebYeshiva’s Torah classes over the Internet goes beyond watching and listening. In real time, students send in questions, comments and challenges from all over the world.

Web Yeshiva (photo credit: ATID)
Web Yeshiva
(photo credit: ATID)
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.
Last 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 Zion.
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 Poland.
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 breath.
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.
Swiecie was declared one of the first towns which the Nazis had succeeded in making free of Jews.
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 observant.
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 said.
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 student.
“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.
“Sometimes a 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.
A 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).
The Nowicki 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 recovery.
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.”
He’s feeling better.
“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.