For some students, Rabbi Chaim Brovender’s hour-long advanced Gemara class starts Sunday nights at 7 p.m.
Others show up at 10 p.m.
Meanwhile, the instructor begins the session bright and early the following day, at 5 a.m.
But all are participating simultaneously — just in different time zones and at different computer screens all over the world.
It’s a scene that would be unimaginable to the sages of the Talmud — and one that even a decade ago might have sounded more science fiction than beit midrash. But for the approximately 800 mostly Orthodox adults enrolled in the Jerusalem-based WebYeshiva, which calls itself the “first fully interactive online Yeshiva and Midrasha for Jewish learning, Jewish study, and Torah learning,” it’s merely a convenient and affordable way to pursue Jewish studies.
“I started because I’m one of those night owls,” explains Ruthie Thurm, a 37-year-old mother of 10 who takes at least one WebYeshiva class each semester. “Even though I’m in Brooklyn and there are shiurim [Jewish classes] galore, I’m unable to physically get there. This is convenient for me because I can mostly do it during the nighttime: 8, 9, 10 even 11 o’clock. It works out great for me.”
Founded in November 2007, WebYeshiva, is a pioneer in tech-enabled adult Jewish education, offering more than 20 co-ed courses per semester — most meet once or twice weekly for a semester, but some are one- or three-session-only. While never expensive, it recently began offering all its courses free of charge (although students are encouraged to make donations).
Of course, a number of institutions offer online Jewish classes, videos and podcasts — the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, for example, recently launched an “iTunes U” site where public lectures, Torah commentaries and select courses are available for free streaming and downloading. However, WebYeshiva, using software called WebEx, is one of the few venues for live, or “synchronous,” classes, in which students can interact with the instructor and one another through instant messaging or by talking into their computer’s microphone. While most of its courses are conducted in English, WebYeshiva also offers Russian and Spanish ones. It also archives audio and video recordings of all classes, enabling students to review classes or make up missed classes.
WebYeshiva’s parent organization, Atid (Hebrew for “future,” it’s also an acronym for Academy for Torah Initiatives and Directions), is one of a handful of players, many based in Israel, exploring live, online Jewish studies classes for different demographics.
So far, outside WebYeshiva, most of the experimentation has been geared toward children and teens — bar/bat mitzvah tutoring via Skype, an online school for the children of Chabad Lubavitch emissaries, various courses for use in Jewish day schools and some Hebrew school-like options. And WebYeshiva’s parent Atid also hopes to expand into youth education; it is currently seeking funding to pilot an online Hebrew school.
WebYeshiva’s founder Rabbi Brovender, a Brooklyn native who made aliyah in 1965, is well known in Modern Orthodox circles; he is most famous for heading the prestigious Yeshivat HaMivtar in Efrat, and then establishing its female counterpart Michlelet Bruria, one of the first Orthodox institutions to offer rigorous Talmud and advanced Bible study for women. Now called Midreshet Lindenbaum, the women’s yeshiva is popularly referred to as “Brovenders.”
In some ways Rabbi Brovender seems an unlikely pioneer for online education, however.
Born in 1941, he is hardly a techie — during a Skype interview with The Jewish Week he fumbles with getting the video to work, and then with figuring out how to silence his cell phone.
“I always like to do things I know nothing about, and this was the obvious choice,” he jokes, when asked his reasons for starting an online yeshiva.
Nonetheless, he says, “It seemed to me that computers hold the key” to high-level Jewish learning, because they make sources, definitions and commentaries quickly accessible.
“The only question was, could you get the kind of interaction between teacher and student that you would get in a classroom?” he says. “The answer, so far, is no you can’t, but you can come close.”
With students able to pose questions by chat or microphone (they can choose whether or not to display video of themselves while in class), and with the instructor able to share and highlight texts and images on-screen, “this is much more like a classroom than it is like a computer,” Rabbi Brovender says. “Not 100 percent, but it’s 85 percent.”
Students interviewed say the online venue is not only convenient, but it enables them to access courses, instructors — and classmates — that would otherwise not be available.
Thurm, who lives in Marine Park, likes WebYeshiva’s wide range of course offerings and its diversity of students.
“In Brooklyn, we’re very polarized: everyone’s on their own block but they don’t really venture out. And in some areas, Israel is very polarized too; you never get to know about other Jews’ lifestyles and thinking processes. I find [WebYeshiva] to be very exciting. I love meeting new people.”
Allan Goldenberg, of Skokie, Ill., likes the way that “as your interest in a topic grows, you can find one of the best and brightest teaching it and then you get to choose how you learn. Do you want to be in the classroom asking questions or do you want to just download and independent study it and then e-mail in your questions?”
Goldenberg, a retired lawyer in his 50s, spends much of his time on WebYeshiva, taking several classes each day while his wife is at work.
“They bring you diversity in teachers, much more so than you’d have in a formal institution,” he says. “They can get people in the U.S., in Israel and whatnot, and plug them into their schedule, whereas if you go to a [bricks-and-mortar] institution you’re normally limited to who they can afford and who’s on their faculty.”
For those in remote areas with small or nonexistent Jewish communities, or for those in poor health, WebYeshiva offers a “lifeline,” says Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, who is founding director of Atid and one of WebYeshiva’s 24 teachers.
One homebound student, Joel Nowicki, has terminal lung cancer and lives in northern Poland, “with no other Jews for 100 miles,” says Rabbi Saks, adding that Nowicki is “online with us all day long.”
Even for those living in large Jewish communities, the online courses can be less intimidating than bricks-and-mortar ones. While WebYeshiva identifies itself as an Orthodox institution, and all its instructors are Orthodox, it is open to Jews of all affiliations and doesn’t collect information about students’ denominational backgrounds.
“I guess the majority of students would self-identify as Orthodox, but a significant minority would not,” Rabbi Saks says, adding that a number of students are intermarried and not Sabbath-observant.
“This is not the kind of yeshiva that seeks to impose behavior,” he says. “This creates a safe space that allows people to participate. Even with the video camera on, you have a certain level of anonymity.”
The program is also a “boon to women,” Rabbi Saks notes, who are shut out from many bricks-and-mortar Talmud classes.
That’s been a draw for Beth Ben-Avraham of Lower Merion, Pa., who has been taking classes through WebYeshiva since it began.
A medical writer, Ben-Avraham, 52, regularly studies Gemara with Rabbi Brovender. She also recently took a class on the Book of Daniel and the halacha of tzedakah.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity, because the only other really good place for women to learn post-school [in the United States] is Drisha, and that’s in New York,” Ben-Avraham says. “It’s starting to open up more, but for really serious learning, this is the best thing. I’m actually surprised I’m the only woman in my Gemara class right now.”
Online learning is not without its challenges, however. For instructors, it can be an adjustment learning to run a class in which you can’t make eye contact with all the students, you constantly have to monitor questions pouring in via chat, and your students can walk away from their desks without anyone noticing.
Rabbi Brovender complains that students in online courses sometimes feel less of an obligation to prepare for class than they would for an in-person course.
“On the Internet, there’s a feeling that more freedom is involved, that what you’ve actually committed to is a little bit less,” he says.
In addition, video-chats do not tend to be as emotionally or socially satisfying as face-to-face interactions — a concern that is giving some adult education providers pause as they consider how much to offer online.
Rachel Abrahams, a program officer at the Avi Chai Foundation — which is funding various tech-in-Jewish-education pilot projects — notes that “there is a very important role for face-to-face teachers in Jewish education at any level.
“A big piece of Jewish education is affective — you need role modeling, relationships, connection,” Abrahams continues. “There can be some of that online, you can develop a relationship with an online teacher — but you don’t see them pray in the morning or say Birkat HaMazon after they eat. There has to be some kind of balance.”
Judy Mars Kupchan, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, which offers two-year courses that meet weekly, says that the “face time with the teacher and the interactivity of a live classroom is a key piece of the Melton experience.”
While continuing to offer its face-to-face classes, Melton is developing a synchronous online model for students who can’t make it to the locations of the bricks-and-mortar classes for one reason or another.
However, Kupchan says, whether such a class would be “as satisfying for student and teacher as a real classroom” is “a question we have going in.”
Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, director of digital engagement and learning at JTS, says that his institution is focusing on models that mix “in-person and online.”
For example, a JTS faculty member might record a 20-30 minute video lesson that members of a synagogue would watch independently and then discuss together in a face-to-face setting, he said.
Nonetheless, WebYeshiva students interviewed say they feel they are able to connect to their teachers and classmates.
Asked if she ever feels lonely studying online, rather than in “real life,” Beth Ben-Avraham says, “I do a lot already in front of my computer, and there’s the rest of my life also. I don’t feel lonely at all.”
According to Goldenberg, “the social connection with online learning is different than it would be in a classroom, but it depends on your personality. If you’re the type of person that’s chatty, the technology allows you to talk with other students and build the relationships.”