Think of My Jewish Learning — the Jewish Internet-based venture from mega-donors Lynn Schusterman and Edgar Bronfman launched this week — as “Encyclopedia Judaica” on Broadband or Maimonides Meets Microsoft.
The American Jewish mega-donors unveiled the adult Jewish learning site, which is being touted as the largest and most sophisticated of its kind, at a press conference here Tuesday.
Produced with Jewish Family & Life, a Boston-based publisher of numerous Jewish Web sites and magazines, and Boston’s Hebrew College, MyJewishLearning.com will serve as an on-line resource for Jews seeking to learn about their heritage.
Schusterman, a top leader with such national Jewish groups as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, are hoping their new site — which is free and designed to present a wide range of Jewish perspectives — promotes widespread Jewish literacy.
With an initial investment of $1.5 million, MyJewishLearning is far thriftier than other ambitious Jewish renaissance efforts, like birthright israel, that Schusterman and Bronfman have put their names and dollars behind. But, by leveraging the power and popularity of the Internet, it has the potential to reach vast numbers of American Jews.
Of particular interest to Bronfman and Schusterman are those who are unaffiliated or who lack a strong Jewish educational background.
“For a long time I’ve thought that Judaism is a great product — we just haven’t figured out a way to sell it,” said Bronfman, who is the former chairman of Seagram’s, a liquor company that recently merged with the Vivendi Universal media corporation.
Schusterman said she hopes the site helps Jews who are “afraid to ask questions because they think they don’t know enough” gain the confidence to participate in Jewish activities.
MyJewishLearning serves as something of a cyber-encyclopedia, featuring over 1,000 articles on a variety of topics ranging from Israel to Jewish views on sex. Articles — some of which are written specifically for the site, others obtained elsewhere — are selected and edited by MyJewishLearning’s staff, with assistance from scholars at Hebrew College. Within a year, organizers hope to have over 2,000 articles in place.
However, it also provides easy-to-navigate overviews and “guided learning” organized by level and by how in-depth the user wants to go.
In addition to its library of articles, MyJewishLearning also features various Internet bells and whistles, such as a video presentation demonstrating how to light the Chanukah candles, quizzes testing users’ level of knowledge, discussion forums and a way for users to keep a “journal” on the site. Live broadcasts, chat groups and “ask the rabbis” programs are under discussion.
Organizers say the new site aims to serve as a resource for individuals as well as groups —whether a rabbi-led course at a synagogue or a Jewish discussion group.
The site has enlisted several organizational partners — including Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America and Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America — which will contribute materials and publicize MyJewishLearning among their members.
MyJewishLearning is earning cautious praise in the adult Jewish education field.
Rabbi David Silber, founder and dean of Drisha, an adult Jewish learning center with over 1,000 students on the Upper West Side, said he hopes the site is a “first step” in getting people interested in Jewish study.
“It looks professional and very well done,” said Rabbi Silber. “Hopefully it will attract more people to Jewish learning. It doesn’t substitute for what we do which is sitting and studying and learning but on the other hand for many people it would be a strong beginning.”
Rabbi Joshua Heller, who is director of distance learning and educational technology for the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, said MyJewishLearning has “a lot of great stuff.”
JTS, which has offered on-line courses since 1996, and is one of the pioneers in Jewish Web-based learning, also offers some of the same features as MyJewishLearning on its own site, learn.jtsa.edu, but “in a more limited way,” Heller said.
“Our budget is not as big and our focus is on the Conservative point of view,” he said.
Recently, JTS has found its courses are particularly successful when combined with local, face-to-face courses, Rabbi Heller said. For example, in pilot projects in San Diego and suburban Washington, students meet weekly with a rabbi, but supplement the classroom time with Web learning and e-mail exchanges.
“The mixture of a live person in the community and a teacher at JTS together is really appealing to people,” he said.
By contrast, MyJewishLearning’s lack of face-to-face contact is a concern to some.
Jennifer Mohl, director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini School in New York, said it is “fantastic” to offer Jewish resources on the Web, but “at the same time, part of what Jewish learning is about is the tradition of chevruta,” or learning with a partner.
A two-year course with a curriculum developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Melton Mini-School enrolls 5,500 adult students throughout the world. New York’s Melton Mini-School, under the auspices of the Downtown Kehillah consortium of synagogues and Jewish agencies in Lower Manhattan, started last year and enrolls 70 students.
“You can see with Melton how great it is to get the perspective of other students and how being in an environment with other students makes you learn more than had you just read something on your own,” Mohl said.
At the press conference announcing the site, Hebrew College President David Gordis, said he too had concerns about whether an educational Web site might be isolating or risk serving as a substitute for live Jewish communities.
“The objective here is not to isolate people from the community but to bring them in,” he said, adding that he hopes the site will “lead to a rejuvenation and revitalization of Jewish life.”
Whether or not the site heralds a renaissance in Jewish learning it will, if nothing else, make history for introducing a new spin on the traditional Jewish organizational approach to splashy ceremonial announcements.
At a press conference Tuesday, Schusterman officially launched the new project not by cutting a ribbon or wielding a shovel to break ground, but by clicking “send” on a computer.
While the cameras rolled, Schusterman — a computer mouse in hand — e-mailed information about the new site to hundreds of thousands of people. Ah, kosher spam!