What do an 85-year-old Israeli, a 10-year-old homeschooler, and a 33-year-old Polish Jew have in common? They all study at WebYeshiva.org, the world’s first fully interactive online Torah study program. The site, founded in 2007, brings Jews from across the world together to study Torah in real-time using video-conferencing technology.
Students enrolled at the site can participate in interactive classroom sessions via webcam and direct questions to rabbis in every time zone. The yeshiva/midrasha (women’s seminary) offers courses at various levels, covering topics ranging from traditional Gemara to Jewish culture, Zionism, and Jewish weddings.
“Every time I log on, I’m amazed that I get to participate in such a high level of Jewish learning from Hawaii, literally the farthest edge of the galut,” says participant Sheri Levin.
The courses also offer a rare opportunity for mixed-gender Torah study in the Orthodox world.
“Web Yeshiva doesn't limit me to taking the traditional women's courses,” Tehila Leah says. Founding director Rabbi Yedidya Rausman says that because classes are conducted online, those who are uncomfortable in a mixed-gender setting are free to simply turn off their web-cameras.
The yeshiva also employs female instructors.
WebYeshiva.org was founded three years ago by its Rosh Yeshiva, Brooklyn native Rabbi Chaim Brovender, together with Rabbi Rausman. “One day, we were discussing how we could bring Torah to today’s Jews,” Rausman explains. “There were so many vile things on the internet- we thought it would be great to use it for a Holy purpose.”
For Rausman and Brovender, there is tremendous potential for online Jewish education in the years to come. “The brick and mortar yeshiva will always exist, but most people outside of Israel can’t attend it,” says Rausman. According to their website, WebYeshiva.org offers more than just classes - it provides a “virtual yeshiva community” where participants can interact and learn at their own time and pace.
“We’re learning about Judaism for the sake of learning about Judaism, and studying Torah for the sake of Torah. The internet allows for so much creativity with this, because we can bring in experts from across the world.”
Since its inception, WebYeshiva.org has been home to approximately 6,000 Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations. “We have rabbis, we have children, and we have people in the process of conversion. We’re all one people, united by Torah,” says Rausman. “We have Jews of every color, shape and size, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.”
Participants log on from their homes or offices in dozens of countries including Israel, the United States, Poland, New Zealand and South Africa. “I think we break down a lot of barriers between people. Online, everyone is the same,” says Rausman. “We have such a diverse group of people developing and discussing ideas.”
This semester, the site will launch its first program for deaf and hearing impaired students, instructed in American Sign Language. The class will consist of a video box of the teacher talking as well as a signer who signs the course, and will be open to anyone who is interested.
“This new course is a testimony to the doors technology can open for people with special needs,” says Rausman. “Now students with special needs can attend the same courses as other students and get the same Jewish education.”
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