Online Jewish Learning Venture Has Big Backers — and Challenges

When mega-philanthropist Edgar Bronfman speaks, people listen — even when his message defies prevailing wisdom.

Even after the dot-com boom has gone bust, Bronfman, the billionaire president of the World Jewish Congress, still believes the Internet will help save the Jewish people.

Bronfman remains so confident about the power and reach of technology that he and fellow philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, are putting more than $2 million into a new Jewish supersite called MyJewishLearning.com.

“I think this may be the most important gift I’ve ever given the Jewish

world,” Bronfman says.

In a New York media launch last week, Bronfman and Schusterman joined Yosef Abramowitz of the multimedia publishing firm Jewish Family & Life, who is co-producing the not-for-profit site, and co-producer David Gordis, president of Hebrew College of Brookline, Mass.

Bronfman said he already has given $1.5 million and may give more of the three-year, $3 million budget. Schusterman, a member of the JTA board of directors, has committed up to $750,000.

The two are seeking additional major backers.

“Edgar and Lynn were crystal-clear: Nobody has any concern about funding for this project,” said Harry Bloom, managing director of the site.

Behind the mega-philanthropists’ investment lies an undeniably ambitious goal: to create the most comprehensive and accessible Jewish presence online.

Back in the early days of the Internet, when the digital scene had few Jewish sites, that would have been a simpler task. Now, even after the dot-com collapse, the Web is rich with Jewish sites.

Many are learning sites launched by religious groups that joined the early rush online. Among the more visible are Aish HaTorah’s aish.com, which offers everything from Torah learning to Holocaust studies, and claims 1 million visits monthly.

Likewise, Torah.org offers what it calls “common-denominator Judaism.” It claims more than 50,000 subscribers to email-based classes, and 220,000 visitors last month alone.

Some have launched Jewish news-magazine sites, such as the tabloid-flavored USAJewish.com news site or the feature-oriented Jewsweek.com.

Then there’s Abramowitz’s own network of family- and youth-oriented sites, which claims 2.5 million unique visits annually.

With the Web jammed with Jewish sites of every persuasion, MyJewishLearning.com needs to create its own identity.

Rabbi David Eliezrie, a Chabad spokesman who serves on the Internet committee for another major religious site, Chabad.org, said MyJewishLearning faces major hurdles.

“This is an admirable step, bringing Jewish learning to a broader Jewish audience,” he said. “But the real challenge will be generating traffic.”

Chabad.org itself claims about 22,000 users daily who learn from original source texts and commentary, Chabad spokesman Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin said.

Chabad.org, which mainly relies on private donations, considers itself the largest Jewish learning site online, Shmotkin said.

Despite the competition, Bronfman believes the importance of powering a digital Jewish “renaissance” outweighs potential pitfalls.

“What can possibly be at risk, except money?” he asked.

The founders contend that MyJewishLearning is unique because it will offer an unprecedented range of information about Judaism and the Jewish world, from the most basic Shabbat blessing to the most cryptic kabbalistic commentary.

The site also will feature original content on religion, history, culture and education; will allow users to explore areas to whatever depth they determine; and will include tools to personalize areas with favorite links and commentary.

The site also will feature quizzes and discussion groups and will allow users within Jewish organizations their own “space” to create tailored educational content.

Reflecting the site’s wide target audience are such founding partners as the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization; the women’s group Hadassah; Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life; the Jewish Community Centers of North America; and STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal.

Heading the content team will be Michael Kress, who edited the respected religious news site BeliefNet.com.

Bronfman grew convinced of the need for such a broad Jewish site when a friend asked him a basic question about Chanukah and he couldn’t easily find the answer online.

So he, Abramowitz and Gordis decided to bring Judaism to the online masses.

Abramowitz says the site will have unprecedented “scope” — some 2,000 articles by next year, ranging from traditional to pluralistic voices, reflecting a democratic information flow.

This is a site “for the Jewish people and by the Jewish people,” he said.

The site also serves as “an important model for how to get things done in Jewish life,” he said, since it presents an unusual “bricks and clicks” partnership joining big funders, his own multimedia concern and many Jewish organizations.

Abramowitz sees the site as a kind of high-tech “redactor of Jewish knowledge” in the 21st century.

MyJewishLearning “may look and feel like a Web site, but this is a sweeping educational initiative that uses the power of technology to bring the richness and power of Jewish thought and text to millions of Jewish people,” he said.

Whether that’s hyperbole or not, Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of Project Genesis-Torah.org, says the ability of MyJewishLearning to attract such “unheard-of” funding revolutionizes online Jewish study.

“This raises the bar for the rest of us,” Menken said. “It says that this kind of funding is achievable.”

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