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People of the Byte: Learning Online Provides ‘spiritual Lifeline’ for Adults

February 9, 1998
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Eleanor Gibson is a cranberry farmer in a rural part of Washington state where hers, she says with a laugh, is one of only two Jewish families in the area.

Every day — usually for an hour, sometimes for two or three — she logs onto a new, online adult education course.

At Mishpacha: A Community of Learning for Jewish Parents, Gibson learns about Judaism’s views on issues as varied as food and death.

But more importantly, she says, she connects with about 10 other men and women with whom she can chew over the pleasures and challenges of living and parenting as Jews today.

“It’s like an emotional, spiritual Jewish lifeline for me,” says Gibson, who home schools her two youngest children and lives nearly 80 miles from the nearest synagogue.

Gibson also says that participating in Mishpacha (, which means family in Hebrew, during the past few months has helped her and her non- Jewish husband, John, cope with conflicts related to their interfaith marriage.

Connecting to the forums on Mishpacha, which is sponsored by the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, has allowed John to “realize he’s not alone, that his questions and doubts are shared” by others, she says.

And that has led him to talk to a rabbi about the possibility of converting to Judaism, says Gibson, a Jew by choice herself.

Mishpacha, which was created by Larry Yudelson, who has been Jewishly active on the World Wide Web, and Conservative Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, is one of a burgeoning number of adult education courses available online.

They run a wide gamut of technical sophistication and intellectual rigor. Many of them attract a high percentage of intermarrieds and potential converts.

At a time of intense communal concern over Jewish alienation, online learning seems to provide a powerful entree into Jewish life.

The first incarnation of online connectivity and learning, which started nearly a decade ago, took the form of electronically mailed listservs, automated systems that distribute information to a community of electronic subscribers.

Hundreds of these listservs continue to be used by tens of thousands of Jews.

Shamash, a Jewish community umbrella site on the Web, alone has 267 lists with 36,000 different people subscribing, according to Nathan Erlich, director of the Center for Information Technology at Hebrew College in Brookline, Mass., where Shamash ( is based.

The Shamash-housed lists, as well as those situated on Virtual Jerusalem and other central Jewish Web sites, range in perspective from secular to the fervently Orthodox.

Participation in such lists provides experiences that range from informal to formal education, with a heavy emphasis on the exchange of information among peers.

Some are passive, allowing, for example, a subscriber to receive commentaries on the weekly Torah reading sent to an electronic mailbox.

Others are bulletin boards directed by moderators who introduce a topic and keep it focused. Subjects can be anything from Judaism’s traditional teachings about gossip to the Reform perspective on the Jewish news of the day, including Jewish perspectives on hiking, home schooling and Star Trek as well as discussions among gay Orthodox Jews.

The cutting edge of online learning today, say those involved, are adult education courses with teachers and curricula and a high degree of interactivity.

Still, there are a number of approaches.

Mishpacha’s focus “is not on teaching curriculum and testing people afterwards, but creating discussion in the community as peers about what it means to be Jewish,” says course creator Larry Yudelson.

Other programs are more academically inclined.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America, for instance, has a Distance Learning Project, which offers two courses – – “Introduction to the Talmud” and an “Introduction to Jewish Theology” (

Each is tailored to different audiences. Each can be taken for college credit, and both are being shaped for use in Jewish supplemental high schools, according to Michael Starr, director of distance learning for JTS.

Most people — 110 people enrolled in the Talmud course last semester — take them for adult education rather than for credit, paying $125 for an eight week “mini-session.”

Allen Olender, the father of two young children and a senior vice president for Prudential Securities, has long believed that he doesn’t have time to participate in the traditional adult education courses offered at the many synagogues in West Bloomfield, Mich., where he lives.

After learning about the seminary’s courses through its Web site, he took the first Talmud mini-course and is now taking the second.

Taking a class online “allows me to do it when I can, in the middle of a workday for an hour or the middle of the night,” Olender says.

The course is one of the more complex Web sites for Jewish distance learning today, offering layer upon layer of information.

In one section of the “Introduction to Talmud” course, the lines of talmudic text — a commentary on the Bible — are presented with a button that, when clicked, lets students hear the course’s professor, Rabbi Joel Roth, read it aloud.

The text is also translated into English, and many words are highlighted. Click on one and it takes you to a definition or an explanation of the concept.

It also links to another Web site, independent of the seminary, which displays each page of Talmud in its entirety, so that students can get a feeling for the unique way that the Talmud is laid out.

The best aspects of Jewish online learning, participants and organizers agree, is that it makes high-level resources available to people wherever they are physically or spiritually.

Students, Jewish and not, log on to the courses from all over the world, from Scarsdale, N.Y., to Israel, from Curacao to Sweden, says Starr.

Online learning is also well-suited to “people who may have had bad rabbi experiences, or who are frustrated their synagogues don’t talk more about God and religion,” Yudelson says.

The downside, organizers say, is that distance learning “is somewhat disembodied,” Starr says. In an effort to “to humanize the experience,” he adds, course discussion leaders call North American participants during the first week of class.

But, say its proponents, these drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits of learning online.

In live classes, for example, the different levels of previous exposure to the subject often makes it difficult for both instructors and the more knowledgeable students. Online course can provide layers of background information for less-knowledgeable students that the more advanced ones don’t need.

The electronic approach to Jewish learning is clearly in its infancy. Across the network, many new classes are in the works.

Coming soon to the seminary’s virtual catalog, Starr says, are courses titled “Women in Rabbinic Literature,” “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible” and “Finding Spirituality in Prayer.”

At Hebrew College, they are developing an online degree-granting program for Israeli teachers working in secular schools, and an intensive telecourse on Jewish civilization, thought and culture that will integrate traditional and new media, according to Erlich.

Meanwhile, what has been offered so far is receiving rave reviews.

Participants in Hebrew College’s creative-writing course, “Finding Your Jewish Voice,” didn’t want to stop even after the eight-week term ended last year. The instructor dropped out, exhausted, after 12 weeks, Erlich says, but the group continues to meet in cyberspace.

For his part, Yudelson is organizing a second Mishpacha group, which will begin even though the first doesn’t want to end — another benefit of online learning is that there’s no limit to the amount of virtual classroom space available.

And, ironically, the online experience is leading at least one participant back to the more traditional adult education program at his local synagogue.

“I’m much more inclined to take a local class than I would have been before” participating in the seminary’s course, says Olender. By taking an online class, “my interest in Judaic studies has been piqued.”

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