Exploring the Universe of Digital Jewish Learning

My Israel trip this summer coincided with the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first steps on the moon, a convergence that evoked images from my childhood Hebrew lessons. The Sunday School I attended used a curriculum titled “Rocket to Mars.” A series of cartoon-illustrated workbooks for kids by Sylvan Schwartzman revealed as the exciting new era of space travel was dawning that we would someday encounter Martians, who would (of course!) be speaking Hebrew.

One of the earliest workbooks in the series was published in 1953.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much Hebrew growing up, but I was very impressed with the Martians. Now as I practice chanting Torah verses to mark an upcoming big birthday, I am using a remarkable array of learning tools that even the creators of “Rocket to Mars” could not have envisioned.

From audio recordings by local cantors, to a new interactive Torah trainer on the Chabad website, YouTube videos on the basics of trope, plus texts and commentaries on Sefaria, the online world offers students of all ages easy access to remarkable Jewish learning resources. I’ve even taken a live, interactive online biblical Hebrew class with adult students from other countries and an instructor based in Israel.

From “Rocket to Mars,” by Sylvan Schwartzman, copyright Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion


This growing array of Jewish learning opportunities not surprisingly varies greatly in quality of content and production, as well as cost. I’ve sampled widely—from one-time lectures posted as unedited video or audio, to weekly commentaries delivered to my inbox, recordings of interactive webinars, podcasts (great for the gym, especially the wonderfully creative Jewish Women’s Theatre podcast), and even college-level classes taught by leading Jewish scholars.

At a fascinating Stanford Jewish studies guest lecture by Northwestern University Professor Barry Wimpfheimer, I was excited to hear that he and collaborator Sarah Wolf (now Assistant Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at Jewish Theological Seminary) had launched into the yet to be explored galaxy of Jewish MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses.) “The Talmud: A Methodological Introduction,” is offered on Coursera with a free option or payment for those who want a certificate of completion. With short, well-produced videos accompanied by downloadable texts and lively animations, it is among the best I’ve found. Wimpfheimer and Wolf got what he describes as a crash course on producing videos that are not just talking heads and in the process became Talmudic script writers. Over 600 people have completed the course so far and thousands more have actively engaged with the content.

YIVO offers several excellent courses through its Shine Online Educational Series. Professor Sam Kassow of Trinity College, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Jews of Poland who I heard in person while visiting Warsaw, teaches “Discovering Ashkenaz: Jewish Life in Eastern Europe.” If like me you want to know more about the context for your own family history, I highly recommend this class, which is available at nominal cost. I followed it with another very entertaining YIVO offering, “Folksong Demons and the Evil Eye: Folklore of Ashekenaz” taught by Professor Itzik Gottesman.


Sample award certificate from “Rocket to Mars”

What’s missing in this expanding universe of digital Jewish learning, however, is an online gateway that would help match learners with what interests them. Currently even a highly motivated student must wander the vast web without a guide, searching randomly or visiting individual websites one by one. Online Jewish learners might even discover new interests, as I have, if only there was a site with links to what is out there, searchable by topic.

As we continue to seek new and more effective ways to engage students of all ages in the lifelong journey of Jewish learning, innovation in what is offered online must be combined with equal creativity in how to find it. Although the solution lies beyond the interests of a single organization, becoming the go-to gateway to online Jewish learning has huge potential for whoever steps up to seize the opportunity.

About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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