By Rick Magder
Education has come a long way since the days of the one-room schoolhouse. Yet there are similarities between the way we learn today and the way we did 100 years ago. Today, millions of students around the world are attending a school where all of their subjects are taught in one room. That, however, is where the comparison ends. The one room that I speak of might be their kitchen, living room, or bedroom. Their classmates and teacher may be on the other side of the world.
Several years ago, I saw a tremendous need and I had an appreciation for how online learning could impact the Jewish community. I’m not a teacher. My background is in film production and marketing. At the time, I was working with the Orthodox Union, where I created the department of media and broadcasting. The goal was to produce educational and marketing films for the organization. At the time, lots of other Jewish organizations were contacting me to help them extend their reach and connect with their constituents in a more meaningful and creative way.
I saw a real need among educators, who were involved in outreach and had limited resources, for a tool that would give them more access to the community as well as the sophistication to keep them current in a technological age. Together with my brother Gary, we created, a unique platform for online learning that at the time did not exist in the Jewish world–or the secular world for that matter. We gave organizations and individuals the ability to create and teach their own interactive classes online. Our desire was to help inspire unaffiliated Jews. People from around the world began signing up, and in a short time, even with no marketing, we had thousands of registered users learning around the world.
There have been lots of inspiring stories. People would e‑mail and tell us how thankful they were to have access to the site. One guy sent an e-mail saying that he lived in an ancient Viking village in Norway and the closest synagogue was 400 miles away. “Your site is my only real connection to Judaism,” he wrote.
A non-Jewish woman in Paris began setting her alarm clock for 3:30 a.m. so she wouldn’t miss a live class. Her Jewish husband wasn’t as interested! “Project Sinai changed my life,” she said. We connected her with a local rabbi in Paris. She converted–and I guess you might say her husband did, too. If you saw a picture of them today, you might think they grew up in Meah Shearim.
Currently, among the abundance of classes offered, Jerusalem Online University uses our technology to run ongoing semesters for Jewish students on college campuses around the country, primarily where there is no rabbi living on or near the campus. Every Monday night, between 100 and 150 college students with little Jewish background log on for two hours to study with Rabbi Tzvi Gluckin in Boston. He teaches them about Judaism. He also plays his guitar, shows them videos, and answers their questions. From this entirely online experience, a large percentage of these students have gone on learning trips to Israel.
Rabbi Gluckin feels that this has become one of the most effective learning environments for students on campus today. “It’s not just effective at reaching the students, it’s cost-effective as well.” Rabbi Gluckin points out, “We no longer have the expense of traveling to these campuses to teach. I do it all from my office in Boston. However, when I do find time to travel to a campus, it’s not like it used to be, where you have an hour or so to connect with the students and you spend a good part of that time warming up to them. Now when I visit the campuses, students are running to meet me in person because we already have a connection online.” All the students want to meet their “online rabbi” face to face. The online classes have made him into a celebrity.
On the other end of the spectrum, we run a program called Totally Online. It’s an online talmud Torah program for ages 9 to 11 every Sunday morning. We have had kids participating from India, Germany, Curaçao, Sweden, Israel, and throughout North America. Parents are thrilled to have a meaningful Jewish program for their kids. Several have planned bar or bat mitzvahs in Israel as a result of the online class. Some of these families had never thought about making a bar or bat mitzvah for their child.
Educators around the world are finding creative ways to use the site. Rabbi Barak Cohen, a pulpit rabbi in St. Ives, Australia, is hosting a daily 15-minute lunchtime Gemara shmuess for his congregants while they are at work. It is open to anyone, but if you are logging in from New York, prepare to eat your lunch at 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Lori Palatnik, founder of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, was amazed to see students attending her pre-Pesach how-to class logging in from places like Panama, Colombia, and France.
Many organizations, shuls, yeshivas, and outreach professionals have asked for their own branded channels to reach out to their constituents. Students who have returned from learning programs and yeshivas in Israel are setting up their own channels so they can continue to learn with their favorite rabbanim who are in Israel.
What started as an experiment to help educators get their message out to a broader audience has rapidly grown to include a registered-user base of thousands participating in online classes regularly.
Project Sinai offers educators much more than a traditional webinar platform. They can post videos, audio, articles, and discussions on their own channel. They can even monetize their content if they wish. We have added functionality that goes above and beyond a traditional webinar.
Throughout the month of Elul, we are running an amazing series called the Elul Return Project. It’s an opportunity get the most out of Elul and to learn with some of the best teachers in the Jewish world today, including Charlie Harary, Dr. David Pelcovitz, Steven Weil of the OU, Dr. Alan Kadish of Touro College, Ephraim Buchwald of NJOP, Esther Wein, Lori Palatnik, Shalom Rosner, David Fohrman; and many more. You can sign up on the website.
Almost all the classes offered on Project Sinai are free, thanks to the funding and support of the Afikim Foundation, which calls itself an incubator for Jewish creativity. We are blessed to have Afikim behind us, but donations from our users help keep things running.
Indeed, the modern one-room schoolhouse is alive and well in rooms across the world! v
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