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April cyberspace column

The Electronic Yeshiva

by James Besser

SITE: Project Genesis

HOW TO GET THERE: For information on all Genesis E-mail services and instructions on how to subscribe, send an e-mail message from your Internet account or account on a commercial service like America Online to:

In the old country, the study house was likely to be a dark, musty place with rudimentary furnishings--the anthesis of high tech.

But in this information age, rabbis and scholars are using cyberspace--that great, uncharted, planet-spanning web of computer networks--to reach a much broader audience for serious Jewish scholarship.

Project Genesis, a New York-state based group devoted to reaching out to Jewish college students, has led the way in the development of the cyber-yeshiva. Their primary tool for creating this electronic miracle is a collection of eleven Internet mailing lists--electronic publications distributed automatically to subscribers with Internet access, or accounts on commercial on-line services like America Online (AOL).

Each Genesis list is a "class," taught by a real, live Jewish scholar; each edition is the equivalent of a detailed lecture on a specific subject, or an electronic dialogue between teacher and students.

A sampling from the Genesis E-mail lineup:

  • Genesis: a general list for Genesis announcements, as well as discussion of the weekly Torah portion.
  • Torah-Forum: a general list for the discussion of the traditional Jewish perspective on any topic under the sun.
  • DvarTorah: here subscribers write their own commentaries on the weekly Torah portion--and distribute them worldwide.
  • Gossip: No, it's not a list for trading information on Julia Roberts' love life. Instead, teacher Ellen Solomon teaches about the Jewish attitude towards Loshon Hora-- the evil tongue.
  • Halacha-Yomi: Easy-to-understand translations of the Code of Jewish Law, and appropriate commentaries.
  • Maharal: The Sayings of the Fathers, a study of the commentary of Rabbi Yehuda Loewe (the Maharal), a 16th Century Jewish philosopher.
Baltimoreans may be especially interested in one Genesis list: the RavFrand mailing list provides transcriptions of the weekly Parsha class of Rabbi Yissachar Frand of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College.

Genesis has attracted more than 2000 subscribers worldwide. "Living here in Montivideo, Uruguay I sure can use contact with the outside world," one subscriber wrote recently. "I can learn Torah from this end of the globe while I wait for things to happen at home and at work."

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, principal of SAJS (the community Hebrew High School) in Pittsburgh and a professional storyteller, is teaching a new Genesis course on Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, or "Review" of the entire body of Jewish Law.

The Rambam list, he said, is aimed at "interested and motivated students. I assume that of the 450-plus subscribers, quite a few are relative neophytes."

Texts are posted in English; Hebrew terms are transliterated and translated for the benefit of the novices who are a prime target for Genesis.

The biggest advantage of the Internet yeshiva is the obvious one, he said--its vast reach. And subscribers study the messages in the privacy of their own homes; as a result, Genesis is able to reach some Jews who might be intimidated by the prospect of revealing their ignorance in a traditional shul.

The biggest downside is also obvious: the lack of face-to-face contact that provides real-time input for teacher and student alike. "So far, you can't do that (on the net)," Rabbi Etshalom said. "But we're working on it."

Project Genesis is also working on new lists, which seem to appear almost monthly. The group is also expanding its World Wide Web "home page"--a central Internet location that allows users to browse through the group's offerings and select lists to join. More on using the Web in next month's column..

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