The rabbi giv­ing shi­urim through his lap­top …

New tech­nol­ogy is giv­ing shuls creative ways to reach out. By Si­mon Rocker

The Jewish Chronicle - - Judaism -

WED­NES­DAY NIGHT, and a group of nine peo­ple is de­bat­ing the finer points of a Jewish text with their rabbi. It is the kind of scene you would ex­pect to find in any syn­a­gogue dur­ing the week. But th­ese mem­bers of Lon­don’s North-West­ern Re­form Syn­a­gogue are not in shul. They are all at home, wear­ing head­sets and linked to each other by com­puter.

Since the be­gin­ning of the year, Rabbi Mark Gold­smith has been run­ning monthly interactive classes us­ing Skype voice-over-in­ter­net tech­nol­ogy. The soft­ware, to­gether with the in­ter­net, has trans­formed the no­tion of dis­tance learn­ing and is spread­ing the reach of Jewish ed­u­ca­tion.

“I saw that Noam, the youth move­ment, had tried it,” Rabbi Gold­smith says. “And I thought, ‘Bril­liant, that can work for us, too.’ The prob­lem we are ad­dress­ing is peo­ple who don’t nor­mally get in­volved in adult ed­u­ca­tion in syn­a­gogue.

“For in­stance, they might find it dif­fi­cult to get to an evening class at the reg­u­lar time. Or they could be study­ing in univer­sity or on busi­ness trips abroad.

“They can be from any age. We have a 93-year-old, and it is not easy for him to get out of the house at night as he cares for his el­derly wife. This is a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to study at home.

“For a 17-year-old on a school year in Paris, this is a way to keep in con­tact with his com­mu­nity.”

Prospec­tive stu­dents are asked to sign up for the ses­sion a week in ad­vance. Rabbi Gold­smith then emails a PDF of half-a-dozen “short, pithy texts” in He­brew and English on a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject a few hours be­fore the “Skype Shiur”, which runs from 10.30pm — a time that suits the cur­rent roll — for three-quar­ters of an hour. As the class pro­ceeds, they can con­sult the texts on screen.

The tech­nol­ogy is eas­ily ac­quired. “One of our con­gre­gants bought all the equip­ment she needed off eBay for £1.99,” he said.

Us­ing Skype, the par­tic­i­pants can talk to each other, and al­though video links are pos­si­ble, Rabbi Gold­smith thinks that speech-only is bet­ter for open dis­cus­sion. “It would take longer to build up trust oth­er­wise. Peo­ple are very hon­est in the eth­i­cal sub­jects we’ve dis­cussed, for ex­am­ple, about when it’s right to speak out in a sit­u­a­tion or when to keep quiet.

“Peo­ple also don’t have to worry about what they look like at 10.30 in the evening. One man said he can sit at home with his glass of whisky in his hand, which he couldn’t do in shul.”

High-tech learn­ing aids have also come in handy for Ja­clyn Ch­er­nett, of the Kol Ne­fesh Ma­sorti Syn­a­gogue in Edg­ware, Mid­dle­sex, and the UK’s first or­dained fe­male chazan. Six months ago, she set up the Euro­pean Academy for Jewish Liturgy.

“I of­fer a ser­vice to peo­ple, mainly in Europe,” she ex­plains. “We’ve got a lot of lit­tle con­gre­ga­tions pop­ping up ev­ery­where and there are peo­ple who don’t know how to lead ser­vices or life-cy­cle events. What I do is to match them with a pro­fes­sional men­tor in their own lan­guage. I’ve got peo­ple learn­ing in French, Ger­man, Span­ish and He­brew.”

Thanks to the net, they can en­joy one-to-one tu­ition in video classes with a teacher in a dif­fer­ent coun­try. “We’ve got 10 stu­dents,” she says, “in­clud­ing two in Eng­land — one in Lin­coln and one in the West Coun­try.” Next week: Rabbi Har­vey Belovski on in­ter­net To­rah learn­ing

PHOTO: JOHN RIFKIN

Stu­dents can learn in the com­fort of home, via Rabbi Mark Gold­smith’s “Skype Shiur”

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