This article originally appeared in American Jewish Spirit.
"I used to avoid Shabbat tables and synagogue," said Mike Weinstein of New York. "What if I got an aliyah or was asked to lead the kiddush? I didn't know what to do and I was terrified I'd be asked."
Mike is one of thousands of people who have found themselves facing a vast sea of Jewish knowledge, with limited time and means to traverse the waters.
And that's when Mike discovered JewishPathways.com, the new website that allows people to take the next step in their Jewish learning with comprehensive online courses. Created by Aish.com, Jewish Pathways has taken the most essential "how-to" information and packaged it into user-friendly modules, so that students can study at their own pace, anytime, anywhere.
Students can study at their own pace, anytime, anywhere.
JewishPathways.com provides practical guidelines on Jewish observance, and a deeper foundation in Jewish thought: Chumash Themes, a Mussar Program, Laws of Shabbat, The Way of G-d, and "Deed and Creed," Rabbi Benjamin Blech's 18-part series contrasting Jewish theology with Christianity.
Sounds great. But how is this website different than just reading a book? The answer is that Jewish Pathways has leveraged the power of the Internet by adding dozens of multi-media features to explain some of the most common, but confusing, aspects of Jewish life: how to make Havdallah, how to affix a mezuzah, how to put on Tefillin, and how to wash hands before eating bread.
One of the courses, "Daily Living," presents all the basics of Jewish prayer, life cycle, the holidays, financial laws and more. There are "how to" guides in PDF printer-friendly format that present the Hebrew text, English translation and transliteration. Audio pronunciation guides feature both Ashkenazi and Sefardi pronunciation. And it all comes together in short instructional videos.
Bring Torah to the Boondocks
So what's been the feedback so far? JewishPathways.com was only launched a few months ago, and already 5,000 people have signed up. Marjie Phillips of Chicago registered after hearing about it from a friend. "I was really connecting with my Judaism, but I had reached a point where I could not adequately move forward -- not due to any lack of commitment, but rather due to a lack of information about what to do and how to do it."
But why are people taking courses online instead of attending a live class?
"Many of our students live in an outlying location," explains Rabbi Shraga Simmons, the director of Jewish Pathways. "Others don't have the time to take a class, or don't like to go out at night. Or they may be just exploring Judaism and want to poke around."
Mark Golden, a trial lawyer from Florida, tackles a class segment each lunch hour and appreciates that he can get through a significant amount of material following this routine in just a few weeks. "I was really impressed at how quickly my questions were answered, and it was clear I was not being brushed off, but that the rabbis really took the time to think about what I was asking."
Golden grew up in New Jersey in an assimilated home and then moved to a town in Florida, where he says "they didn't even know what a bagel was." As an adult, he realized there was more to life than playing chess and drinking fine wine, and began his quest into Judaism's deeper meaning. "I needed something I could do at my own pace, and I found the Jewish Pathways courses to be perfect. They are refreshing, insightful and professionally done."
JewishPathways.com has developed many innovative features, like the automated online glossary. As you read through the material, you simply move your mouse over one of the highlighted words, and the definition pops up automatically on the screen. This way, you'll never get stuck if you can't remember what's the Mishnah or who was the Chafetz Chaim. It's all immediately available as you're reading right along.
All the test results are stored in a personal online account.
Another feature is the interactive online testing. At the end of each Pathways class are 10 multiple choice questions that students answer online, then automatically receive a test score along with the correct answers. All the test results are stored in a personal online account, so students can track their progress as they study the material.
Michal Evenari is a convert to Judaism who lives in a small town in Germany. "I have no access to a rabbi or to live classes, so I've had to learn everything on my own from scratch," she says. "I tried learning many times from a book, but I always found it too cold and technical. So I was thrilled to discover Jewish Pathways. It has become my umbilical cord to Judaism."
Hebrew school teachers and rabbis around the world have found that Jewish Pathways can help maximize their educational goals. Teachers use the material as a classroom curriculum, or as a basis for their own class preparation. Alternatively, students use the material to prepare before a class, for example to watch an instructional video. That way when they meet together as a class, they are already primed, and the teacher is able to move them forward at a more productive pace.
The material does not need to be studied online; it can be printed out and used as curriculum for one-on-one study, whether on the phone or in person. It's highly-structured, comprehensive, user-friendly, and best of all, it's been field-tested with hundreds of students.
And what about the independently motivated student who says, for example, "Rabbi, I've heard about this wonderful system of Jewish ethics called Mussar. Teach me!" The rabbi doesn't have the time and resources to teach him privately, but a Jewish Pathways course is the perfect way to channel this student into self-paced learning.
What's the cost of all this? Online courses like these typically cost about $100, but Jewish Pathways courses are currently free.
One popular Pathways course, "Themes in Chumash," provides an overview of the Five Books of Moses. "Chumash is so essential to Jewish thought, yet sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees, to get a grasp of the most essential concepts," says Simmons. So Pathways developed a course that covers the 22 central themes: the Flood, the binding of Isaac, the Ten Plagues, the Golden Calf, the Spies, etc. Each theme has both an essay and a 5-minute video lesson.
There are step-by- instructional videos.
Another Jewish Pathways course is the Laws of Shabbat, which give students the tools to handle the many questions of Jewish law that can arise on Shabbat. The course includes instructional videos, where students are shown step-by-step how to arrive at the practical law in a variety of common scenarios.
Based on reader surveys, Simmons was surprised to discover that not all Pathways students are Jews catching up on their education. "It turns out that many observant Jews are looking for a refresher course, or they may have never had the opportunity to learn this material in a systematic way."
But if everyone starts studying Judaism online, won't that obviate the need for schools and synagogues?
Rabbi Simmons laughs. "There is no such thing as a virtual cholent," he says, referring to the delicious Shabbat stew. "No online program can ever take the place of a live, personal experience. In fact the goal of any Judaism website should be to funnel people to live events -- classes, Shabbatons and seminars."
All this is just the beginning of Jewish Pathways. The production team, based in Jerusalem, is currently readying Phase Two, which includes courses on Jewish History, Hebrew Ulpan, Kashrut, Prayer, and a fascinating series called "Jewish FAQs."
In today's world, millions of people subscribe to pay-per-view and on-demand television networks. And now, Jewish Pathways is providing "Torah on demand" that rivals these products in quality and value. Isn't it time you took the next step?
To see sample classes, go to JewishPathways.com