While studying at Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rabbi Marc Spivak was training for a career as a pulpit rabbi outside the tri-state area, but didn’t want to miss out on the advanced learning and shiurim (Torah lectures) he loved at YU.
He began taping lecture after lecture at the University, building a collection of Torah lectures he’d be able to listen to anywhere, any time. Eventually, Spivak turned to the emerging world of online media, uploading all the lectures he had recorded to a single website where they would remain accessible, for free, to any Jew, anywhere in the world, who wanted to broaden their Torah horizons.
That turned out to be just the beginning. Spivak joined what would eventually become known as YU’s Center for the Jewish Future to embark on an even more ambitious project: recording and uploading lectures Yeshiva-wide. Donors contributed recording equipment and initial server space, while students and YU faculty added a growing number of lectures to the site daily.
Before long, the site had expanded beyond YU’s borders, receiving submissions and listenership from Torah figures and institutions around the world.
Today, that website is known as YUTorah, and with over 90,000 lectures (and counting), it is the leading site for online Torah study. In 2014 alone, YUTorah received more than 4 million pageviews from 185 countries worldwide and thousands of downloads of its mobile apps for Android and iPhone.
“It’s grown exponentially,” said Rabbi Robert Shur, director of YUTorah since 2007.
“We made a decision to expand it to become more of a forum for the Torah happening throughout Yeshiva University and the YU community, a one-stop shop for high-quality Torah content from a whole range of speakers and topics. Today, all kinds of Jews from nearly every country on the planet come to YUTorah to learn—you don’t get a broader audience than that,” he added.
For Rabbi Gil Student, publisher and editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com, YUTorah is “my trip back to yeshiva.”
Student discovered the site soon after it launched and has been incorporating it into his writing ever since. “I listen to shiurim mainly during my commute and reconnect to my rebbeim—just hearing their voices makes a difference and takes me back in time,” he said.
“At first, I would listen mostly to Rav Hershel Schachter’s parsha shiurim; I always had something to say on the parsha and I would also get his opinion on the issues of the day. I also listened to many practical halakha shiurim, including the extensive Yoreh Daya offerings.”
Student especially appreciated the recent addition of more than 8,000 journals and scholarly articles that are made available on the site. “I enjoyed the easy access to YU scholarship, especially the historical issues of Beis Yitzchak,” he said.
The addition of other historical material, such as uploads of recorded lectures that were given in YU over the past 50 years, has also created new learning opportunities, for new students, distinguished Torah scholars and even, in some cases, the original lecturers themselves.
“People can ask me questions now about shiurim I gave in 1994!” said Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, professor of rabbinic literature at YU’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem and one of YUTorah’s most popular speakers, who has posted more than 1,000 shiurim on the site in categories that range from Jewish law to Zionism and Jewish thought to reflections on Torah personalities.
With the help of Yoni Cohen, CJF director of operations, Shur works on the site constantly to ensure it’s always evolving, adding exponential amounts of content and customizing it to make it more personal and user-friendly for each user.
That innovation is possible because of the vibrant communal support the site receives: In 2006, Marcos and Adina Katz gave a generous gift to endow YUTorah, and users can sponsor days, weeks or months of learning. In 2014, 219 days were sponsored.
“Since YUTorah’s inception, we have convened the academic talent of our Roshei Yeshiva, our academic community, and our alumni to create one of the most robust Torah sites in the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner dean of the CJF and vice president for university and community life at YU.
“Our research has shown for close to 50 percent of our users, YUTorah has been their first connection with Yeshiva University. Throughout the past nine and half years it has been a personal privilege to be involved with Rabbi Shur and the Yeshiva University community in the development of this initiative, sharing Torah with 250,000 Jews annually from across the world.”