A new virtual yeshiva allows Jews worldwide to experience the intensive Torah study of a Talmudic academy from their own video-enabled personal computers.

The Web Yeshiva (WebYeshiva.org) is a fully interactive Torah-study institution available online. Using video-chat and voice-over-IP web conferencing technology, students gather in a virtual classroom – seeing each other and the teachers clearly and even raising their hand with a question at the click of the mouse.

“I’ve been teaching Torah all my life and the audience has always been a live audience,” explained Rabbi Chaim Brovender, the Rosh Yeshiva [yeshiva dean] of WebYeshiva.org. “It occurred to me that there has to be a way to reach people who can't come to the yeshiva, who can’t come to the shiur [class] where it is given. What we have developed is the ability to teach a real class - with preparation, homework and interaction – over the Internet. As you see it is happening. You can ask questions, you see the page of Talmud being studied. And aside from the initial difficulties of launching any web-based project, it is working very well. There are real students all week long, from 5 in the morning onward.”

Offline, Rabbi Brovender heads the HaMivtar Yeshiva in the Gush Etzion town of Efrat, as well as Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum, a seminary for women.

The idea behind the Web Yeshiva is not to create a database of classes for individual study – something that is available in an ever-growing volume on various Jewish web site. The idea is instead to harness newly available technology to bring Jews from around the world together to participate in the give-and-take of a traditional Torah-study academy from the non-traditional setting of their own home, at hours of their choosing – sometimes beginning as late as 11 PM or as early as 5 AM.

It was initially assumed that most of the interested students would hail from “New Mexico or New Zealand,” says Web Yeshiva Director Rabbi Yedidya Rausman. “But as it turns out, we are getting many people who in fact live in very concentrated Jewish areas who simply want to participate in yeshiva-style Torah study at a set time each day. Some are at their computers all day anyway for work and are able to fit in more Torah-study time by avoiding a commute to the closest yeshiva.” That said, there are students hailing from Latin America, Europe, Thailand and even New Zealand.

Rabbi Rausman says the fact that the classes are based in Israel is also a factor. “People want to learn Torah from the Land of Israel, even if they are not physically here,” he said. Another group of interested students includes those who studied in the past with Rabbi Brovender or the other teachers involved and wish to reconnect. “Some people who have not seen their rabbi in 30 years are suddenly able to once again learn Torah with him face to face,” Rausman marvels.

Rabbi Brovender has big plans for the future. “We are looking to developing programs in Russian, French, Spanish and in Hebrew, of course – all the languages Jews happen to speak today,” he said. “We also have very serious plans about entering the high school market. There are a lot of high school kids in America, England and even Israel who don’t live in religious centers – who go to good secular schools but don’t get the opportunity to receive a quality Jewish education.” He hopes that the Web Yeshiva will be used as a supplement for such an education.

In addition, practical skills such as being a Jewish scribe can be taught through the Web Yeshiva, Rabbi Brovender believes. “It is very visual and you will get the best teacher. It will be offered as a course, beginning to end, in becoming an expert scribe and you can see how everything is done along the way.”

An even broader application of the technology is causing a buzz among perspective olim (immigrants to Israel) as the Lamdeni individualized Hebrew-teaching service finalizes a partnership with the Web Yeshiva. It is hoped that a program will be developed that will provide the opportunity for ulpan (Hebrew immersion courses) to be offered to every new immigrant before he or she even arrives in Israel. “Even people coming on Aliyah often don’t have the time to go to an ulpan program prior to coming here,” Rabbi Brovender explained. “The ability to take ulpan at their convenience in their home and for every student to get to speak Hebrew one-on-one with someone for a hour a week and test your own progress – these things are invaluable.”

The second semester of the Web Yeshiva is scheduled to begin Tuesday, May 6. With a total of 46 weekly classes running through August 10, subjects include the standard yeshiva fare of the Babylonian Talmud, Bible and Jewish Law. In addition, classes on prayer, Jewish Business Ethics, Women and Jewish Law and the philosophies of Maimonides, Rabbi Chaim Luzzato and Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik are also being offered.

In addition, local lecturers whose classes pack homes and study halls alike are now available to an audience where there is room in the front row for everyone. The famed Leah Golumb of Moshav Modiin, for example, is giving her class on the weekly Torah portion over the Web Yeshiva.

Full-time and part-time students pay a tuition fee that includes lifetime access to archives of the classes they have attended, but the Web Yeshiva regularly offers seminars and study days open to the general public, free of charge. The next one will take place on Independence Day, which is observed this year on May 8.