Rabbi David Fohrman
Rabbi David Fohrman Courtesy

Alphabeta started as a Jewish answer to Khan Academy. Instead of a droll approach to learning, Rabbi David Fohrman, known also for such books as The Beast Crouches at the Door, founded the website several years ago when he was inspired by a much more famous online learning hub.

“What Alephbeta is based on comes from when I attended a TED Talk by the founder of Khan Academy. What he was doing with Khan inspired me to do what I ended up doing with Alephbeta.”

“There are different level of courses all based around 10-minute videos. Look at one of the stacks - every week there is a 10-minute parshah (weekly Torah portion) video and the Passover course.”

The main goal, like Khan, is accessibility. While certain topics like Calculus might have previously been out of the reach of that website’s users, Rabbi Fohrman identifies multiple layers of understanding to sacred texts that tend to be lost on most people. Alephbeta aims to pave a clear road to certain concepts otherwise out of reach of religious learners.

“I view its mission as ‘democratizing sophistication in Torah,’” says Rabbi Fohrman. “Divrey Torah (Torah lectures/speeches) tend to be a nice, sermonic sort of thing but at the end of the day you don't feel you can make a claim that what you heard is actually true or actually illustrating what’s really going on there (in the text).”

Rabbi Fohrman explains that between two extremes of religious learning – the dry academic and the “fluffy” or “feel-good” approach – there is a need to integrate a deeper intellectual approach with something that is actually “spiritually nurturing.”

“You are balancing between two extremes. One the one hand there’s the academic extreme where you take a fairly scientific approach to the text but at end of the day you are left with no message or something that does not really mean anything to you. On the other, you have sermonics that use mental gymnastics that sort of beat you over the head with a tangential link to a verse so I can justify saying what I want to say.”

The difference with Alephbeta is to bring back a rational but meaningful transmission of the Torah’s lessons to Alephbeta’s users.

“You check baggage at the door to uncover layers of meaning from the text, (utilizing) certain methodological tools over and over again that Bible seems to give you.”

“They are kind of cartoon-style graphics,” illustrates Rabbi Fohrman, who then explains that “we managed to get kids all the way down to sixth grade really enamored with it combining the visual and the audio.”

The Rabbi explains that while he had originally intended to reach a certain demographic, the videos have resonated for students who are much younger than he could have personally anticipated.

“One woman told me a story, she told me her 6th grade daughter asked if she could watch some videos we gave to Aish. The next day teacher in her class says this girl raised her hand and gave a 10-minute review of one of an hour-long original analysis from the video.”

The program picks up on a major advantage for Alphabeta – it can reach younger kids with more sophisticated, deeper messages than were once available to them. Rabbi Fohrman says it is a matter of recognizing that children are much more capable of understanding things than we sometimes give them credit for.

“I’ve heard many versions of that story from different parents about different kinds of kids,” reiterates the Rabbi, who explains that it is not only adults who might be able to grasp some of the more sophisticated concepts in the videos. “It’s not so much that we’re smarter than kids, but life experience gives us certain shortcuts and mnemonics that let us create these sorts of pictures in our minds,” says Rabbi Fohrman, who alludes to the idea of paradigms in psychology. “If you give them the pictures in these videos, they will formulate them differently.” 

Rabbi Fohrman has done a lot of reading on educational psychology, but hardly considers himself an expert. He says that if any of his teaching methods have direct parallels with the methods suggested or employed by students of education psychology, they may be coincidence in that they did not directly shape how Alphabeta developed. He says he only has read a “smattering of Piaget.”

“It was more organic. I’ve been teaching for a long time but I don’t have a formal education background,” explains the Rabbi, who holds a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins in the History of Ideas.

“For me, education has always been a passion of mine. I would tell myself, ‘let me see if I can take the most sophisticated thing I’ve learned and write it in a way that someone with less of a background can access it.’ It showed certain mastery (for me) that you could get the idea into its simplest form without oversimplifying it.”

Rabbi Fohrman would try to bring Jewish-related concerns to larger academic fields and present it in a very clear way to people he taught. Aside from a lengthy career in live Torah-teaching lectures, Rabbi Fohrman also helped shape Artscroll’s Schottenstein English translation of the Talmud, working on that translation for several years.

“My work is just an extension of that, developing a methodology that got at the essence of the material.”

“It’s fascinating,” Rabbi Fohrman says of the videos on Alephbeta. “They draw you in like a nonfiction mystery novel as it were.”

Rabbi Fohrman exerts an effort to connect with the dozens of comments that come to show up below weekly videos on the site, responding directly to lengthy comments by viewers of various backgrounds.

“We have viewers who are Modern Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and even Christian,” says the Rabbi, but “it gets pretty overwhelming and we have a pretty grueling production schedule. We would like to enable more webinars that can increase those personal interactions. Selfishly, I get a lot out of it for myself: teachers tend to learn the most from their students.”

In terms of the different groups who have used the site, he recalls one Reform congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan telling him that one of their contacts exclaimed at the end of the site’s video on sacrifices, “I finally understand this!”

That video outlined the trichotomy among sin offerings, burnt offerings and peace offerings while also relating those sacrifices' precedent in earlier stories in the Bible like the Gan Eden (Garden of Eden), the meeting between Jacob and Lavan, and the revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Describing his experience in teaching, he says “What I teach tends to become a fraction of what we cover. There's always a new side to things that I haven't seen.”

Summarizing what the Alephbeta experience is all about, Rabbi Fohrman compares it to archaeology.

“If you’re an archeologist and looking for something, then find a fossil and you think it’s part of a rib cage but not know for sure, you will keep on digging so that you would find the rest of the rib cage and inevitably the rest of the skeleton.”

“If it's random, you won’t find anything when you keep on digging. But if it is there, that's where students really help you because no matter how smart you are you otherwise would only see part of what you’re digging for.”