Rabbinical ordination online?
Some might say no, but Rabbi Nachman Wilhelm, of Saint Paul, Minnesota, says yes. Wilhelm is founder and dean of onlinesmicha.com which offers “the committed student a rigorous online study program with the goal of earning smicha [rabbinic ordination].”
The program focuses on the Jewish laws of kashrut and Shabbat, and emphasizes proficiency and skills. Unlike most rabbinic training programs, however, this e-study hall is designed to accommodate both those with advanced prior training as well as students who are new to the world of yeshiva study.
The standard program for laypeople covers all areas of traditional smicha and will run for 128 weeks. Yeshiva students can opt for an accelerated version that will cover all of the material in half the time. A third program is intended for ordained rabbis who seek additional training, specifically in serving as pulpit rabbis and community leaders. This last course focuses on the rabbi’s role officiating in various life cycle events and the laws of building a synagogue.
At these basic levels, explains Rabbi Dovid Schochet of Toronto, there is no hands-on element to the study regime. It is only more advanced rabbinic degrees which require physical practice. Schochet has been testing and ordaining students in North America for the last 15 years. Ordination, he believes, is an important step for every practicing Jewish male.
“Everyone in their own homes should know the basic laws and standards of Shabbos and Kosher,” he states. “Hopefully when someone is called ‘rabbi’ he will also behave in a more responsible and better way.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe encouraged his followers to become ordained, and many do, even if they do not intend to pursue the rabbinate any further. A typical smicha syllabus, on which this Internet version is based, involves six to seven hours of daily study. Twice-weekly classes and bi-weekly quizzes complement the independent study program. The iconic image of a study hall crowded with men, often sitting in noisy pairs, to discuss and debate the archaic texts closely resembles reality.
While this online program makes it possible for students to study at home or in the office, opportunities for lively debate and discussion, it seems, will be compromised. Not so, counters Wilhelm. He plans to substitute proximity with lively 90-minute interactive webcasts and personal mentoring and tutoring sessions. This program, he asserts, will actually involve more face-to-face involvement than the traditional model.
Professor Michael Sher teaches corporate finance at Metropolitan State University and at the University of Minnesota, in both virtual and physical classrooms. Where once he was “opposed” to Internet study, Sher says he is “now a convert.
“Top schools have gotten into it, recognizing the use of this great resource,” he says. “All students may not move at the same pace. If someone gets lost, it is excruciatingly painful to wait until the end of class. On the other hand, if it is too slow, it is also an excruciating wait. Here the class can’t move beyond you, because you are the class.”
Wilhelm has a wealth of educational experience behind him, including 17 years as a yeshiva director, and he currently operates a summer yeshiva study program. On the computer end of things is Erez Levi, a Minneapolis-based financial advisor. The Israeli native designed the classroom and facilitated the technology necessary to make the experience resemble “a brick and mortar classroom” as much as possible. “It will be a study hall and kitchen all in one,” stresses Wilhelm, referring to charts and demonstrations he has prepared. While consulting with primary texts, students can follow lessons, ask questions in real-time, and interact with their peers.
“You can learn the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] on your own,” says Levi, “but then it is just like reading a book. Here you really learn and dissect it. It comes alive.”
Times have changed since Rabbi Moshe Feller, Director of Upper Midwest Chabad Lubavitch, earned his own smicha “way back in antiquity in 1961.” He endorses this initiative not only as a means of becoming a rabbi, but also as a way for people to advance their knowledge of Jewish law. “Lacking access to a traditional study hall, this is a real opportunity” says this educator and co-founder of Bais Chana Women International. “The online world gives a lot of Torah advantages.”
“What do you do if people are scattered all over the world?” asks Sher, who participates in some of Wilhelm’s local classes. “With technology, they are all in the same room, learning the same thing. Rabbi Wilhelm engages everyone, no matter their background or interest. And that’s his gift.”