Torah can bloom through the internet

A new ask-the-rabbi site for children shows how the web can be harnessed for good


By Rabbi Alex Chapper, March 8, 2013
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Why do Jewish people always answer a question with a question?

Why not?

Judaism is a religion of questions and questioning. Abraham, the first Jew, began his first conversation with God by asking a question, Moses, the Jewish people’s greatest leader, asked God to show him His ways and the Talmud, the central text of Judaism, is replete with questions and answers.

All this points to an inescapable truth: we learn best when we ask questions. What makes this method so effective is that compared to being taught by just listening to a teacher, which is a passive experience, questioning is an active pursuit through which knowledge is gained much more readily.

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Isidor Rabi once explained how he became such a successful scientist: “My mother made me a scientist without ever knowing it. Every other child would come back from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother used to ask: ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”

I am passionate about making Judaism accessible to children and encouraging them to ask questions. To that end I set up the Children’s Rabbi website, www.childrensrabbi.com as a first stop for anyone seeking answers on any Jewish topic.

Although there are a number of Ask the Rabbi sites on the internet, Children’s Rabbi is the only one that has been specifically designed to appeal to the younger generation. The site is user-friendly with a simple form that takes less than a minute to complete, the questioner enters their question and can choose whether they receive an answer sent to them via email or whether they’d like it published on the site. In addition, there’s a constantly growing archive page with previously asked and answered questions that makes finding information effortless.

In the year since the website was launched, I have been increasingly travelling around the country to take part in school assemblies and Jewish studies lessons. My approach is straightforward; I ask the children questions and I encourage them to ask me questions; it generates a fantastic energy and excitement, making learning interactive and fun. My aim is to demonstrate to as many schools as possible that the site is a tremendous resource for teachers and parents to access information about Judaism.

Children are by nature highly inquisitive but they are sometimes reticent in front of their peers to admit they don’t know something. That, coupled with time restraints in the classroom owing to the pressures of the national curriculum, means that alternative ways of learning might provide a solution.

A lot has been made of the dangers of the internet, exposure to inappropriate content, its addictiveness; parents and schools have a responsibility to protect children and monitor their usage but this is now a reality of modern life. It’s “the information superhighway” — in Al Gore’s phrase — we cannot ignore. Instead we can utilise it as tool to connect Judaism to the next generation. Young people are tech-savvy and it’s second nature to them to turn to the internet for answers and this is where the Children’s Rabbi site comes into its own, available wherever and whenever there’s a question. What’s yours?

SOME OTHER WEB ENTERPRISES:

Yeshivah student Yoel Lax, who made aliyah from London in 2011, had a eureka moment when praying at the tomb of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai, writes Simon Rocker.

“I read a verse from Psalms, ‘How I love your Torah, all day it is my conversation’”, he recalled. “Sichah, conversation, is the modern Hebrew for phone call.” The idea of using smart phones as a means of educating sprang into his mind.

“There was no app that provided live, updated insights into the weekly parashah, festivals and Jewish topics formatted and written for smart phones.”

His Judaism 4 U app has achieved 50,000 downloads, with insights from rabbis such as Berel Wein and Abraham Twerski as well as past luminaries.

Another Londoner, Netanel Gertner, 21, a student at Israel’s Mir Yeshivah, launched his online gTorah.com (Geshmack Torah) in 2010, which attracts 150,000 views a year. Its Divrei Torah on thought, morality and lifestyle are written “as concisely and clearly as possible with no technical terms,” he said.

Elie Jesner, 34, a trainee psychotherapist in London, was inspired by the Daf Yomi programme of Talmud study to start his own blog http://thinkingdafyomi.com/ .

The yeshivah graduate hopes to show that “our most hallowed and authoritative text is neither as monolithic nor as stringent as some parts of the rabbinic leadership might have us believe”.

Alex Chapper is rabbi of Ilford Federation Synagogue

Last updated: 3:45pm, March 8 2013