There’s a yearning for Jewish learning on college campuses across the country, and it’s not limited to traditional classroom study. Students are quenching their thirst for knowledge online, via informal study groups, one-on-one peer pairings, trips to Israel, and more.
But in an era when most students connect with each other via computer, one program in particular stands out for offering those wanting to learn a more personal touch. Less than two years old, the Jewish Learning Network – a project of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement – is unique in pairing students and volunteer instructors over the phone lines.
While such an approach may be decidedly low-tech when compared to more Internet-based learning programs – such as the offering of podcast shiurim, or lessons, on Web sites like www.chabad.org and www.yutorah.org – JNet’s organizers stress that their initiative, itself found online at www.jnet.org, harkens back to the tried-and-true method of having two people sit down and learn together in real time. The difference is that, thanks to the phone cards that JNet hands out to participants, someone can search the whole world for their perfect chavrusa, or study partner.
According to JNet campus divison director Rabbi Mendy Rivkin, the program, which began in November 2005, has apparently caught on. People commit to weekly half-hour to hour-long sessions on a whole host of subjects, from that week’s Torah portion to learning a Chasidic discourse. And although anyone can sign up, some of the greatest growth has been seen in the collegiate population.
Word of JNet, said Rivkin, has spread to students through Chabad’s network of campus rabbis and through other organizations such as the Chabad-affiliated Mayanot, which coordinates Birthright Israel tours, and Hillel.
Pairing similarly matched people together “is a style of learning that has been used throughout the ages,” said Rivkin. And today, because of their strong desire for Jewish knowledge, college students want “everything they can get, however they can get it, whenever they can get it.”
Those closer to the campus scene have noticed students’ desire for exploring Judaism, as well. After all, more and more schools are getting on-campus representatives from Chabad on Campus – some 100 campuses are currently served – and other organizations likewise report an uptick in Jewish interest.
Clare Goldwater, director of Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, sees a definite trend among college students. “I do think we’re seeing an increase in Jewish learning on the campus,” she said.
Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, credits the Internet with some of the recent interest in Jewish learning among college students. “The Internet is so much the fabric of people’s lives today, part of young people’s lives,” he said. Many students, he added, turn to the Web for additional resources when taking Judaic courses.
Hence, even JNet is building its online resources; Rivkin said a resource library is in the works.
For their part, students are raving about the JNet model, judging from some e-mail comments.
“It felt like a magic door was opened to me, and I could understand the prayers,” reported Lisa, from Brookline, Mass. “JNet has given me the opportunity to continue my Jewish education.”
Stephan, from Brooklyn, N.Y. wrote, “My chavrusa, Asher, and I are still learning, and it’s a wonderful thing.”
At a time when Jewish literacy is a hot topic – in August 2005, the American Jewish Committee published the Canon of Jewish Literacy, a sort-of “Oprah’s list” of what should be on every Jew’s bookshelf – such excitement is obviously a welcome development.
Quoting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, Rabbi Yehuda Dukes, who manages the day-to-day operations of JNet – a tall order given the inconsistencies in schedules and personalities of participants – stressed that the purpose of knowledge, no matter how simple, is not that you should know it, but that you should share it.
Said Dukes: “If you know aleph, teach aleph.”