Sanford Rosenthal surfs the web using a talking computer. To find matching clothes each morning, he feels the Braille labels on his shirts. His cell phone announces the number of the caller who is trying to reach him.
And when the blind social worker wants to study, Rosenthal calls JNet.
Founded in 2005, JNet provides the ultimate in convenience for people interested in studying Judaism. Students choose their preferred topic, are matched up with a suitable partner, and study at their leisure, on the phone or via webcam. The nature of the program makes it perfect for businessmen, people overseas, and homebound individuals. The administration screens teachers and provides coaching and materials.
Clearly, it is a popular way to study. An estimated 25,000 half-hour sessions will occur this year.
“Sometimes people feel intimidated entering a synagogue or attending a class,” says Rabbi Yehuda Dukes, managing director. “Studying on the phone takes the edge off. People feel safe on the phone.”
When someone registers, Dukes conducts a 15-minute interview to determine the student’s background, area of interest, and goals. Though there are popular topics (Chasidic thought, Jewish law, and the weekly Torah portion are a few), anything is possible. Partners commit to a three-month, extendable, term.
During their Tuesday night study session, Rosenthal and his study partner, Rabbi Ari Hermann, discuss the Torah portion. “I look at the Bible to understand the relationship between me and the L-rd. It sometimes seems that it doesn’t pertain to me. But then I talk and I question and our relationship develops,” says Rosenthal.
As a child, Rosenthal had poor night vision. By the time he hit his teens, he was legally blind; a decade later, he was using a guide dog. With the help of his talking computer, Rosenthal earned his MSW and attended a PhD program. These days, he uses his degree to teach relationship skills.
Rosenthal graduated from his local Hebrew school and studied at a Jerusalem yeshiva for a week. Ever since, he has been “in and out of Jewish study when convenient.” Recently though, he “was looking for a connection, to learn more about Judaism, spiritually, educationally, morally. So I looked up ‘Judaism’ on the computer, and I was right on, I found this interactive forum. Technology has made my study possible.”
More than 1,000 miles away, straight up the 1-95, Hermann spends his days plugging numbers as the CFO of a Manhattan development firm. The South African native “grew up wanting to be a rabbi,” and in some small way, he says, “this takes the place of it.” Before each phone call, Hermann hones up on the weekly Torah portion using Chasidic texts, a Talmud, and the Pentateuch. From his perspective, the weekly sessions ensure his own regular study while simultaneously allowing him to “teach someone who is so thirsty to learn.
“It is absolutely incredible that Jews can learn on the phone, coming from places where there is no one to learn with, or where the classes don’t cater to their interests or abilities. It is an awesome way of reaching out to someone who is reaching in.”
While Dukes believes that nothing can stand in for learning in person, he insists that JNet is a close second. Aside from coordinating and overseeing the partners, Dukes learns with several men on the phone.
“Learning on your own does not compare to learning with a study partner,” he says. “The good feeling after studying on the phone is a feeling you don’t get anywhere else.
“Two Jews getting together is a beautiful thing.”