From Tape Cassettes to Mobile Apps: How YUTorah Grew Into The Leading Site For Online Torah Study

It started with one semicha [rabbinic] student.

yutorah-screenshot3While studying at Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rabbi Marc Spivak was training for a career as a pulpit rabbi outside the tri-state area—but he didn’t want to miss out on the advanced learning and shiurim [Torah lectures] he loved at YU. He began taping shiur after shiur at the University, building a collection of Torah lectures he’d be able to listen to anywhere, any time. When his apartment could no longer hold the sheer volume of tapes he’d created, he tried digital storage, learning how to encode the shiurim and burn them to CDs. Eventually, with help from YU student Chaim Jaskoll and other Jews still exploring the internet’s fledgling potential, Spivak turned to the emerging world of online media, uploading all the shiurim he had recorded to a single website where they would remain accessible, for free, to any Jew, anywhere in the world, who wanted to broaden their Torah horizons.

That turned out to be just the beginning. The site was an instant hit. Spivak joined what would eventually become known as YU’s Center for the Jewish Future to embark on an even more ambitious project: recording and uploading shiurim Yeshiva-wide. Excited donors contributed recording equipment and initial server space, while students and YU faculty added a growing number of shiurim to the site daily. Before long, the site had expanded beyond YU’s borders, receiving submissions and listenership from Torah figures and institutions around the world.

Today, that website is known as YUTorah, and with over 90,000 shiurim—and counting—it’s the leading site for online Torah study. In 2014 alone, YUTorah received more than 4 million pageviews from 185 countries worldwide and thousands of downloads of its mobile apps for Android and iPhone.

“It’s grown exponentially,” said Rabbi Robert Shur, director of YUTorah since 2007. “We started out limited to just shiurim that were happening at YU and RIETS, just to give people access to the rabbeim they’d listened to as undergraduates. Then we made a decision to expand it to become more of a forum for the Torah happening throughout Yeshiva University and the YU community, a one-stop shop for high-quality Torah content from a whole range of speakers and topics. Today, all kinds of Jews from nearly every country on the planet come to YUTorah to learn—you don’t get a broader audience than that.”

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, host of the site’s extremely popular “Ten Minute Halacha” series as well as a Daf Yomi series, can attest to that. “The most eye-opening thing for me has been the incredible reach of YUTorah,” he said. There’s the listener from Phoenix, Arizona, who sends fresh-picked oranges to Lebowitz’s shul in North Woodmere, New York, to help him get through the cold Northeastern winter. Or the Hollywood director who requested a 10-minute halacha shiur on what can and can’t be filmed according to Jewish law. Or the Reconstructionist rabbi who reached out to Lebowitz after Hurricane Sandy to ask how his congregation was doing. Or Rabbi Greg Wall, of Westport, Connecticut.

“As a returnee to active Judaism as an adult, it became painfully obvious that my lack of a traditional yeshiva education was keeping me from getting the most out of my Jewish observance,” said Wall. He attended local classes and lectures and began studying for semicha, but felt something was missing—until he stumbled upon the website. “YUTorah provided the opportunity to get a complete overview of the mesechot [Talmud tractates] I was learning, as well as go into greater depth than I would have been otherwise able. It gave me the next best thing to a YU education. I’m able to learn in depth in just about any area of Torah.”

These are the stories Lebowitz hears wherever he travels, from London, United Kingdom to Palo Alto, California. He added that he uses the site himself in his own research and preparation for his own lectures. “There is literally no topic that isn’t accounted for, generally in a very professional and thorough way, on YUTorah,” said Lebowitz. “It is the gold standard of Torah on the internet.”

Dr. David Arbesfeld got involved with YUTorah more than 10 years ago, when he discovered Spivak’s CDs of lectures by Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud Rabbi Hershel Schacter at the YU Seforim Sale. After learning about the project, Arbesfeld was eager to help out, offering to donate all the recording equipment that was needed. He stayed involved as the site evolved and expanded under the direction of CJF’s Isaac Shalev, who revised YUTorah’s look and feel and brought on more volunteers to help record and upload shiurim. “It’s a big mitzvah to be marbitz Torah b’rabim [spread Torah to the masses] and if there’s something you can do to make it so people won’t have to pay, many more will be able to listen,” said Arbesfeld. “YU has such great Roshei Yeshiva and shiurim to offer—some of the lectures we’ve put up have gotten over 2,000 hits. For me personally, I love being able to listen to lectures from someone like Rav Schachter anytime, anywhere, no matter where he is in the world.”

For Rabbi Gil Student, publisher and editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com, YUTorah is “my trip back to yeshiva.” Student discovered the site soon after it launched and has been incorporating it into his writing ever since.

“I listen to shiurim mainly during my commute and reconnect to my rebbeim—just hearing their voices makes a difference and takes me back in time,” he said. “At first, I would listen mostly to Rav Hershel Schachter’s parsha shiurim; I always had something to say on the parsha and I would also get his opinion on the issues of the day. I also listened to many practical halacha shiurim, including the extensive Yoreh Daya offerings. Interestingly, a Catholic from Europe with whom I once corresponded told me that he avidly followed [Nathan and Perel Schupf Chair in Talmud] Rabbi Michael Rosensweig’s daily Gemara shiur.”

Student especially appreciated the recent addition of more than 8,000 journals and scholarly articles that are made available on the site. “I enjoyed the easy access to YU scholarship, especially the historical issues of Beis Yitzchak.”

The addition of other historical material, such as uploads of recorded shiurim that were given in YU over the past 50 years, has also created new learning opportunities, for new students, distinguished Torah scholars and even, in some cases, the original lecturers themselves. “People can ask me questions now about shiurim I gave in 1994!” said Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, professor of rabbinic literature at YU’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem and one of YUTorah’s most popular speakers, joking, “I thank the Master of the Universe that my memory still works.”

Rakeffet has posted more than 1,000 shiurim on the site, in categories that range from Jewish law to Zionism and Jewish thought to reflections on Torah personalities, and sets aside two hours each day to answer the correspondence he receives from YUTorah users. “I’ve gotten letters from Australia that say, ‘Thank you for making it possible for me to stay frum [observant],’ signed, ‘your talmud [student],’” he said. “A virtual talmud is just as good as a regular talmud. YUTorah is the tomorrow that has already arrived today.”

With the help of Yoni Cohen, CJF director of operations, Shur works on the site constantly to ensure it’s always evolving, adding exponential amounts of content and customizing it to make it more personal and user-friendly for each user. YUTorah visitors can now organize speakers or topics they’re interested in to a “notebook,” among other new features. That innovation is possible because of the vibrant communal support the site receives:  In 2006, Marcos and Adina Katz gave a generous gift to endow YUTorah, and users can sponsor days, weeks or months of learning. In 2014, 219 days were sponsored.

“Since YUTorah’s inception, we have convened the academic talent of our Roshei Yeshiva, our academic community, and our alumni to create one of the most robust Torah sites in the Jewish world,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner dean of the CJF and vice president for university and community life at YU. “Our research has shown for close to 50 percent of our users, YUTorah has been their first connection with Yeshiva University. Throughout the past nine and half years it has been a personal privilege to be involved with Rabbi Shur and the Yeshiva University community in the development of this initiative, sharing Torah with 250,000 Jews annually from across the world.”