Center for the Jewish Future’s #EmpoweredLearning Program Aims to Engage and Inspire Torah Learners
What gets people excited about learning Torah? How can we harness technology to engage a worldwide audience of learners and inspire them to want to learn more?
Those are some of the questions Rabbi Ari Sytner, director of Community Initiatives at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF), set out to answer when he created a new online program that aims to bring an interactive Torah-learning experience to a wide group of users within the YU community and beyond.
“We wanted to come up with a revolutionary idea to engage people in learning,” said Rabbi Sytner. “We found that the most exciting part of learning is the question.”
Building on that idea, Rabbi Sytner designed and recently launched #EmpoweredLearning, where different YU scholars introduce profound and intriguing questions in a 10-minute video presentation, leaving viewers with sources and texts which will empower them to discover their own answers. During the week, participants can discuss the questions in an open online forum, until the following week when the presenter’s answer is revealed in three-minute video, followed by a new presenter posing a fresh set of questions.
The project, building on the success of YUTorah.org, is centered on the Jewish holidays, and it’s only fitting that the first few installments are being released in the three weeks leading up to Shavuot.
“It’s about taking learning to a whole new level, and this Shavuot, we are bringing Kabbalat HaTorah to a new community of learners and empowering people to come together around the centrality of the learning experience,” said Rabbi Sytner. “By providing a variety of Hebrew and English sources, we are also tailoring the education to people of all levels and backgrounds, and allowing the sources to be a springboard for discussion, thereby encouraging viewers to further ponder and research their own answers.”
The first video—by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, senior scholar at the CJF and professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought—went live on Sunday with some 500 participants from 24 countries, including Chile, Hong Kong, Kenya and Venezuela. Rabbi Schacter presented two questions about Kabbalat HaTorah, which immediately sparked conversation in the online discussion forum.
“The juicier a question is, the more exciting the learning becomes,” said Rabbi Sytner. “It’s the notion of a cliffhanger experience, where you take people to the edge and leave them hanging. The goal is for it to be an engaging and immersive learning experience that will appeal to people in different dimensions—intellectually stimulating and also spiritually and emotionally uplifting.”
In addition to the online component, #EmpoweredLearning is also offered as a blended learning experience for synagogues and schools to watch and discuss in person. For one viewer, Rabbi Nevo Zuckerman of Ontario, the video was a novel way to share Torah with 45 members of his congregation at a “lunch and learn” event.
“The #EmpoweredLearning initiative through YU provided my community with the opportunity to learn from dynamic Torah educators that we otherwise would not have come into contact with,” said Rabbi Zuckerman, who leads the Beth Jacob Congregation of Kitchener-Waterloo. “Everyone walked out amazed. The learning was accomplished while maintaining the continuity and comfort of their existing communal forum. We are grateful for the support this provides to many rabbis and individuals, especially in more remote communities.”
Two more videos will be shown in the weeks preceding Shavuot. Smadar Rosensweig, professor of Bible at Stern College for Women, will speak about the message of Megillat Ruth, and Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Weinberg, mashgiach ruchani at YU’s Irving I. Stone Beit Midrash Program, will discuss why the Torah was given to the Jewish people.
“I’m very excited to be a part of this revolutionary initiative, and it will definitely be interesting to see how we can spread Torah through this kind of medium,” said Professor Rosensweig. “The give and take of seeing a text and discussing it has great potential. We are giving viewers all the sources and tools to be creative and develop their own ideas, as well as a venue in which to discuss their insights. It’s also an amazing opportunity to connect with a diverse group of learners from all over the world.”
“This is what #EmpoweredLearning is about: getting people excited about a new face in online learning, and social media is a large part of that,” said Rabbi Sytner. “The hashtag serves as an invitation for people to discuss Torah in today’s virtual world. It’s a two-way dialogue—we are encouraging people to feel that they’re a part of something and actively involved in the learning process. This is the next step in Jewish education.”
To register for #EmpoweredLearning, visit yutorah.org/holidays.