Technology makes Jewish education more accessible. We must ensure the tradeoff isn’t our values.


By Henry Abramson

NEW YORK — Jewish colleges and universities and departments of Jewish studies may be guided by the core values of traditional religious texts, but their specific tools for survival in the post-COVID-19 era will probably be taken from the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education rather than the Shulchan Aruch.

The challenges to higher education are serious, and in some cases even existential. But least discussed is the effect an increased reliance on distance technology will have on the academic relationships that are essential to Jewish learning.

Distance learning technologies allow Jewish higher education to reach more students, but we can’t simply slap our courses online and consider ourselves done. If we do, we risk sacrificing cherished aspects of our pedagogy.

Take videoconferencing, for instance. Technology like Zoom has certainly served Jewish  colleges and universities well, but it is far from perfect, what with occasional incursions by anti-Semites and an even more insidious impact on learning through non-verbal communication.

We anticipate that this technology will improve over time, but I am concerned in particular about the loss of communal learning and discipleship, two central Jewish values that are endangered in the virtual environment.

Fortunately, a few ancient techniques might be adapted to the virtual environment, such that we can get even Zoom to slow down a bit.

First, Jewish thought places value on “s’khar halikhah,” literally “the reward of travel,” for the effort expended while commuting to the house of Torah study. To my knowledge, there is no such reward for secular study, so from an academic perspective, it’s hard to see much of a downside to online learning. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that many students actually prefer the virtual to the “real” classroom experience. Under our current circumstances, the social distancing potential for online learning is certainly welcome.

Students who live far from the major centers of Jewish life, as well as students who have disability issues that make on-campus study daunting, also have dramatically increased access to academic Jewish education because of distance learning technologies. It’s hard not to appreciate what online learning can do for our diasporic and differently abled students.

But the downside of this great equalizer is that it removes many incentives to stay together. Jewish civilization requires erudition, to be sure, but even more basically, it requires Jews.

The vast range of non-academic experiences that students absorb on campus are not accessible through distance learning, from intramural sports to late-night philosophical discussions in the dorm. Yet even the videoconference classroom is impoverished by the absence of living bodies: the hush that comes over the hall at the beginning of the lecture, the scratching of pencils during an exam or the furious clacking of keyboards as the professor builds to a didactic crescendo, all contribute to the gestalt of academic study, a shared vocabulary of experience that has built academic communities for generations.

To meet this challenge, we need to channel the middle part of Rabbi Hanina’s famous  pedagogic credo: “I learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and from my students most of all.”

Institutions of higher education under Jewish auspices have to invest in online events that are not strictly tied to the narrow curricular needs of degree fulfillment. For example, if we  host a prestigious guest lecture online, we’ve got to structure the event such that there are places for students to hang out and schmooze afterward.

Jewish colleges and universities will find a way to thrive in this online environment. If you were to pluck a student out of Sura, one of the greatest Babylonian institutions of Jewish  higher learning in antiquity, and bring him forward in time to a Jewish college or university in the 21st century, he would have a hard time recognizing our modern campuses as  educational settings, and the idea of learning online would probably reach far beyond his conceptual ability.

But the alienation of our Babylonian scholar (almost certainly a “he/him,” by the way)  would not be limited to the 21st century: One might argue he would be just as flummoxed by the medieval study circles in 12th century Ashkenaz, the holy society of medical  students that formed around Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in 18th century Italy, or even the mid-20th century cafeteria in Poland’s Hakhmei Lublin Yeshiva. The shape of Jewish higher education has endured many powerful transformations over the centuries, and there seems to be no reason we cannot thrive under these unusual circumstances just as well.

Maybe even better.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought who serves as a dean of Touro College in Brooklyn, N.Y.

—JTA News and Features

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here