Peter Menkin interviews Yaakov Menken

No, no relation! Peter Menkin is an Episcopal writer, and this article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the Church of England Newspaper. Interesting style and all, you do learn a lot about Project Genesis via this article — so with his permission I’ve reprinted it here.

Interview: Internet Rabbi Yaakov Menken speaks about his Religious Education work with www.Torah.org

In an interview on Religious Education, Orthodox Rabbi Yaakov Menken talks of his work with the successful teaching website www.Torah.org and tells readers all about what to expect as students

by Peter Menkin

Founder and Director of www.Torah.org,
Rabbi Yaakov Menken of Baltimore, Maryland, USA

This is the second interview in three that constitute the final article-interview on Religious Education. The unique aspect of this interview has to do with the success of internet education and its use in the teaching of Torah and Jewish learning purposes, as well, of Orthodox Jewish adult education. In this interview with Religion Writer Peter Menkin, Director of www.torah.org spoke with the writer over a period of a few months, from December, 2011, through the 20th of March, 2012. Rabbi Yaakov Menken (no relation to the Religion Writer), speaks with an authority born of education, training, and experience. He shows a love of learning, and like the other three Rabbis who are part of this interview series of three about the internet learning site, with its 78,000 subscribers, Rabbi Yaakov has a warmth for the reality of the work and their experience in reaching out to both Jews and non-Jews in many parts of the world–in fact, worldwide as well as the United States. The phone conversations held from Peter Menkin’s home office in Mill Valley, California to Rabbi Yaakov’s office at www. Torah.org and his own home in Baltimore, went well.

1. Peter Menkin: There is little doubt in my mind that your work as Director, www.Torah.org is an internet success with 78,000 subscribers. In a conversation by phone, you talked some about advantages and such of internet learning—calling Torah.org a place for ongoing education (lifelong learning). To paraphrase your remark regarding continuing education –as this writer knows it as once known in California, USA — and your school purpose, continuing education is…much closer to our model, not because (the student is) going to get a credit. Lifelong education known to us as… religious study…a more fundamental obligation. It is one of the things we are expected to do. Tell us about this lifelong, fundamental obligation. Give us some about the, “Why,” and “What for…”

Rabbi Yaakov Menken: In our view, of course, the Torah as the word of God was not only given to us in a written law, but given to us as an Oral Law—which was only written down so that it wasn’t forgotten. For us every piece of that Law is God’s Commandment. “And you will teach it to your children, and you will speak of it when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking on the way, and when you lie down and when you arise.” [Deuteronomy 6:7].

In any case, it is one of our most fundamental teachings that we should be involved in learning and studying God’s law—it’s God’s teaching, the Torah. Whether its ethics, philosophy, we are fulfilling God’s Commandment to study, which helps us to perform all the other Commandments. It’s not merely intellectual study. You learn how to speak properly, and then you have a conversation. (We have a class in the ethics of speech. It is one of our oldest classes, and the archive is still active on our website.)

When we are talking about philosophy and ethics and how a person should think about things, it is not simply cut and dry. You have to have the spirit along with it. There are certain things you can get away with in rote mechanics, but ethics you cannot. It is not to say you are supposed to—you don’t get up and check a box. When it comes to something like interpersonal conduct, if you don’t understand the principals you can’t understand what you are doing.

Even in a more positive direction, this–when you are studying the word of God you are becoming a more Godly person. You are coming to God and making the world a better place. It’s very small. You start much closer to home. When you learn to generally care about other people, and make others happier…one person at a time…that generosity is reflected in a lot of ways: in spirit, in generous giving, generosity of volunteerism. Generosity of time is also generosity.

It’s a rationale for our existence, to become a more Godly people and bring the world along with us. That is our highest expression in the world.

A large part of our audience is composed of people who have–even people who have been born into Jewish families—who have never been exposed to this. They have never experienced the beauty of what Jewish learning really is. Part of our work is to have people have an experience of Jewish learning and grow from
there.

When it comes to Jewish learning, the objective is not to be the greatest scholar on the planet. There is only one person who will be the greatest scholar on the planet. It is to be the greatest scholar you can be.

2. Peter Menkin: This writer notes there are opportunities the technical side of internet systems offers the student that your school offers: http://torahmedia.com/. The site says,

TorahMedia has thousands of FREE Jewish mp3 audio downloads and a lending library of world class Jewish speakers. Find your favorite speakers, discover new ones and search for your topic on the world’s most comprehensive Torah audio lending library available online.

Featuring such speakers as Rabbi Yissocher Frand, Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, Rabbi Paysach Krohn, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski … and many more!

You told me in a phone conversation, “We have a very substantial mp3 library of our own. It is one of the most diverse sources on the internet. There are six pages of teachers who are involved with us. Torahmedia.com  (is) where one can find collateral material…Torah audio. (Availability allows) use mp3 players and  the iPod will play it, podcast compatible. Torahmedia has podcasts available.  I call this cutting edge, and even, “cool.” I am sure young people say it is, “cool.”

How were you able to create all these integrated sites, technically, and who worked on the project that as www.torah.org began in 2005? Talk to our readers about your own background, both as Rabbi and as computer programmer? Do you have a degree in computer programming?

Rabbi Yaakov Menken: Project Genesis has been around since 1993, and the domain name Torah.org came two years later. I do have a background in computer science. I went to Princeton, and one of my classmates was Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com. He was Princeton computer science student and had an idea for an online bookstore. Part way through Princeton, I made the decision to be observant of traditional Judaism and went to study that ofter college. After studying for several years, I wanted to do something to encourage Jewish learning on college campuses. The truth is I thought we were going to do live events on campus. I thought we would do things outside of Hillel to capturing students’ attention. But then the Internet became the best way to reach large numbers of people. It was a confluence of circumstances, and people that encouraged me to use the Internet for Jewish learning, and lo and behold it took off.

Because my degree was in computers, I was the first programmer for our organization. We ran web servers, mailing list servers. I am less and less involved with that today. We have a team of people who work with us today, and the truth is today there is not as much programming.

There is a big project afoot to unify our websites. When we began in 1995, we did this all by hand, there was no software platform to work from. There was not as much user access. You couldn’t rely on the average user to have a broadband Internet connection. Today all that has changed. Even news sites feature video on the home page. We do not divide as text from audio from video as we did ten years ago. We have to link to audio and video as we do with other web topics [today]. If there is web audio content about a holiday coming up, doesn’t it make sense to link to that content?

We regard it as a tremendous opportunity. Anything that comes along in this way can be used to expand educational offerings. And here we’re talking about a type of immediate outreach to people around the world that was never offered before. Obviously there are upsides and downsides to every technical advance. Here we are leveraging it to its best advantage.

3. Peter Menkin: In questions asked of one of your teachers, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. One question asked of him I will now ask of you: “Speak some to us about the goals of Jewish Religious Education, especially in light of the reach and effectiveness of internet education. Can you tell us what limitations you find in this system? and more, some of the general rules of purpose of your internet teaching?”

Rabbi Yaakov Menken: To address the limitations, the biggest limitation is the lack of personal contact. There is always an advantage to having a personal connection, and it is very difficult to make that happen over an internet connection. We are doing something in our unique way, to help people learn and grow and all the things we said earlier. We are enabling that because we use the internet. We inspire and help people to learn about Jewish learning wherever they might be. Even at McMurdo Air Force Base, in Antarctica. This was of course back in the early days, when scientific research stations did not have to have all the firewalls and protections that they do now. There was a Jewish researcher there who did a little Jewish learning by visiting our website.

We’ve had subscribers in Montana, in Kenya, Western Australia (the most educated Jew on campus. He was downloading material from our website for weekly study). We obviously have subscribers in New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles, Chicago–in Jewish communities where there is substantial Orthodox community and educated community.

Using the Internet provides exposure to this traditional Jewish teaching in this way. We don’t know specific percentages of which age groups, but there definitely are a large number of college age subscribers. In general terms I would say, yes, we are succeeding in reaching college studints this way.

We try not to limit how people use the site … it’s very much user, student driven. It is always what people want to sign up for, what is of interest. We don’t say, here’s how to use it, here’s how you ought not to use it. The material we are sending out, and the lectures, are all packaged by the teacher. We don’t provide a rule set on how to read it or when to read it. When it’s convenient for you, we want you to do a little Jewish learning.

4. Peter Menkin: This writer often wonders what the reason is that a religious man or woman engages in a given vocation. In a serious way, this question asks of clergy (you), what was and is your call, and why did you take on the work you took. In your case, religious educator?

Rabbi Yaakov Menken: When I became religious in college, I realized there was not enough access for Jewish students in college. The large organizations like Hillel with their buildings and draw to local activities called for a certain level of identity before Jewish students would even go into the building. I realized there was a need for more. Given that Jewish outreach and education are imperatives for everyone, it seemed like I felt a new and unique contribution could be made.

I don’t think that there was any moment of inspiration; it’s more that I perceived a void and saw that I could make a contribution that could help. I felt that someone who had experience on college campus could perceive this. That said, a lot of my original perceptions and thoughts did not come to pass. The success came in an adjunct to our primary activities, and yet we became phenomenally successful in that area.

In the Jewish understanding of God and his laws, you have the Torah and detailed laws for most every act in life. You know what you are trying to do is glorifying the Torah and God’s name. That is the guideline you need. You talk to outstanding rabbinic teachers and ask if this is a good thing to be doing.

My conception of what is on the right course is all well and good, but you have to consult with the leading rabbis, and learn what they think is true. Tremendously successfully endeavors are not always in God’s path, but you see things that are not obvious success. The divine presence is not seen all the time. We may not see what we wish to see or don’t.

5. Peter Menkin: The Jewish man or woman is engaged in education from a perspective of a religious and particularly Jewish kind, especially the Orthodox. Will you speak to us about this perspective, and take us to the matter of attitude in viewpoint. Further, I refer the reader to your interesting remark in a conversation we had, to wit, “Sunday school is a different game. What we’re doing is more adult oriented. Sunday school has a component that is obligatory. Parents want you to because you have to be Bar Mitzvah. It’s all about the person’s individual discovery. There may be a transformation of a person, inspired by the education they get online. Although some of (our) classes are focusing on inspiration, though some are dry recitations of facts.”

Rabbi Yaakov Menken: When one is involved with childhood education, parents, teachers and others decide what the students must [learn]. We make choices in our later years, like college…we take electives. Of course we choose a major and areas of study. The same is true in religious education. Hebrew school is not mandated by the children, it is mandated by the parents. Individual discovery is for [adults]; people say I want to go to a Jewish website and choose such and such topic. One thing about the website: that we offer such a diverse array of topics of study, but we don’t provide individual guidance, the way a leader of a congregation is expected to do. There are few individual relationships here, and it’s not any sort of formal relationship.

You spoke about being a religious leader – I didn’t set myself up that way, or see myself that way. On the contrary, I am trying to enable others to teach. That is why you have such a large array of teachers on our site. The larger schools can set up their own websites, but we created a structure where someone who is a teacher, educated Jewishly, is enabled to teach via the Internet. I have leveraged my knowledge of computer science to aid the area of Jewish education. As I said before, I have a classmate who created Amazon.com. I use the same knowledge of computers to do something very different.

6. Peter Menkin: Let’s talk some more about formation, which is in the religious sense a kind of spiritual and religious growth phenomenon, one that Christians say is a result of the Holy Spirit and Grace itself. What is the source of such formation and growth for the Jewish student?  Is it Ruah?

Rabbi Yaakov Menken: We do believe that every Jewish soul is born with that desire to grow towards God. We are all created in the image of God. Abraham was set apart as a seeker of God and divinity. We are just helping someone uncover that which is there. Even though people make all sorts of different contributions, and there are 70 faces of Torah. We would not say people are inspired to be that way…was it their nature to be drawn to things in a certain way and a certain nature? There may be a person who has a natural affinity for the shedding of blood. That person can be a murderer, or the kosher slaughterer of animals, or circumciser of baby boys in that ritual of Jewish faith.

The particular direction a person goes is often a part of that natural affinity, and using it in the right way.

7. Peter Menkin: Thank you for your generosity and long, complete answers in this interview. I am glad for the opportunity to talk with you and continue our acquaintance. Is there anything this writer failed to ask or omitted in this series of questions that you’d like to make at this time? Thank you.

Rabbi Yaakov Menken: The Orthodox Jewish world has much to offer other Jews, and the world, and this is an opportunity to hear from them directly – people can look in and see what we say. It is like hearing the lectures the rabbinic students are hearing from the rabbis. Everyone is finding out what is said, and some people find it very informative to see it firsthand.

It provides information for particular areas of ethics. The websites gives guides for holidays and things like that which are practical. Some is theoretical – Jewish learning can be theoretical, but it can be very practical as well, with direct applicability to our lives. It may inspire people to do more and enrich their lives, but not all of it is practical or guidance of how to live. A lot of it is learning for learning’s own sake.

ADDENDUM

Torah Lessons by Rabbi Yaakov Menken

[The addendum consisted of three Torah.org classes which I have linked rather than reprinting.]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *