A Call to Action: Make Jewish Learning a Global Seder

by Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D.

One of the characteristics of free people is their ability to ask questions. The more free we feel, the bigger the questions we’re able to ask. In the spirit of Pesach, the quintessential celebration of freedom, here are a few big questions that seem appropriate for a holiday in which learning about our identity as a people is so central.

What would happen if we created a true revolution for adult learners who want to learn about the Jewish civilization – those who are Jewish and those who are not Jewish? What are the implications for the global Jewish community and for the world if we created universal access to Jewish learning? Theoretically, we actually have the technologies to do so. We can take the model of massive online open courses (MOOCs) to create a revolution in learning about Judaism, for anyone who is interested. Academics and qualified instructors who teach Judaics around the globe, from topics as varied as Jewish medieval history to Jewish mysticism, could be recruited into the ranks of MOOCs teachers. We know that there’s an interest in learning about things Jewish. Just look at the phenomenon of daf yomi (those who commit to studying a page of Talmud daily), or websites as diverse as MyJewishlearning.com to Jerusalem Online University.

Yes, the MOOCs movement is in its early infancy. It reminds me of where online learning was in the early 90’s-a “fad” that many wise people predicted would disappear. While online learning still has problems and limitations, I know personally how it can open worlds and relationships previously unimaginable (I enrolled in my doctoral program in business in 1996 at Capella University, a leader in online graduate learning). And the MOOCs movement is likely to follow a similar trajectory-a little bumpy at the beginning with overall exponential benefits.

Clearly, MOOCs don’t provide intimacy of experience as a seder or a face-to-face class does and there’s a lot to be said for synagogue and JCC adult education experiences. But these kinds of classes typically attract small numbers and the topics are limited in range. How would the world be different if we intentionally opened up the treasure of knowledge that we possess and made it universally accessible? What would the impact be on non-Jews if they could learn about the richness of Jewish thought, of Jewish communities, of the interaction of Jews and their broader cultures throughout history, especially in countries where there aren’t a lot of Jews?

One of Shakespeare’s characters in As You Like It, said that, “All the world’s a stage.” Let’s dream that “All the world’s a Seder” or “All the World’s a Classroom!” We have the potential to achieve “Jewish literacy” for adults across every continent, whether or not they are Jewish! Philanthropists, in concert with Jewish federations and the Government of Israel, have the opportunity to create a true revolution in Jewish learning. With the same creativity and resources that they’ve brought to initiatives like Birthright Israel:Taglit and Limmud, they could ensure global access to high-quality learning about the Jewish civilization to Jews and non-Jews across the globe. Any philanthropists up for the challenge? Any reactions to this idea?

Chag sameach!

Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D. is C.E.O. of Herring Consulting Network.