Jewish cyberspace links Torah talk from S.F. to N.Y. and beyond

"Internet classes are never going to be as good as a live learning experience," says Rabbi Yaakov Menken, an expert in cyber-Jewish education. "But it is a valuable resource for those who don't have time for classes outside and those who live in places where there are not the local resources."

Menken founded and maintains Project Genesis: Torah on the Information Superhighway, a Jewish learning center on the Internet offering classes on Jewish philosophy and practice as well as Jewish archives, Torah commentaries and general information about happenings in the Jewish world.

The 30-something Orthodox rabbi, who holds an engineering degree from Princeton University, operates Project Genesis from his home office in Spring Valley, N.Y. He visited San Francisco recently to talk with staff at the Bureau of Jewish Education and Hebrew Academy about Torah on the information superhighway.

Currently, there are more than 10 interpretations of the weekly Torah portion available on the Internet. Four are available through Project Genesis, as is one interpretation of the Haftorah.

The privately funded project started in 1993 with a single class exploring a specific work on Jewish ethics. Since then, it has expanded to become the largest Jewish learning center in the cyberworld, with more than a dozen classes and approximately 5,000 students downloading class material. Those subscribers come from as far away as Sweden, Norway, Argentina and Brazil.

"I am happiest to hear from subscribers in far-off locations who really don't have much of a Jewish education," Menken says. "That's where we're perhaps having the strongest impact on someone's decision to remain affiliated with the Jewish community."

Last year, Project Genesis expanded further by opening a World Wide Web site (http://www.torah.org) that is a resource for all services offered by Project Genesis.

The icon labeled "Special Speaker, Seminars and Events" for example, leads to a listing of events, including the International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics sponsored by Hebrew Academy.

Another icon, labeled "Other Jewish Learning Programs," offers information on Jewish learning centers around the world and links vistors to other Internet sites of Jewish interest.

If users click on the icon for Global Learning Network, meanwhile, they can get a description of the various free classes offered through Project Genesis, and can register for them.

In some cases, material covered by a class is available for perusal and downloading. This is the case with a class on Jewish law in daily life: Users can click on such topics as who wears tzitzit (ritual fringes); laws governing doffing the tefillin (phylacteries); the laws of morning blessings; and details on who is exempt from reading the Sh'ma. The class is one of Project Genesis' most popular, according to Menken.

Other of the most popular classes, he says, is titled "RavFrand." It's based on a transcription of a class on the weekly Torah portion led by Rabbi Yissachar Frand of Baltimore's Ner Israel Rabbinical College. A class on Maimonides' teachings is also popular.

Rabbis teaching the classes are all Orthodox, but Menken insists the program is nondenominational. Surveys of subscribers, he says, show that they belong to all branches of Judaism.

The point "is not to tell people how to observe or what to do, but to offer them the necessary background," he says. "A well-informed Reform or Conservative Jew also should know these things."