For so many young women, it is a rite of passage: Spending a post-high school year in Israel soaking up a wealth of Jewish studies in an intense curriculum designed to fortify their spiritual side for decades to come. But not everyone gets to experience that unique year of study, and even those who do often find themselves yearning for an extra infusion of Torah learning that will enrich their lives and expand their horizons once they come home.
The idea that seminary was a once-in-a-lifetime experience available only to a limited age group troubled Dr. Chavi Golderg. With a bachelor’s degree in Jewish education, a master’s degree in teaching and curriculum development and a doctorate in instructional technology and distance education, Dr. Goldberg was passionate about learning. Having taken advantage of online courses in her own quest for academic fulfillment, the Toronto native had an epiphany.
“I was doing my master’s in curriculum development online and, doing one of my papers, I saw that you could do just about everything online,” Dr. Goldberg told Olam Yehudi. “You could get an accounting degree online. You could get semicha online. You could do just about everything on the Internet, except a girl couldn’t go to seminary online. I decided to change that.”
The program that Dr. Goldberg envisioned was a full-fledged web-based university that would cater to women of all ages, from those who had never gone to seminary, to those who wanted to supplement their Torah studies at any stage of life. In-depth courses at both the bachelor’s and master’s levels would be taught by experts, and students would be required to complete assignments and work collaboratively with their peers. The program would be accessible to women from their own homes, on their own schedules, and students could earn credits towards a bachelor’s degree or even earn their degree from CyberSem.
Over the last few years, Dr. Goldberg has been hard at work setting up the necessary infrastructure that would enable her to transform her dream into reality. Now the official founder and director of CyberSem, Dr. Goldberg is understandably proud of her program which is based on the same educational platform currently being used by both Columbia and Stamford universities. The system is completely self-contained, including course materials, chat sessions with classmates and all class discussions so students have no need to surf the web for their coursework and can avoid the potential perils of the Internet.
While online shiurim are nothing new, interactive education that allows students to be actively involved in the learning process offers unprecedented advantages, including a significantly higher retention of information. Additionally, because self-regulated learning requires students to develop disciplined study skills, CyberSem lays the groundwork for students to become lifelong learners.
CyberSem’s first course focuses on women in both Neviim and Kesuvim. Created by Malka Touger, a world-renowned lecturer, teacher, author and Tanach expert, the class discusses 10 different women and begins with a fundamental review of the text and basic commentaries before becoming more in-depth. All CyberSem classes will provide an appropriate educational challenge, with an element of rigor intended to be stimulating but not overwhelming.
Classes are designed to give students the ability to relate to the subject matter and extend their knowledge while building a level of confidence that will allow them to open any sefer and master its contents.
All course materials are available online in a downloadable e-book, so that even students who are traveling will have the ability to keep up with the coursework no matter where they may be. Class size will be limited to ten women, a number that will create a sense of community and foster group discussion, both crucial elements of distance learning.
Part of the beauty of CyberSem is that while each course involves an initial financial investment, once created it remains part of the seminary’s educational catalog and can be enjoyed by hundreds of students without any additional costs.
CyberSem began its first official semester on October 30 with the Navi class as well as courses in Chumash, Jewish history and communication skills class which will help students sharpen their writing and oratory skills. CyberSem’s second semester will begin January 1, 2017.
One course currently under development is on hilchos Shabbos and Yom Tov in the kitchen using motion graphics to better illustrate the often complex situations that can arise. The class will incorporate dynamic images displayed alongside the instructor, Rabbi Yaakov Goldstein of Tzefas. Dr. Goldberg describes it as “an eye opener.”
CyberSem will be run in 12-week semesters, with tuition priced at $350 per course. Classes to be developed include the Rambam’s Shmoneh Perakim, Sefer Hamitzvos, Pirkei Avos, Tefillah and portions of Gemara that are more commonly taught to girls and women.
Marrying e-learning to a women’s seminary is, perhaps, the ultimate shidduch and CyberSem is targeting women between the ages of 20 to 120. Dr. Goldberg hopes that the Jewish community will support her efforts, allowing her to expand her offerings and possibly offer scholarships. She hopes to position the school as a unique vehicle that can fill a void that exists in women’s education and enable those who can learn online to strengthen their Yiddishkeit while simultaneously broadening their educational horizons.
Using online learning to challenge women of all ages is an exciting concept and, while it may be relatively new in the Torah world, many view it as an idea whose time has come. Dr. Goldberg was quick to note that CyberSem is not competing with conventional seminary programs but rather offering an opportunity for lifelong learning for women of all ages, in all communities.
“I’m very excited about CyberSem and am constantly working, fine-tuning and developing it,” said Dr. Goldberg. “Doing Torah online like this is practically unheard of. We are breaking into a new world and I am grateful for the opportunity to give women a chance to take something they love, something they may have always wanted to learn, and to make it available in a high quality way.”