Finding Torah on the Internet

By Shoshana (Susan) Zakar

Less than two years ago, in the early spring of 1993, I was watching over my husband's shoulder in our basement in Bowie, MD., as he meandered through a bunch of messages on the computer. The discussions of software bugs and new software utilities were mildly interesting, but I figured there might be something better.
"Anything Jewish out there?", I asked, hoping maybe to find some useful suggestions for teaching the fourth grade Hebrew class at the nearby Reform synagogue to which we belonged.
"There's soc.culture.jewish.", Joe replied. [Computer junkies read this as 'soc-dot-culture-dot-jewish', 's.c.j.' for short.]
"Can I see it?"
I don't think either of us ever dreamed where this would eventually lead...
For the next two hours I sat there, spellbound, reading message after message from Jews all over the world, from the U.S., from Israel, from England and Australia. And they were all talking to each other, carrying on discussions and debates on everything from women rabbis to terrorism in Israel. I was hooked. Whenever the opportunity arose, I'd get Joe to let me on the computer and head right for s.c.j. There was just one problem: He wouldn't let me write back, because any message would appear to be from him.
Joe and I love each other, but he wasn't about to let me put words in his mouth, so to speak. The obvious solution was for me to get my own account.
Now I was dangerous. I, too, could send messages to folks all over the world, either on public forums, where everyone could read what I wrote and respond, or by private "email" where I could just talk one-on-one. I was connected. I had a computer and I knew how to use it!
All this was happening at about the same time that I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my lack of "spiritual growth" at Temple Solel. The questions I was asking just weren't getting answered. A few meetings with the rabbi resolved nothing. At the same time, I was pretty ticked off at Orthodoxy for the way it seemed to treat women. (There was no Orthodox shul in Bowie, my impressions were from attending my father-in-law's shul in Queens, NY)
Anyway, one evening, I up and vented my confusion on the net. To the whole world (well, everyone on s.c.j., anyway) I wrote a message:
"Why do Orthodox treat women the way they do?"
In reality the message was a bit longer and more specific, but you get the idea. Now with a whole bunch of Jews of every persuasion "listening" in, do you suppose a few answered?
As a matter of fact, a few did: Orthodox Jews, mostly. There was Michelle, a programmer in California, Sheldon a physicist in Silver Spring, MD., David at Tulane University in New Orleans, Benjamin in Australia, YY in Brooklyn, and a couple of others. We tossed the subject around publicly on s.c.j. a while, then a few of these diehards started chatting with me privately, via email. What was scary was that they were telling me things that I'd never heard before. I began to see how little I really knew on the subject, which I made the mistake of admitting to a couple of them. They said I had to learn more, and suggested a couple of books to read.
Shavuos was approaching. Temple Solel didn't "do" Shavuos--except for a pot luck dinner. I asked on a local computer newsgroup about where I could go. One person called me up from Silver Spring and suggested that I call a family he knew in Baltimore and see if they would put us up. "Yeah, right", I thought. "Gee, Ron, I just can't see that as a possibility, just now, but thanks." I answered aloud. After the call, I started calling around to see when a couple of Conservative Synagogues were going to have services.
As it turned out, I got sick and was home in bed for Shavuos. Maybe Hashem has to get tough to make things work out sometimes. Too tired for much else, I spent the day reading a couple of the books that the folks on the net had recommended.
What I learned from reading those books cascaded with several other events that set the stage for "This is Your Life", book two.
First, we decided to give up on Temple Solel --resign. I vented my frustrations over the computer, this time on something called FIDOnet, explaining why we decided to quit and why we were going back to the Conservative synagogue. Of course, there were responses, including one from the guy in Australia, who asked why we didn't just go "all the way" and become Orthodox. I answered that we couldn't because we'd have to move...and a few other excuses that I'm not even sure I bought into.
Second, the Conservative rabbi was in Israel for the summer.
Third, three different people on the net all recommended that I talk to one particular Orthodox rabbi in Silver Spring--Rabbi Teitelbaum. I wondered if Someone was trying to tell me something -- but I really wouldn't have had the courage to contact the rabbi, except that...
Fourth, something that I had read in the book made me very worried that there had been a serious problem with my conversion 18 years before. I spoke to Joe, and he agreed that it was important for me to address it, if only for my peace of mind.
It was with a great deal of trepidation that I sat in his office at the yeshiva, and presented Rabbi Teitelbaum with the information I put together.
"It's clear to me that you are not Jewish," he concluded, confirming my worst fears. "You understand that your children are not Jewish either." Words cannot do justice to the devastation I felt.
We talked for his whole lunch hour. By the time I left, I had a pretty clear picture of what my choices were. I knew I would need to have an Orthodox conversion. I certainly had no idea how that would ever happen, given the obstacles we'd have to surmount...but that's another story.
I vented my frustrations on the net again. By now this group of people had become like a Jewish community to me, friends, people I felt I could trust. I wrote privately to Michelle, Sheldon and David, discussing in detail what had happened, as well as putting the general situation up for public discussion.
On the public side there was a lot of discussion over whether details involved in a conversion should matter was Orthodox fanaticism.. I was doing the right thing...the wrong thing... There were a lot of echoes of my own thoughts, I guess.
On the private side, I spent many hours in email conversations with this inner community, whom I'd grown to trust precisely because of their obvious commitment to Torah, Halacha and Hashem. ( In the process I also found out that David was not a student at Tulane, but a Chabad sh'liach there. )
It was in large measure because of the support of these few Observant Jews (whom I knew only over the computer net) that I found strength to make the decisions that had to be made, face the problems and determine to overcome them.
The details of the problems and process will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that, in the end, we moved from Bowie to Baltimore and the kids and I had kosher conversions. In more ways than one, we had come home.
It was one message that I was quite happy to convey to "my Jewish internet community".
I'm still in contact with a number of those folks on the internet. David (still at Tulane) and I are even, bli ayin horah, trying to write a book together. Michelle got married and may be moving to Silver Spring; YY manages to find time to respond to me, whenever I have some sudden personal "crisis" that needs talking out. This, even with his busy schedule as Director of Activities for the Lubavitch computer network. And it goes on.
Sometimes it goes the other way, too. I often find myself being (what I hope is) a source of support for people on the net who are themselves going through conversion, or considering it, or becoming religious with family involved. A few of these are folks that YY has referred to me after they have written him, others just have picked up on my posts or I on theirs.
One of my "happiest" stories is a Jew who posted a message telling why he believed that Jesus was the Messiah. After engaging him in a number of go-rounds -- off the public forum-- he was persuaded to contact Mark Powers at Jews for Judaism. Through Mark (who used email and phones), me, and possibly others we don't know about, Jack turned his beliefs around and is now learning with an Orthodox rabbi in Florida, where he lives. He occasionally still posts on that newsgroup, but he's on "our side" now.
We are friends who have not, for the most part, ever met.
Sometimes we do meet, though.
Norm , who lives in Randallstown, had been a valuable help to me when I was trying to learn more about Baltimore. The day we moved in--we finished at 2 a.m. on Friday-- he showed up at our house with a complete Shabbos dinner that his wife and he had prepared. That was the fist time we had met in person.
At Rosh Hashanah, Eliot, caught up with my husband here in shul. Eliot and I had also corresponded several times over the net. I'd let him know we had moved to Baltimore, and he made a point to find us. We got to know each other much better as we shared meals during Sukkos.
Robert was one of those who had referred me to Rabbi Teitelbaum via the internet. When I recently found out that he lived only a few blocks away, we were eager to have them for Shabbos lunch-- and later to enjoy a memorable Shabbos evening with them.
"Julie" is one of those who YY referred to me. She was planning to come through Baltimore on a personal trip and took me up on a standing invitation for Shabbos. She experienced Shomrei friendliness, shared in the Shlomo Carlbach melave malka, came to a couple of shiurim and went on her way, leaving me with yet another friend.
I could go on. The real story here is not mine, because it is not unique. A number of other people have written that they have become more religious because of what they have learned from other Jews on the net. The real story here is that Hashem has provided an incredible opportunity to reach out and to teach Jews all over the world the true meaning of Torah. It is a powerful weapon against the lack of learning --one of the biggest reasons why more Jews are not Observant.
I've heard internet criticized for the junk that is, admittedly, a part of it, but what it offers is too important to be flippantly discarded.
The resources for learning are mind-boggling. At the most elementary level is the opportunity to extend personal friendships with other Jews via email At the next level is the ability to form a "community" of sorts on newsgroups where discussions are held "within topic", meaning within guidelines such as accepting the validity of Oral and Written Torah. Next is the wider community, where Jews of every persuasion spar verbally with each other and almost any question related to being Jewish is fair game.
And beyond that is the incredible wealth of information that is available for learning at almost every level. Ohr Sameach produces several excellent electronic publications. A summary of Rabbi Frand's lectures are posted each week, the whole Tanya and a number of other books are available. There are on-line shiurim on Lashon Horah, Rav Kook's works, and on and on. And the list is growing, almost daily.
Learning, meeting other Jews from around the globe, sharing thoughts, discussing issues of Jewish's a fascinating adventure.