Friday, December 31, 2010

Online Torah class accommodates people with hearing impairments

From The Jewish Chronicle:

The integration of ancient text and modern technology is the foundation of, a website that allows students to learn Torah online via real-time, interactive classrooms.

Now, has made it possible for hearing-impaired people to join in.

Beginning in January, the website will offer its first class for deaf students, called “Jewish Laws of Shabbat: Cooking.”

The upcoming course was a result of interest shown by some potential students for a class to accommodate the hearing-impaired.

The mission of is to “use a portal that can reach as many people as possible to spread Torah and Jewish learning throughout the world,” says Rabbi Yedidya Rausman, who, along with Rabbi Chaim Brovender, co-founded the service in 2007. To date, approximately 6,000 students from 52 countries have logged on.

The new course, which will be taught by Rabbi Gabe Pransky, is currently being offered on a trial basis, and there has already been good feedback; the course will officially start Jan. 16, 2011.

“It’s using modern technology to its utmost,” said Rausman. “There are so many factors that could make it not work. Not only does it work, but it works extraordinarily well. Nothing in the technical world is perfect, but it’s as good as we can hope it to be.”

After much research, Rausman and Brovender found what they believed to be the best videoconference technology that enables the students and teacher to have a dialogue, and enables everyone to see the text and to speak with each other. The only requirements are a computer, cable modem, speakers and web camera. To join in conversation, a microphone is necessary as well.

For the class for the hearing impaired, a sign language interpreter, using American Sign Language, will be viewable in a video box, and a participant can either speak live or send a message through a chat box; the sign language interpreter is there to interpret all of it.

Rausman chose to have a live interpreter rather than close captioning because their market research found that an interpreter to be the preferred method.

“We assumed we’d make a class for the hearing impaired, but after speaking with people, the last thing they want to do is be segregated from the crowd,” he said, “so we took an existing class and made it suitable for the hearing impaired.”

In addition, with close captioning, deaf students’ attention would not have been on the teacher. With an interpreter, a student can focus on both the teacher and the interpreter through the video box.

The course for hearing impaired students is open to everyone. In fact, Rausman said there is no way to discern which students in the class are hearing impaired. The class registration form intentionally omits questions about hearing.

“We don’t want to put up any barriers,” he said. “We want everyone to be part of the community, have the same learning experience,” he said.

(It is therefore not possible to know if any hearing-impaired students from the Pittsburgh area are taking the course.)

Overall,'s worldwide student body ranges in age from 10 to 85. Some are beginners in Torah study while others are experts; some are in the process of conversion. They approach the classes with different degrees of religiosity, levels of education.

The classes are open to men and women.

In other words, it’s a diverse group.

While nothing can replace the real experience of attending a brick and mortar yeshiva, Rausman said, this “social environment on the web” with real-time, give and take discussion, is the next best thing.

And the advantage is, you can attend class in your pajamas, he jokes.

If the first class for deaf students is successful, Rausman said, “Our ultimate goal is to expand it to as many courses as we can, if there’s a demand for it.”