New Technology Links Isolated Jewish Communities for Long Distance Learning
Kulanu volunteers Rabbi Jack Bresler and Denise Yeh Bresler celebrate Purim over online connection with Jewish community in Kaifeng, China.
When Eric Rothberg of Moorhead, Minnesota, left Kaifeng, China, in June, 2010, after a year of study at Henan University, he was eager to find a way to continue assisting the group of Chinese Jewish descendents he had met during his stay there. Eric, a senior at Minnesota State University Moorhead majoring in East Asian Studies, had been an eager and enthusiastic admirer of Chinese culture and a student of Mandarin Chinese since he was 14. But Eric was also a committed Jew. He had selected Henan University for his year abroad because he was aware of the 1,000-year history of Jewish settlement in Kaifeng and had read about the desire of some descendents there to learn about their Jewish roots.
As it turned out, Eric would not only meet Kaifeng's Jewish descendants but he would establish a Jewish school, Beth HaTikvah (House of Hope), and begin the task of teaching some descendents about Judaism and Jewish traditions. Some were atheists; most were very assimilated. To interest those who came, Eric began with songs, Hebrew language, and Jewish holidays and culture. The school would assist the Kaifeng commu- nity on their journey, but it would also involve Eric in a meaningful and exciting journey of his own.
As he began the task of organizing the school, Eric was able to enlist the help of several dedicated individuals: Rabbi Anson Laytner, president of the Sino-Judaic Institute; Michael Freund, founder and director of the Israel-based Shavei Israel; and long time friend of Asian Jews, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of New York, all of whom would actively support Eric's efforts in the community. Additionally, a number of gracious Jewish congregations and individuals in the U.S., Israel, and Australia contributed Jewish books to the community. More recently, Harriet Bograd and Jack Zeller of Kulanu also have been supportive. By the end of his year in China, Eric had succeeded beyond his expectations. There were now approximately 50 descendents of Kaifeng Jews attending classes at Beth HaTikvah.
Before returning to the states, Eric realized the importance of continuing what he had begun and decided to set up a computer for long distance learning. He used a Chinese program similar to Skype, a fast Internet service and a projector so he would have face-to-face communication with his students in Kaifeng. Eric's Chinese was sufficient to conduct lessons in Mandarin, but with his school work and other responsibilities, he realized it was important to find an additional Mandarin speaking teacher to help share teaching responsibilities.
Eric appealed to Kulanu founder and board member Jack Zeller, who suggested a Washington area woman originally from Taiwan who was married to a local orthodox rabbi. Her name: Denise Yeh-Bresler. Denise had recently retired and was looking for meaningful volunteer work when Eric called to see if she would be interested. She was. Eric had his second Mandarin speaking teacher for Beth HaTikvah.
Today, Denise and Eric share teaching responsibilities, with Eric focusing on English, Hebrew and traditional songs and Denise teaching holidays, life cycle events and the Jewish home. Classes meet weekly on Sunday mornings (for the teachers it is Saturday night!) with Eric and Denise alternating weeks. The classes have become so popular that participants sometimes number close to 20 individuals a session, with over 50 in all. Community members are deeply appreciative of the classes. (See photo on page 23 showing Denise Yeh-Bresler and Rabbi Jack Bresler at home in Maryland, projected on the wall in Kaifeng, China, joining in a Purim celebration with the community!) For Denise and Eric it is a rare and exciting opportunity to connect with an ancient Jewish community.
It is clear that technology has the potential to help Kulanu make Jewish education available to its isolated Jewish communities around the world. Needless to say, some infrastructure is necessary for the technology to work. Already Rabbi Aaron Rehbeg is using the Internet to teach and train the community in El Salvador. (See article on page 1.) The Jewish community in Cameroon learned a great deal about Judaism and Jewish practice through the Internet before they ever contacted Kulanu. Today they are serving as Kulanu volunteers, advising people from other communities on how to find appropriate Jewish learning resources online.
It is clear other communities will follow. However, funds are needed to purchase the necessary equipment and pay for monthly Internet service. In addition, we are seeking teachers to help end the isolation of these communities and work with them to meet their learning goals. If you are interested in helping or in receiving help with online Jewish learning, please contact: distancelearning @ kulanu.org