In the annals of online learning and Zoom fatigue during the coronavirus pandemic, frustrated users abound, including many students, parents and teachers.
But for a select group of Talmud scholars, COVID-19 presented an unusual opportunity to learn together in a small, tight-knit group, despite distance and time differences.
For the last three months, Josh Kulp, the head of Jerusalem’s Conservative Yeshiva, has spent five hours a week online with a handful of students located in London, New York, Washington, DC, Florida, Western Massachusetts, Denver and Jerusalem, studying the intricacies of kosher laws, as laid out in his advanced Talmud class.
They look at obscure aspects of kashrut, learning whether smell counts as taste and whether one can cook meat and milk in the same oven at the same time.
When studying Gemara online, it’s permissible to google interesting tidbits, such as the fact that there wasn’t a Hebrew word for plate until fairly recently, or that pashtida, the popular Hebrew word for casserole, is originally from French.
“There’s a lot of background information when you’re talking about food in texts that are thousands of years old,” said Kulp.
The Zoom class began in March, when the coronavirus struck and Kulp’s Talmud class continued, albeit online. When the semester ended in May he offered to continue learning with his students, Torah l’shma — or learning just for the sake of learning.
“I said to the students, ‘We’re all at home, I enjoyed learning with you, but now I can just teach what I want to teach,’ without having to stick to a curriculum,” said Kulp.
With four students committed to continuing with him, Kulp put up a notice on Facebook, opening the class to anyone who was interested, with the caveat that it would be an advanced Talmud class: Students were required to read difficult sources in original Hebrew and Aramaic and the time commitment was serious, with five hours a week of online learning and another few hours spent in havruta, joint learning with other fellow students.
Kulp immediately had some takers.
Kansas City native Leah Jordan, 33, a progressive rabbi who’s been living with her English husband in London for the last nine years, and had been spending her sabbatical year in Jerusalem at the yeshiva, was one of the first to sign up.
She had cleared her schedule through June 1, when she would be starting a new job, and had two-plus months free back home in London, completely unaccounted for.
“There was this alchemy of Josh being a great teacher, a core of us who are genuinely committed to learning for the sake of learning, and we needed this stability in our lives,” said Jordan. “As students of Torah, it felt natural that it would be Torah that would be the comfort.”
Jordan joined a havruta with Liza Bernstein, a fellow student who’s located on the US East Coast, and they meet for an additional eight hours each week.
“This is a kind of dream fulfillment of my sabbatical,” said Jordan. “Now we’re learning for fun, it’s a magical situation.”
Jonathan Dine, 32, a data scientist from Washington, DC, said it was a golden opportunity to take part in a skills-based class, and one he could commit to because he was working from home during the pandemic.
“There are people there who I wouldn’t get to learn with normally,” said Dine, whose sister has also joined the class and is his havruta partner. “It feels a little more informal, learning just for the pure pleasure of it.”
What Kulp appreciates about his online class is how easy it was to get 10 people together on Zoom when they all want the same thing.
“The text provides an anchor,” said Stephen Arnoff, CEO of the Fuchsberg Center of Conservative Judaism, the Conservative Yeshiva’s home, which has moved all its activity online until September. “Some of them are waking up at 5:30 a.m. to do it.”
Larry Moss, 64, one of the nine students, said he needs as much time out of class as in class to prepare.
“There are some really smart people in the class, and just keeping up with the level of discourse is not easy,” said Moss, a semi-retired corporate lawyer who appreciates the structure that the class offers him during these tumultuous times. “There are some really young, supple minds there.”
There’s also an innate intimacy in the learning, said the students, given the small number of people and the ability to have real conversations and ask questions.
Kulp has a WhatsApp group for the students to send questions, and he sometimes gets on the phone during the day for some of the stickier issues.
“My fantasy is that this would continue forever,” said Kulp, who has also had the time to learn every morning with his own havruta, because he isn’t commuting to work. “In some ways, it’s the best class I’ve ever taught in 25 years because people really want to be there.”