When Rabbi Gershon Lopian, one of London’s foremost authorities on Jewish law, retired from his longstanding position leading the Yeshurun Federation Synagogue in the suburb of Edgware, he set up post next to his telephone waiting for questions to come in – which they did.
Available virtually around the clock, Lopian answered personal queries about halacha, or Jewish law, for local constituents in need of instruction on a variety of topics ranging from kosher dietary laws to fair business practice, the laws of Shabbat and holidays, family purity, and more.
For Orthodox Jews who follow a set of strictures so comprehensive that it takes a legal authority to be familiar with all the minutiae, hopping on the phone to call a rabbi for advice isn’t uncommon – but Lopian’s availability was.
When Lopian died in 2014, it seemed like only a team of rabbis would be able to fill the gap he left behind, so his students started ShailaText, a free mobile platform dedicated to Lopian’s memory where people could anonymously submit shailas – literally Hebrew for questions, but colloquially referring to inquiries about Jewish law – via SMS, to be answered remotely by a group of rabbis quickly and efficiently.
The service, run and funded by the Kehillas Federation, an umbrella organization of Orthodox communities around the UK, soon grew into a one-stop resource filling a variety of Jewish communal needs, both online and offline.
ShailaText began modestly, with four rabbis standing in for Lopian. To maintain askers’ anonymity, a Federation office employee forwarded incoming queries to a WhatsApp group for the rabbis to debate. They in turn would give a response, which would be sent on to the asker.
Before long, the 21st-century update became quite popular.
Launched in June of 2015, within a year ShailaText reached 1,200 unique users who asked nearly 7,000 questions, Kehillas Federation CEO Rabbi Avi Lazarus told The Times of Israel. Earlier this month – nearly simultaneously with the anniversary of Lopian’s death – the service reached 10,000 unique users and received its 100,000th question.
There is now a team of nine rabbis on payroll working full-time fielding questions, which can number as many as 250 a day before major holidays and between 40 and 60 on any given day, via a back-end app – a necessary addition, as the office employee was quickly overwhelmed by the volume of questions.
The ShailaText website guarantees an answer within four working hours, “but in reality, it’s usually closer to one hour,” said Lazarus.
As the queries poured in, the service became more refined. Now, questions are sorted by category and referred to a rabbi with expertise in a certain area of Jewish law, such as kosher dietary restrictions.
People with questions regarding tithes on produce imported from Israel can refer questions to MaaserText, a standalone service whose panel of rabbis have specialized knowledge of local imports. And this year, for the first time, the Federation has unveiled ShemittaLive, an online resource for those seeking instruction about the seventh-year agricultural sabbatical.
The demand for ShailaText also spurred the Federation to fill a slew of other communal needs, leading to the creation of Kehilla Services, which offers wide-ranging services running the gamut of observant Jewish life. People needing to properly dispose of unusable holy texts or certain ritual objects, which require burial in a Jewish cemetery, can go online to find locations for drop-boxes around the greater London area.
For issues regarding Shabbat-friendly technology, such as ovens or cookers that come with a “Sabbath mode,” there came FedTech, which not only advised users as to which products were genuinely Sabbath-compliant, but also served as a consulting tool for major household appliance producers, Lazarus said.
The coronavirus pandemic created another challenge for those wishing to comply with laws requiring that silverware, cookware, and other kitchen items be immersed in a ritual bath before use – with lockdowns in place and ritual baths closed, immersion was impossible. To that end, Kehilla Services created an online platform for people to temporarily sell their items to a non-Jewish person, thus circumventing the requirement, since they were not technically the owners.
Going high-tech hasn’t diminished the personal touch characteristic of Orthodox communities, which tend to be warm and welcoming due to their small size and communal lifestyle. Rabbi Yisroel Moshe Guttentag, one of the ShailaText experts, recalled how in one recent year a question came in late on the eve of the Purim holiday, which this year falls on March 6.
“It was very late in the afternoon, and someone reached out and said, ‘My wife and I are both ill, do we need to hear the megillah [Book of Esther]?’” Guttentag said. “And our answer was, ‘Where do you live?’ We had someone there before sundown.”