The positive use of modern technology is being given a whole new level of meaning thanks to Online Smicha, a Chabad-Lubavitch program that melds the ancient process of comprehensive Torah study for rabbinic ordination—known as smicha—with the perks of virtual communication.
Two years after its inception, the online program is adding two new tracks. In addition to its standard and accelerated programs, there is now a pre-ordination curriculum for those in need of a stronger foundation before beginning to study for ordination, and a program called STAIRS (Smicha Training and Advanced Institute for Rabbinical Studies), aimed at pulpit rabbis who want to deepen their knowledge of the laws and customs related to life-cycle events like marriage and death, in order to better serve their communities.
There are approximately a dozen rabbis from locations like Denver, New York and Australia currently enrolled in the program for rabbis, which began last week. The group is part of more than 50 students of all backgrounds and professions studying through Online Smicha, up from 17 when the program began.
Dr. Hananya Dahan is a family practitioner in Long Beach, California who is expecting to finish the standard program this spring after more than two years of online study done primarily in his office at the end of the workday.
“I spent so many years in school (to become a doctor) and never had the opportunity to finish smicha, so I said, why not now?” says the 56-year-old, who found the program through an online advertisement.
“The learning was very comprehensive and very much in-depth,” says Dahan, who praises Online Smicha’s dean and primary educator Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Nachman Wilhelm, who he calls a powerhouse. “Rabbi Wilhelm knows a tremendous amount and explains quickly yet without leaving out details. And the technology is amazing and convenient—as if it were live,” says Dahan.
Wilhelm points out that the two new tracks are a natural outgrowth of the program’s success in the two years since it began. “Some people who really wanted to enroll in the program found that they needed more general knowledge to begin studying for standard smicha,” says Wilhelm, who headed a yeshiva in S. Paul, Minn., for 14 years before founding Online Smicha with Erez Levi, now of Israel.
“Others were too young to start the process [of rabbinic ordination],” says Wilhelm, so the pre-smicha program was created, a 26-course curriculum lasting two to three months that focuses on gaining general knowledge of laws and the historical development of Jewish law.
Wilhelm says he is especially excited to be teaching the program for pulpit rabbis, an idea he’s had for a long time. Too often, he says, ordained rabbis serving their communities don’t have a means to continue broadening and deepening their hard-earned rabbinic education.
“People can really feel like they’re learning in a yeshiva, but from the comfort and convenience of their home, wherever that is,” says Wilhelm. “We are the only online program that is this comprehensive—with regular, live interaction and back-and-forth communication, study charts, etc.”
The 100 percent online program utilizes the same technology as its partner program, the Shluchim Online School, a virtual learning system designed especially to educate and unite the children of Chabad-Lubavitch directors serving in remote locations across the globe.
The technology allows students to see and hear their teachers live through web video conferencing, while a teacher can likewise see up to six students at a time on his computer screen. Students can ask questions in real-time using live chat rooms or the system’s microphone tool.
While the Shluchim Online School has been running successfully since 2005, Online Smicha is a newer project, having just graduated its first class of new rabbis in spring 2012. The graduates were part of the Accelerated Program, a fast-paced one-and-a-half-year track aimed at highly disciplined students with a strong learning foundation. The standard program, which began around the same time—November, 2010—will graduate its first class this spring, having completed their two-and-a-half-year learning schedule.
The standard, accelerated and pulpit rabbi programs each include weekly live learning sessions, periodical voluntary quizzes, mandatory written tests and exams, oral tests, discussions and a rigorous final exam conducted in-person.