With his foot up in bed after surgery from a broken ankle, Rabbi Avraham Kivelevitz, a teacher at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., contemplated how to reach students taking his senior elective Kabbalah course. It was the start of this school year and the plethora of English texts attempting to explain esoteric concepts weren’t completely clicking for his group of 30 teenage boys and girls mostly intrigued with science fiction.

“The kids, like society, had confusion about what Kabbalah is,” says Kivelevitz, “that it’s a wild entry into something way beyond them, and at the same time, something that could be cool for them. But the amount of study needed, textual knowledge and meditation, was something they weren’t understanding.”

That’s when he remembered “Kabbala Toons,” witty short animations hosted by the Jewish Web site Chabad.org. Created by Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a noted author and lecturer on Jewish mysticism, the cartoons illustrate deep lessons in ways that minds of all ages can grasp.

Kivelevitz was particularly drawn to an episode called “Kabbalistic FreeRunning.” Its main character, Rabbi Infinity, a wizardly mystical rabbi garbed with a long gray beard, blue robe and black belt boasting the Hebrew letter aleph, is seen running while raving about the lessons learned from falling. (Kivelevitz, with his broken ankle, could easily relate.)

“Those downward falls are meant to provide impetus to forward motion, to get you way ahead of who you used to be and to get you there real fast,” Rabbi Infinity exclaims. The point is that falls, like everything in life, have a higher purpose, Freeman elaborates in the accompanying “Rabbi Infinity’s Blog.”

Kivelevitz began e-mailing links of the episodes and blog entries to his students. When he recovered and returned to school, the teacher bridged concepts of science fiction with Kabbalah, such as shared motifs like evil and previous worlds.

Already fans of sci-fi films and superhero cartoons, the students became easily hooked onto “Kabbala Toons.”

Students began to realize “Kabbalah is everywhere,” says Kivelevitz. “They began to see a deeper sense of everyday things they take for granted.”

The discipline, which explains the deepest insights into the essence of G‑d’s creation, says that the Torah’s commandments “are not merely ancient rituals but have vibrancy,” explains Kivelevitz. After seeing the cartoons about the Jewish holidays, his students learned that the unleavened bread known as matzah that’s eaten on Passover humbles the soul.

Such commandments and good deeds, known in Hebrew as mitzvahs, “took on an urgency and transformative quality,” says Kivelevitz.

Rabbi Avraham Kivelevitz uses “Kabbala Toons” episodes to teach some 30 teenage boys and girls at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y.
Rabbi Avraham Kivelevitz uses “Kabbala Toons” episodes to teach some 30 teenage boys and girls at SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y.

Shrouded in Secrecy

The cartoons themselves are created by a funky mix of characters.

Freeman, a Vancouver transplant living with his wife and children in Toronto, writes the content from home. As a kid attending public school, he grew up with very little Jewish knowledge, but discovered Jewish mysticism at the age of 18 when he met some Chabad-Lubavitch youth visiting the area. The music major left the University of British Columbia to pursue rabbinical studies for nine years.

Freeman says he was always interested in mysticism and when he discovered it within Judaism, he “dived into it.”

The difficulty with teaching Kabbalah, Freeman explains, is that “it’s easily lost, you can only say it in riddles or metaphors. If someone doesn’t get it, it can be misinterpreted.”

Historically, it was shrouded in secrecy. Along came great mystics such as the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, and they “found stories, parables and metaphors so it became accessible,” Freeman continues.

In today’s high technological world, Freeman has tools available that allow him to take deep lessons to practically infinite levels.

Rabbi Infinity uses made-up devices such as an otifier and isifier in his lab, terms Freeman invented based on Hebrew words for “letters” and “to be.”

“Minds are open to it because of animation, where anything is possible,” says Freeman. “The venue of the tech world and lab provides metaphors for ideas that belong to everyone and are now accessible.”

When the SAR students began watching the cartoons, “it made them more ready to discuss Kabbalah,” says Kivelevitz. “Kabbala Toons saved the curriculum. It was the glue that allowed it to work.”

A Perfect Match

The real restriction for Freeman is getting all those lofty ideas down to one bite-size minute.

A minute of content means 20 hours of work for Pilar Newton, a 30-something non-Jewish animator in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.

Working out of her apartment in an orange fleece pullover and purple knitted hat on a recent snowy day, Newton’s hoping to finish an episode for a new series called “Miri Makes Trouble.” In the first episode, Rabbi Infinity gets cloned by a machine. Miri, his granddaughter – who happens to be the voice of Freeman’s daughter – and her mechanical pet Feivel create their own isifier and tinker dangerously with “the parameters of existence” by creating things out of nothing.

From her studio, which takes up one corner of her combination living room, kitchen and dining room, Newton uses Adobe Flash to create a double Rabbi Infinity.

The main character’s voice comes from Andrew Torres, a Puerto Rican radio announcer for Clear Channel who was Newton’s best friend since age eight. They both attended the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts in New York City and when Newton began animations for “Kabbala Toons,” she knew the perfect match for her quirky rabbi.

Newton enlists the help of her boyfriend, a musician and producer, to help with sound engineering.

With the aid of a Cintiq pen, Newton draws directly onto her computer. Using shortcuts called symbols, she adeptly reuses old objects and gestures from previous episodes to form the animation.

It’s unusual to use this program for animation of this quality and length, and the episodes have been drawing attention at animation festivals. An international animation festival in Moscow plans to screen “Kabbala Toons” for its upcoming Jewish animation slot.

Pilar Newton, a non-Jewish animator, gives life to Freeman’s ideas. Andrew Torres, a Puerto Rican radio announcer, provides the voice of Rabbi Infinity.
Pilar Newton, a non-Jewish animator, gives life to Freeman’s ideas. Andrew Torres, a Puerto Rican radio announcer, provides the voice of Rabbi Infinity.

Plugging In

It won’t be the first time the cartoons reach an international audience. Thousands of viewers of all ages from virtually every city and religious background watch the biweekly episodes on Chabad.org.

Two years ago, the Web site approached Newton to create web cartoons. Freeman, who also serves as director of the Web site’s popular “Ask the Rabbi” service, happened to have videos of him teaching Kabbalistic lessons with props such as a laser gun, coconut or plant. Freeman and Newton collaborated to breathe life into these short clips, and have been working together ever since – even though they only met once.

Newton grew up on the edge of the Chabad-Lubavitch neighborhood in Crown Heights, and says she was always fascinated with Jewish traditions.

“I used to drive with my parents and look out the car window and see the Sukkah huts and think, ‘I want one!’ ” she says.

Aside from a board game she helped design based on the history of Israel, this is the first time Newton is working so closely with Jewish content.

“I come away learning something,” she says of the cartoon project. “I almost know the whole Hebrew alphabet.”

Freeman, meanwhile, is no newcomer to technological – and wacky – educational media. His early literacy software called “A to Zap,” which he designed for Sunburst in 1992 and featured his children’s voices, won numerous awards and is now used in many preschool classrooms.

He’s also the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, a two volume series of short meditations based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. On Chabad.org, you’ll find his “Heaven Exposed” Kabbalistic science fiction series, Jewish meditation videos on Jewish prayer and a “Daily Dose of Wisdom” culled from his book.

Students, though, really began to “plug in enthusiastically” to Kabbalah, says Kivelevitz, when Freeman visited SAR in November to address the entire senior class. Weaving mystical concepts with the everyday world, Freeman invited the audience to bring up any object to find its hidden meaning. A key ring with a fish connected them to the concept of hidden worlds, and a student’s shoe was described as the body that keeps one grounded in this world. Afterwards, Freeman spoke with selected students individually.

“When two kids or a child and adult are together, that’s where real education happens,” says Freeman. “There’s dialogue and interaction with the other person, not just the computer.”

Kivelevitz says his students are now applying their lessons to moral and ethical dilemmas.

“After Tzvi came, I showed a post [on Chabad.org] about a woman deciding whether to abort a fetus with severe genetic defects,” says Kivelevitz. “We analyzed it according to Kabbalah: that the soul is not just an identity, personality or one’s intelligence, but it has a higher purpose.”