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Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows Educator Blog

Learning Torah Online, With Special Young Adults
February 11, 2011 by Howard Blas
Last night may have been my best night yet online! No, I did not watch a cool YouTube video or reconnect on Facebook with a friend from 2nd grade--i learned Torah with members of Camp Ramah in New England's Vocational Training Program. This group of young adults with a range of special needs meets every Thursday night at 8 pm, as part of our "Shabbos Is Calling" video conference. Following a few minutes "shmoozing"--about Ortal's upcoming Israel trip, Jason's volunteer work on Fridays playing chess with elderly adults, and David's delight that work at a local private school wasn't cancelled even once this week due to snow, we moved on to a discussion of the parsha, the weekly Torah portion.

I reminded the group that we had learned last week about the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle which the Israelites carried with them through the desert. "Why did they need a mishkan?" I asked. Jason had two answers. The first was the more conventional answer. "They need a more physical way to connect with God." Jason's second answer blew me away. "The mishkan is God's way of showing the people what is okay to build and what is not okay to build--the mishkan was okay to build; the Golden Calf was not!" No commentator I am familiar with has offered this interpretation. Thanks, Jason!

Then, we discussed this week's parsha of Tetzavah, about the special clothes of the Kohanim, the priests. I offered an explanation about the me'il, a special blue garment--with a high neckline, and special gold and cloth bells at the bottom. I explained how it was worn as a kaparah, an atonement for l'shon harah, derogatory speech. The alternating bells--the ones that ring and those which are silent--reminded us that there are times when a person should speak up and times when he shouldn't. Jeff said it best, "Sometimes, when you have a thought, you shouldn't say it!" I was so pleased that Jeff was taking a Torah lesson, and connecting it to a lesson we learn in our job training program--sometimes, on a job site, and in life, it is best to censor a thought. Jeff is telling us that it is okay to think something, but we need to screen and think carefully before we speak.

We wished each other Shabbat Shalom and signed off--excited to meet again next week. I am still smiling--thinking about how online communication has amazing potential to teach torah and to connect all Jews--even those who sometimes feel disconnected from the Jewish world. I will truly have a Shabbat shel Shalom--a peaceful shabbat.