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Finding Torah on the Internet
by Susan Zakar

In the spring of 1993, I was watching over my husband's shoulder in our basement in Bowie, MD., as he meandered through a bunch of messages on the Internet. The discussions of software bugs and new software utilities were mildly interesting, but I wondered if there might be something more worthwhile.

"Anything Jewish out there?" I asked, hoping to find some useful suggestions for teaching my fourth grade Hebrew class at the nearby Reform synagogue to which we belonged.

"There's 'soc.culture.jewish.'," my husband Joe replied.

I don't think either of us ever dreamed where this would eventually lead...

For the next two hours I sat spellbound, reading messages from Jews all over the world -- from the U.S., from Israel, from England and Australia. They were all talking to each other, carrying on discussions and debates on everything from women rabbis to terrorism in Israel.

I was hooked.

Whenever the opportunity arose, I'd ask Joe to let me on the computer and head right for s.c.j. There was just one problem: He didn't want me to write back, because any message would appear to be from him.

The obvious solution was for me to get my own internet account. Now I could send messages to folks all over the world, either on public forums, where everyone could read what I wrote and respond, or by private "email" where I could just talk one-on-one.

I was connected.

At the same time as all this was happening, I was also becoming increasingly frustrated with my lack of "spiritual growth" at my Temple. The questions I was asking just weren't getting answered. A few meetings with the rabbi resolved nothing. At the same time, I was pretty angry at Orthodoxy for the way it seemed to treat women. (There was no Orthodox shul in Bowie; my impressions were from attending my father-in-law's shul in Queens, NY)

So one evening, I vented my confusion on the Internet. To the whole world (well, everyone who happened to be on s.c.j.) I wrote a message:

"Why do the Orthodox treat women the way they do?"

I got many answers; from Orthodox Jews, mostly. There was Michelle, a programmer in California, Sheldon a physicist in Silver Spring, MD., David at Tulane University in New Orleans, Benjamin in Australia, Yosef Kazen of Chabad in Brooklyn, and a couple of others. The subject was tossed around publicly on s.c.j., then a few diehards started chatting with me privately, via email. I began to see how little I really knew on the subject, which I admitted to a couple of them. They said I had to learn mo re, and suggested books to read.

Shavuot was approaching. Our Temple didn't "do" Shavuot -- except for a potluck dinner. I asked on a local computer newsgroup about where I could go instead. I also started calling around to see when a couple of Conservative Synagogues were going to have services.

As it turned out, I got sick and was home in bed for Shavuot. Too tired for much else, I spent the day reading a couple of the books that the folks on the net had recommended.

What I learned from those books and several other events set the stage for what was to follow.

First, we decided to give up on our Reform Temple -- resign. I vented my frustrations over the computer, this time on something called FIDOnet, explaining why we were going to join the Conservative synagogue. Of course, there were responses, including one from the guy in Australia, who asked why we didn't just go "all the way" and become Orthodox. I answered that we couldn't because we'd have to move...and a few other excuses that I'm not even sure I bought into.

Second, the Conservative rabbi was in Israel for the summer.

Third, three different people on the net all recommended that I talk to one particular Orthodox rabbi in Silver Spring -- Rabbi Teitelbaum. I wondered if Someone was trying to tell me something -- but I really wouldn't have had the courage to contact the rabbi, except that...

Fourth, something that I had read in one of the books made me very worried that there had been a serious problem with my conversion 18 years before. I spoke to Joe, and he agreed that it was important for me to address it, if only for my peace of mind.

It was with a great deal of trepidation that I sat in his office at the yeshiva, and presented Rabbi Teitelbaum with the information I put together.

"It's clear to me that you are not Jewish," he concluded, confirming my worst fears. "You understand that your children are not Jewish either." I was, of course, devastated.

We talked for his whole lunch hour. By the time I left, I had a clear picture of what my choices were; I knew I would have an Orthodox conversion.

It was in large measure because of the support of the few observant Jews whom I knew only over the computer net that I found the strength to make the decisions that had to be made, face the problems, and determine to overcome them.

The details of the problems and process will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that, in the end, we moved from Bowie to Baltimore and the kids and I had kosher conversions. In more ways than one, we had come home.

The real story here, though, is not mine, because it is not unique.

A number of other people have written that they have become more religious because of what they have learned from other Jews on the net. The real story here is that Hashem has provided an incredible opportunity to reach out and to teach Torah to Jews all over the world.

Meeting other Jews from around the globe, sharing thoughts, discussing issues of Jewish concern...the Internet is a powerful weapon against the lack of learning, and it's a fascinating adventure.



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