Internet class to link students in Palo Alto with Israeli peers

Rabbi Ari Cartun, spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto and the former executive director of Stanford Hillel, is one of three instructors for the class held at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

The other two teachers will be Barry Katz, a philosopher and professor of humanities and design at Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts, and Deborah Trilling, an artist and art historian.

The eight-session class, which begins Tuesday, Oct. 20, is being offered through Lehrhaus Judaica.

Linda Brownstein, a member of the Jewish Community Federation's overseas committee and the Triangles of Learning task force, spearheaded the project, which was funded by a $100,000 grant to Tel Aviv-based Alma Hebrew College, which will manage the program. Half the grant came from the overseas committee of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, and the other half came from an anonymous donor through the federation's Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

The program, she said, was created with two goals in mind: to "build living bridges" to improve communication and understanding between Jews here and in Israel, and to learn from Jewish texts.

"This is the kind of program where we can rediscover and reinterpret Jewish texts and make it relevant to the way we live today and regain our connection to Israel," Brownstein said. "We wanted to make this happen at a grassroots level with a new model."

Brownstein credits Ruth Calderon, director of Alma Hebrew College, for developing the program's concept. Calderon is well known in Israel for her programs in which secular Israeli Jews study the Talmud and the Torah in a modern context. Calderon is also part of the Amuta, the federation's volunteer committee in northern Israel.

Cartun said the eight-session course will focus on the concept of makom, the Hebrew word for "place." Some of the topics include moving from place to place, such as immigrating or making aliyah; creation of the world; personal and inner space; virtual space; making a place for God and creating sacred places.

Each class will begin with a presentation of the texts. Then students will break up into groups of two to study and discuss readings and lectures in the traditional style of yeshiva scholars.

Each team of two will be paired with a team of two in Tel Aviv and in northern Israel.

Through this setup, the six overseas study partners will communicate in two ways. They will "talk" via e-mail, and they will visit a Triangles of Learning Web page, where instructors from all three locations will provide additional readings, questions and exercises. The students will then use e-mail to go over what they learned in class and the answers to the questions posted on the Web site.

Because of the 10-hour time difference, the California and Israeli students will rarely be online at the same time. To help bridge the gap and foster ties, photos and short biographies of each student will be included on the Web site.

In addition, Cartun said one class session will feature a video conferencing session that will take place in "real time" and allow for more direct communication.

The program's coordinators and instructors in the Bay Area and at the two Israel sites expect to enroll students from diverse backgrounds with varying levels of Jewish education.

Lynn Simon, director of special projects at Lehrhaus Judaica, said that she plans to assemble a varied class in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, religious background and affiliation.

"I want as diverse a group as possible because one of the objectives of the program is to make Jewish texts, both classic and modern, available and relevant to all participants regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs," she said.

Prerequisites for the Palo Alto class include access to the Internet and a commitment to attend all of the classes and participate in the activities.

If this pilot program is a success, Triangles of Learning will expand to more Bay Area locations.

Students taking the class in Israel must be able to communicate in English and be familiar with using a computer, said Hadar (Heather) Harris, coordinator of the Triangles of Learning program and a member of Amuta.

After growing up in Hillsborough and living in San Francisco, Harris made aliyah a year and a half ago and lives in Jerusalem.

While the core texts are in Hebrew and English, the language chosen for the Internet discussion is English. Harris said the decision was made so that the Bay Area students could participate fully.

Harris is looking forward to finding out how the mix of students in the three locations will bond through the Internet.

"It's a very dynamic triangle in terms of place and cultural backgrounds," Harris said. "Up in the north we have a very diverse group — mostly kibbutzniks. In Tel Aviv the class could consist of yuppies and in Palo Alto it could be anyone — Silicon Valley people or Israelis who work in the Valley.

"The Tel Aviv participants may feel closer to the their Palo Alto partners than their upper Galil partners. Just because two points are Israeli doesn't mean they'll think alike."