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Biblical Proportions

Yonoson Rosenblum

Could Rabbi David Fohrman’s breezy style and animated videos elucidate the profoundest Torah concepts? With thousands of subscribers to Aleph Beta, the answer is obvious

Monday, September 18, 2017

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“The depth of the Torah is something you don’t have to ‘believe in.’ You can actually see it; you can experience it. When the layers of meaning begin to unfurl before your eyes — there is nothing more awe-inspiring than that.” (Photos: Amir Levy, Aleph Beta Animation Team)

I t took one boring lesson to teach Rabbi David Fohrman that a class needs to capture the imagination and engage the listener, and what better way than with animated videos? But could that breezy style be used to elucidate profound concepts in Torah, uncover the deeply layered messages of Tanach? With thousands of subscribers and an international following, the answer is obvious. 

Early in his teaching career, Rabbi David Fohrman — creator of the popular Aleph Beta animated Torah videos — discovered the necessity of making his lessons interactive. As a 19-year-old bochur, he spent a summer in Australia teaching Jewish high school students. His carefully prepared lessons, however, elicited only blank stares and bored yawns. At one point, he presented a classic moral dilemma — a lifeboat at sea is being rocked by heavy waves and the only way to save most of the passengers is to cast one overboard. Is it permissible to do so? And if it is, who should be selected? After a short silence, one of the high schoolers replied: “I don’t know what I would do. But I do know one thing. You would certainly be the first person I’d toss overboard.”

He wasn’t a rabbi or a professional educator yet, but at that point, David realized that carefully outlined lesson plans are not enough to stimulate a yet-to-be inspired audience. Classes needed to fully engage and capture the imagination, and there needs to be a real back and forth. Years later, all of Rabbi Fohrman’s books and videos are written or scripted in a breezy style so that the reader or viewer — who might not even be Jewish — feels as if he is a participant in a back-and-forth conversation.

I first learned of the Aleph Beta project from a press release announcing that the American Forces Network (AFN), the broadcast service of the US military, had just concluded its very first agreement with a Jewish organization — that would be Rabbi Fohrman’s Aleph Beta, which has produced more than 600 animated Torah-based videos to date — to provide visual content for military servicemen and their families.

How does Rabbi Fohrman see his ultimate goal? “To help Am Yisrael, the ‘People of the Book’ fall in love with their Book.”

Most of Aleph Beta’s more than 6,000 monthly subscribers are Jewish, but about a quarter are gentiles, either Christians or self-described Noachides. Many years ago, when he started giving classes at Johns Hopkins University, Rabbi Fohrman asked his rosh yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Weinberg ztz”l, about the permissibility of teaching Torah to non-Jews. “You are teaching them from the Torah how a human being has to relate to G-d. That is certainly something they need to know,” Rav Weinberg paskened.

Although I was previously unfamiliar with Aleph Beta, Rabbi Fohrman and I learned together in the yeshivah of Rav Tzvi Kushelevsky in 1986, and I have read both his first two books, The Beast that Crouches at the Door (on parshas Bereishis) and The Queen You Thought You Knew (on Megillas Esther), multiple times.

I hadn’t seen him in about 15 years, when we met again around five years ago at the initiative of my friend Dr. Michael Bernstein from Lawrence. Bernstein told me he’d been challenged by his learning partner from Partners in Torah, a brilliant and highly successful hedge fund manager, to prove that the Torah is the product of a single Author. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 678)

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