When, Rabbi Joe Wolfson and Corinne Shmuel exited the United States over spring break to visit the Bahamas and renew their U.S. visas, they expected to be back in time to help their college community prepare for Passover.
What was meant to be just a quick to the British Commonwealth, took a twist when the visas were delayed, leaving Rabbi Joe and Corinne stuck in the Bahamas and creating a void in the Orthodox Jewish leadership at NYU at a critical time of the year, right before Passover.
Rabbi Joe and Corinne are the OU-JLIC Torah Educators at NYU, and in addition to hosting Shabbat meals, preparing shiurim and learning with students one-on-one, running social events and in general helping bolster Jewish observance at NYU, they are responsible for the pastoral leadership of the NYU student community. Some of the busiest times for a Rabbi, in terms of halachic questions (questions of Jewish law), are around the high holidays and before Passover, so you can imagine the chaos on NYU’s campus, when Rabbi Joe and Corinne ran into complications and it was unclear if they would make it back for Passover. Who would answer all the students Passover questions such as how to clean their residences and what foods they could buy?
“Since corn and corn syrup are o.k. for Sephardim on Passover can we buy regular Coke or do we need to get the Passover one?”
Stranded on a Caribbean island (not the worst location), Rabbi Joe desperately wanted to help his community back at NYU. Rabbi Joe is a member of a pair of WhatsApp groups administered by renowned authorities in Jewish Law, and was familiar with similar WhatsApp groups at other OU-JLIC campuses, so along with the help of two student administrators, Rabbi Joe launched NYU’s Shu”t WhatsApp Group. Within days the group had over 60 student participants. At its core, the Sheilos U’Teshuvot (Questions and Answers) WhatsApp group enabled students at NYU to ask R’ Joe their Passover questions, and for Rabbi Joe, all the way in the Bahamas to answer.
But more than just that, such WhatsApp groups enable students to learn from each others questions. Rabbi David Pardo, who first introduced the concept to OU-JLIC while an OU-JLIC Torah Educator at Brandeis University, and who is now the Executive Director of the OU’s Bring Israel Home Birthright follow-up department, put it this way: “I get asked a lot of the same questions, over and over again, by different people. If only they could hear each other’s questions, that would help conserve time. Then I thought, even better; if they weren’t just able to just hear other people’s answers but even the questions, that would be huge. Educational in and of itself. Like, “huh, didn’t even realize that’s a question,” or, “never thought of it that way!” The rules are simple, questions can’t be personal and can’t be time sensitive. OU-JLIC Torah Educators still answer personal questions privately, but all the non-personal ones now go in the group for everybody to see and learn from. Example questions include: “Can I attend class on Yom Tov?” “What should I do about lighting Shabbat Candles in a dorm room?” “Can I make kiddush on bread?“ “Can I ask my non-Jewish classmate for his notes after Yom Tov?” “If I put a new mezuzah cover on a scroll that was already fixed to the door, do I make a blessing?” “How do you make an oven kosher?” “Does toothpaste need to be kosher?” “Since corn and corn syrup are o.k, (for Sephardim on Passover) can we buy regular Coke or do we need to get the Pesach one?” And, “Why does shaving and getting haircuts wait until the day of Lag Baomer if the Jewish days in general start at night?” Currently there are OU-JLIC Question and Answer WhatsApp groups at Brandeis University, Santa Monica College, OU-JLIC of Greater Toronto, Brooklyn College, University of Maryland, IDC Herzliya and now NYU.
One student at NYU reflected “The power of the group lies not so much in the simple learning opportunity, but the real value of it is in the clear demonstration dozens of times a day, that there are so many other students who really care about halachah in the downtown NYC community.”
The Shu”t WhatsApp Group, attracts students from all levels of religious observance, and Rabbi Joe described the new WhatsApp group to be “far more successful than expectations!” There are currently over 200 members of the original group and the Halachah WhatsApp group has scaled into several additional groups on other topics of Jewish study. Rabbi Joe has found the WhatsApp group to be a powerful community building tool for its members, and has developed relationships with new students he hadn’t met before, but who heard about and joined the WhatsApp group.
And yes, Rabbi Joe and Corinne did make it back to NYU for Pesach, to sell their students’ chametz, run minyanim, and host students for the Seder.