There are 613 commandments in the Torah, but they don’t offer very detailed guidance on how to deal with the Internet. In recent years, Orthodox Jews have struggled with navigating the changing world of modern technology, and especially the Web. In 2012, more than 50,000 Orthodox men gathered at Citi Field Stadium to discuss the challenges the Internet poses to living in strict accordance with the laws of the Torah. But the times may be a-changin’: Last week IDT Corp., whose employees are between 25 and 40 percent Orthodox, announced plans to start a cybersecurity yeshiva, a program set to open this fall for 40 students to study computer science alongside the traditional yeshiva studies of the Torah and other Jewish texts.
The program is motivated in large part by practical and economic concerns: Studying the Torah, which is required of Orthodox men, doesn’t generate a large number of employment prospects. Meanwhile, report after report tells us that we need more cybersecurity professionals—that there are an increasing number of jobs in the field and too few people to fill them.
“We see the real purpose of technology as enabling the spread of the light of Torah and making the world a better place,” said Golan Ben-Oni, IDT’s chief security officer and the dean of the new program. “The Chabad-Lubavitch community is really forward and innovative, while remaining anchored in timeless principles,” he later added in an email, referring to the Jewish community he belongs to and plans to draw many of the first students from.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has, in fact, made strategic use of the Internet to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews through sites such as lubavitch.com and askmoses.com. Their active online presence was a source of some tension during the planning of the gathering at Citi Field. The Lubavitch community was initially excluded from the event, but ultimately was invited to join.
Even in more progressive Orthodox communities like Chabad-Lubavitch, people are not necessarily comfortable attending secular colleges, Ben-Oni said, so it’s valuable to provide other avenues for them to learn crucial technical skills. “I grew up at Berkeley, I remember the co-ed showers—it’s not the kind of thing that the Orthodox community really wants to be part of, but they do want to learn the material and learn it at an accelerated rate.”
Ben-Oni added that the program will be co-ed. “Often the women in the [Orthodox] community are the breadwinners,” he said. “In most technology companies, the percentage of programmers who are women might be 5 or 10 percent. At IDT it’s not uncommon to have 70 or 80 percent of a programming team be women.”
A large part of studying cybersecurity is learning to identify and assess the different risks posed by computers and computer networks. Those risks can take a number of different forms, from denial-of-service attacks to credit-card fraud, and they can vary from person to person and organization to organization. But we perhaps most often associate such risks with high-profile data breaches—Target, Home Depot, Sony, Anthem. In other words, a lot of the ways we think about cybersecurity have to do with preventing people from accessing our sensitive data, or keeping them out of our protected digital enclaves.
In the Orthodox community, meanwhile, there has been a great deal of emphasis on a very different kind of cybersecurity: security from the outside world, or security focused on keeping the ultra-Orthodox within their own Jewish Internet bubble. To that end, services like JNet aim to filter out nonkosher online content such as pornography. (“With JNet, there is no need to compromise either your Jewish values or your productivity when using the Internet,” the service’s home page boasts.)
So perhaps a classroom setting devoted to thinking through the risks of technology and the Internet will turn out to be conducive to a mixture of Torah and cybersecurity studies. Maybe it will give students an opportunity to grapple with fears they might have around computers—fears that those computers will lead them beyond the world they know to encounter sites and ideas that threaten their way of life, fears that those same computers will provide avenues for unwanted outsiders to access their protected networks and information. Naturally, anyone who opts to take part in a cybersecurity-focused yeshiva is likely to be interested in engaging with the broader world of Internet technology. But they may also bring some of those discussions back to their communities.
Ben-Oni also believes that the skills students learn from their religious studies—which will occupy four or five hours per day for students—will also apply to cybersecurity and computer science training, which last another six or seven hours each day. “The study of the Torah is very analytical,” he explained. “There is a statement that is made, and then it is challenged, and then it is challenged again until it finally comes to an answer. It walks the person through many different viewpoints until there’s resolution.”
Those analytical skills were key to the success of an earlier IDT technical yeshiva program that Ben-Oni launched 15 years ago, he said. Another important factor was the students’ commitment to their education. “These were not individuals who were spending a lot of time in bars, or dating, or blowing off steam,” he said. “These were individuals who had a track in life and knew what they wanted.” Already, Ben-Oni said, he has been inundated with calls from technology companies asking about how they can get involved with program—through offering internships, helping teach and mentor students, or hiring graduates. (The students will have to pay tuition for the yeshiva, but the program will also help organize paid internships for participants.)
Certainly, a cybersecurity yeshiva—a program that Ben-Oni hopes will attract not just Chabad-Lubavitch students but also members of other Orthodox communities—represents a small turning point for a population that has, in many ways, struggled to avoid the technological temptations of the 21st century. Even groups that specifically reject some of the technology of this era, it seems, are gradually finding ways to try to come to terms with it—and maybe even understand it in the context of biblical rules made thousands of years ago.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.