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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Studying the Mishnah through video blogs

Tags: Heebonics
Elana Shilling

After arguing with a friend who said she was “living with Judaism” – and that it was a negative thing – Elana Shilling decided to prove that living with Judaism could be turned into something positive.

A few weeks ago, she launched her video blog, or vlog, hoping to show that it was possible to bridge modernity with traditional Judaism.

Shilling, 22, has been video blogging as she learns the Mishnah, the oral Torah, according to the daf yomi cycle, where Jews learn a page of Talmud a day, eventually completing the entire work in 7-1/2 years.

Knowing that this was probably too large a commitment to keep, she is instead learning just the Mishnah, but not the whole Talmud, that is without the Gemarah, the commentary on the Mishnah.

“The idea was for me to have a chavrutah [a learning partner] because I didn’t want to do it in a traditional way,” Shilling said.

“I wanted a format that allowed me to learn in an interactive way. I thought, ‘Why have one person as your chavrutah when you can have a lot of people?’”

Using YouTube as her chavrutah, Shilling video blogs about her thoughts on the Mishnah.

“Even though a mishnah [a specific proposition of law] is short, I could do way more than a four-minute blog on it,” she said. “Instead I pick one problem and questions I have with it and talk about that. It makes it easier to grapple with.”

Shilling’s passion for Jewish learning is seen in every episode as she speaks with fervour about each topic, with eyes wide open and her animated face looking straight into the camera. In some videos, she brings on guest learning partners like her brother, and in others, she uses props like Hershey’s chocolate kisses to illustrate her point.

She hopes to find ways to make each mishnah relevant.

This is especially evident in her sixth episode, called R.E.S.P.E.C.T., where Shilling is learning Massechet Brachot, chapter 2, mishnah 1.

Rather than just discussing what she learned, she tries to direct questions to the audience – her chavrutah – and find a real-life example for the teachings of the Mishnah.

“Imagine you’re at work and you’re reading the Shema and your boss comes over to you and says, ‘Have you done your accounting report?’” she says in the episode. “Even if you’re smack dab in the middle of the Shema, in the middle of a word, you’re allowed to answer him. The Mishnah understands you’re afraid to get in trouble.”

It’s these real-life examples that make Shilling’s teachings applicable to modern Jewish life.

“So far, I’ve found a lot of things that fit into my life. For example, the Mishnah talked about respect, and that’s obviously something you have to have in a modern world to get around,” Shilling said.

And from the comments she’s received on her YouTube channel, it is clear viewers are taking the chavrutah idea seriously, asking Shilling questions and disagreeing when they feel she’s not right.

“As I understand the word chavrutah, it is supposed to be a debate or give and take,” one person commented. “So I do not plan on being shy about disagreeing with points made (should they come up), as this true Torah study is through debate and argument (all remaining civil and friendly), and I urge my fellow viewers of this cool Mishnah blog to do the same,” one viewer wrote.

She hopes to find ways to apply each mishnah directly to her modern life.

“So far, I’ve found a lot of things that fit into my life,” Shilling said.

“Actually, so far, I’m finding that you can live with Judaism, but [the project has] only just begun.”

Shilling first realized how difficult it could be to incorporate Judaism into a modern life when she began her psychology studies at McGill University.

“I’ve always been interested in the relationship between modernity and Judaism, ever since university when I got out of the Jewish bubble and had to deal with Judaism in a context of modernity and not in a context of Thornhill.

“At CHAT [the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto], it’s all laid out for you – you get holidays off, there’s kosher food everywhere, but in university you’re out of the Jewish bubble,” she said.

This project combines her love for the dramatic arts and her interest in Jewish studies.

As a child, she appeared in TV commercials and movies, including a small role in the 2004 Hollywood film Mean Girls.

She still acts while managing her jobs as a youth program co-ordinator at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Toronto, a drama specialist for Associated Hebrew School of Toronto’s after-school program, and in in her stepmother’s kosher bakery, Tastes Like More.

She’s been surprised by how much support she’s received for the project.

“I didn’t expect it,” she said. “I kind of just thought it would be one or two friends interested in it, but lots of people are encouraging me to continue. Many people have said it’s nothing like they’ve ever seen before.”

So far, her videos have been viewed almost 2,000 times.

A project that initially started as a response to a flippant comment has morphed into an almost daily video blog and hours of learning Mishnah by herself and with her viewers.

“The real goal is to continue for 7-1/2 years, but in actuality, I don’t know. I’m taking it day by day, mishnah by mishnah,” said Shilling.

Her goal is to learn more about Judaism while also encouraging others to take on Jewish learning themselves – and even challenge her thoughts and assumptions.

“I hope that people are questioning every single thing I’m saying and have some questions themselves and continue where I leave off because I only give a brief overview,” she said.

To check out her vlog, visit

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