Virtual Shabbat

Within minutes of my opening the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) Virtual Shabbat CD-ROM, people gathered around my desk. Klezmer music was coming from my computer, and kitchen cabinets, appliances and refrigerators were all dancing on my screen.

After an introduction by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of NJOP, I clicked on a picture of a kitchen and started this lively revue; other choices could have been a dining room, a synagogue or something labeled Hebrew crash course.

You can’t help but be intrigued by this interactive multimedia product. Click on one of the cabinets, and its doors open and out fly dishes, rimmed in blue; a drawer with blue-handled flatware opens simultaneously, while a voice-over explains that a kosher kitchen has separate utensils for dairy, for meat and often for pareve (neutral). Clicking on other spots prompt similar visual and verbal lessons about kashrut and the Shabbat kitchen.

Playing around reveals a few quirks. There is no foolproof way to know what will open when you click on it; the prompter arrow sometimes changes when you are over something to open and sometimes doesn’t. The person who does not know what points are relevant might miss significant information.

Those criticisms noted, I wax more enthusiastic each time I pop in Virtual Shabbat. The CD-ROM covers no topic in depth, since its intended audience is unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews, but its breadth is impressive and it includes an admirable bibliography for anyone who wants to explore more deeply. (Click on the bookcase in the dining room for a literary menu.) The CD-ROM packet includes a paperback bentscher — a book that includes prayers and songs, with explanations and transliterations, to be used on Shabbat, holidays and other special occasions. With information provided on where to find each song in this particular bentscher, which is published by the National Council of Young Israel, a user can follow along and see how the Hebrew words fit in each tune.

For the person with some Hebrew skills but not much fluency, the CD-ROM offers a way to practice the prayers and zemirot with an infinitely patient teacher. For the person with no Hebrew, it provides a crash course on reading Hebrew. A motivated user can improve synagogue and home-observance skills dramatically with Virtual Shabbat. And with that added proficiency can come the confidence to “turn Friday night into Shabbat.”

To preview the CD-ROM, go to or call 1-800-44-TORAH. The cost is $19.95, with discounts for some NJOP program participants. — Deborah N. Cymrot, Washington Jewish Week