06/17/2010 11:15 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The People of the Book Teach History Online

From liturgy to ideology, from Yiddish literature to the mass immigration to the United States, Eastern Europe birthed many of modern Jewry's most important intellectual and social trends. Its impact on Jewish history is on par with that of Medieval Spain and al-Andalus, and even in some respects the period of the great Talmudic academies in Baghdad.

Yet its incredible history and derivate lessons have been largely limited to books and those familiar with them. The People of the Book have allowed their expansive history to be confined to the medium through which it was traditionally presented. This trend has become particularly stark in recent years, as the Internet has expanded the ways in which history and knowledge can be transmitted, as well as the audiences with which they can be shared.

Even as Jewish organizations have created websites, online forums, and online publications in response to the growing demand for online resources, Jewish education has remained largely offline. Even as the digitization of the Talmud has facilitated rabbinic scholarship, it has seemed taboo to suggest that Jewish history, philosophy, theology, and liturgy could be accessed through anything but a book or a knowledgeable person.

Just this past week, however, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research made significant headway in changing the notion that education for the People of the Book might somehow be confined to books alone. After extensive planning and preparation, the institute launched an online edition of the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. While it may not leave book learning totally behind (the print edition is being published by Yale University Press), it is set to alter the way that Jews learn about the heartland of Eastern European Jewry.

Most remarkable about the online edition of the encyclopedia is its breadth of content and use of media. In addition to traditional articles, it abounds with maps, pictures, posters, audio recordings, and even early videos, documenting the appearance and milieu of Jewish neighborhoods and villages. The result is a vivid portrayal of Jewish history in Eastern Europe, one that finally shows (rather than tells) why it has long been considered a crucial region for the transition to modern Judaism.

Complementing this content are two portals for educators and researchers, ensuring that the online edition not only proves enriching for the curious individual but also those seeking to transmit the information to the next generation or transform the way it is understood, through new and incisive interpretations.

Having carefully designed the website for general readers, educators, and researchers, it would seem that the YIVO Encyclopedia's editor, Professor Gershon Hundert of McGill University, had in mind a much bigger goal: applying the lessons of Jewish adaptation from the past to the present. By fostering change in the most bookish of Jewish educational tools, the encyclopedia, he and his colleagues may prompt a watershed of Jewish innovation online. The People of the Book may well be ready for a transition en masse to cyberspace.

This article was originally featured in the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue's "interViews" column.