Monday, March 21, 2011

Satisfying The Hunger

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to feed people. I enjoy coming up with a menu, cooking, and the satisfied murmurs of people who can’t put another thing in their mouths and stomachs! And my guests are obviously getting pleasure out of it as well. It’s an even greater experience for both my guests and me when everyone is actually hungry.

Right now, it appears that there is a great hunger out there among Jewish educators. The hunger is not for food however, of which, thank G-d, we have enough (sometimes, as one might guess from looking at my rather large belly, we even have too much). The hunger I refer to is for knowledge and understanding about the transformative impact of technology on Jewish education. For those of us educators who are digital immigrants, we want knowledge and information about the technologies that are out there, ready to be used and embraced. We want to learn how to use them, and we want to figure out how they can be applied to Jewish education – both in the classroom and in our own professional development and responsibilities. And all of us educators, including the growing number of digital natives, want to understand the potential that technology has for transforming how Jewish education is delivered/acquired. After all, we’re the ones that can and should be in the forefront of envisioning the future and leading the charge.

The good news is that there are many resources through which people can gain knowledge and understanding, as well as join in discussions about what it all means and where it’s all leading. Just 2 months ago, both JEA and NATE devoted their annual conferences to this theme, and it was a major piece of the recent RAVSAK conference as well. While I am not certain about the NATE figures, the JEA conference drew its largest attendance in several decades. Prior to these two conferences, both PEJE and JESNA had conferences dealing with these same issues. There are several groups and websites dealing with some of these issues as well, such as the Jewish Education Change Network, and my good friends at Darim Online (who even run a technology “boot camp.”

And now, thanks to the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship and the Lookstein Center, there are online Communities of Practice (CoP) dealing specifically with technology and Jewish education. My friend and colleague Eliezer Jones from Yeshiva University began a CoP called YU 2.0 only several months ago, and it already has over 200 members and very active and engaging discussions and opportunities to learn.

My own CoP, which for the near future will be limited to JEA members, was launched only 2 weeks ago. Through only one announcement on our listserve, we already have over 35 members and are growing every day. With the help of my very talented and knowledgeable design team (Deborah Nagler, Sara Shapiro-Plevan, and Peter Eckstein), we have decided on our approach. First, we want to concentrate on teaching about tools that not only have classroom applications, but appeal to potential CoP members self-interest (after all, there has to be something in it for people if they are going to invest time and energy into being an active member of a CoP). So we are starting with the overall subject of “Collaborative Tools.” As our first topic, we have chosen “wikis,” as we now have a JEA Wiki for posting program ideas, templates, etc… We have posted 6 or 7 articles and videos on our CoP website about wikis, and have asked our members to read and/or watch them. I am posting a discussion question every few days. So far, we have had an amazing discussion, involving quite a few of our members, over the concept of “Darwikinism” – that is, in relation to the ability for anyone with permission to edit a wiki, the concept of “survival of the fittest.” In several weeks time, we will be running a webinar for the CoP members who are interested in hands on instruction on how to use wikis.

So, there you have it. If you’re hungry for knowledge about many different aspects of integrating technology into Jewish education, there are lots of different “restaurants” opening up. Go out and try some of them!!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reflections on our Jewish Digital Future

This is a comment on a cross-post of cross-post. It is appropriate in light of the content. eJewishPhilanthropy posted an abridgement of a posting on the Project InCite blog by Lily Lozovsky.The image at right will make sense further down!
Reflections on our Jewish Digital Future Right now, we are living through a fundamental shift in the structure of our society. Digital media and portable connective devices are transforming our world by eliminating the transaction costs that once acted as barriers to offline activism.
… Our digital tools are stretching the limits of human potential, expanding the capacity of the individual and the collective to affect scalable, rapid change in our communities.
… Jewish institutions cannot afford to carry out their missions on the ground without simultaneously engaging with thought leaders and activists in “cyber space”. If we are doing a phenomenal job, our success will be reinforced and extended by the community online. If we are not, well, there is cause to worry.
Online, the authenticity of an organization’s impact and relationships is king. We have entered what I like to think of as the ultimate audit – of individuals, businesses and institutions. We are no longer simply what we say we are. Rather, we are the sum of our searchable reputation; ratings, followers and reviews that tell others the truth about what we have to offer. This is both powerful and frightening.
The critical mass of people trafficking across the web creates a filter beyond anything that a lone editor or institution could guarantee. If we are ineffective or irrelevant, if we are not part of the conversation, or fail to deliver on the claim that we are making – people in our networks will know. They will talk. They will tweet. The internet has empowered people with a voice.
And they are speaking up whether institutions give them the microphone or not.
The organizations that we care about cannot continue addressing the internet as another place to post their brochures. It is time to change our metaphors. We need to see social media as a networking event or a Kiddush luncheon, one that we cannot afford to miss, even if we arrive on Jewish time. 
I am the guy who keeps talking about not tossing the synagogue baby out with the analog bathwater. (Wow. That is a hideously stretched metaphor. You know what I mean, yes?) Some would expect me to refute Lily or in some way try to lessen the impact of what she has said.

Not going to happen.

She nailed it in one. Nothing she says suggests shuttering the shul or closing the JCC or making the community all virtual all the time. She talks about how essential it is that our institutions learn to occupy the space in 2.0 rather than a 1.0 manner. 

I look at my synagogue web site and see that it is web 1.0 - the read only web. We are not interactive. It is a fine place for members to catch up. It serves as a great way for prospective members to begin to get to know us. Many people have told us how helpful it was in their decision to join. But it does little to bring our members together other than telling them when to meet in real time. Most synagogue pages are the same. We are working on this. I hope everyone else is too.

We have had some success in building community online using resources other than the web page. Facebook has really begin to be useful. One of our rabbis invited me to work with her in establishing a temple Facebook group. We have 243 members of the group and we have reached the point where members are doing most of the posting and they are having conversations about lots of things. Not just about events at the temple, but about getting together to do things with one another or with their children. One of our teachers, who grew up in our synagogue noticed something interesting on a library book Date Due card:
"Today at Sunday school one of my kindergarteners took this book out. I started filling out the information and I read up the list to find Mallory Gibson who was 7 years old (back in 2000) when she took the book out. I was a Madrakah in her class when I was in high school and she was in kindergarten, I taught her when she was in Kitha Chet (8th grade), and now she's graduating high school. Makes me feel old! Also, Todd Markley, who is a Rabbi now, from the temple, and is well known across the east coast also took this very same book out. He took it out in 1983! History in our own temple! :-p"
She snapped the picture at the top of this posting and posted it to the Facebook Group. The  conversation at right then ensued. Heidi is a parent in our school and came to our community somewhat recently. Claire is long-term member who has adult children and grandchildren. She has served on our board and is part of a team of volunteers that makes our library work for our members.

So the technology has allowed us to bridge generations and bring people together. A similar conversation about a family making Shabbat on vacation and another member who posted daily pictures and commentary from the congregational trip to Israel last month.

So I agree with Lily. We (Jewish institutions) need to get MUCH better at embracing and using the available means to bring our people together, both digitally and in analog. It is both/and, not either/or. Lot's more work. But let's face it, no one went into Jewish education to avoid work.

Let's build something together!

Cross-posted to Welcome to the Next Level

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Don't know much 'bout history" - Anatomy of an educational program

Do American Jews care about the Civil War? In a recent article in The Forward Jonathan Sarna says that they do not, and that they should. In the mid-19th century they certainly cared. The New York Times reports that Rabbinic leaders came out with public pronouncements about slavery, and their interpretation of the Torah's view on that subject.

But what does an educator do if he wants to teach this material to his students?

When Shlomo Horwitz, director of Jewish Crossroads, wanted to develop a program on this topic, he turned to his virtual colleagues on the Lookjed list, asking them for sources on Civil War era slavery as well as how Judaism perceives the institution of slavery in the Messianic era.

Answers came in quickly. From Bar-Ilan University, Adam Ferziger, associate director of the Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry suggested Marc Saperstein's work, which led to an off-list email correspondence with Professor Saperstein (who both recommended his own Jewish Preaching in Times of War, 1800-2001 and offered links to various sermons, like this one).

Regarding slavery in Messianic times, Shalom Carmy recommended reading Rav Kook's letters on the subject and Elli Fischer pointed to a series of Virtual Bet Midrash lectures that focused on these letters.

Ultimately, Shlomo Horwitz put these - and other - suggested resources together to create an educational program. He also developed a short podcast where he shared some of this material.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Jewish Journeys on the Internet

Here are some examples of the intersection between Jewish values, Jewish education, and the Digital Age.

Our tradition teaches us that there are shivim panim laTorah, seventy faces (facets) to the Torah, expressing the idea that there are multiple ways to interpret our most sacred text (BaMidbar Rabbah 13:15). This idea has found a virtual world in the website With the Bible in English and Hebrew, this site gives anyone the opportunity to comment on any verse. These comments can be text, pictures, videos, or other up-loadable content. Mixed in with the contemporary interpretations, are the writings of traditional commentators. Still in its infancy, this project has the potential to create a modern cross-cultural Jewish conversation available to anyone with an internet connection.

In Pirkei Avot 2:5, Hillel teaches us al tifrosh min hatzibur, “do not separate yourself from the community” and the internet has the potential to change our understanding of community. Focused on creating a virtual community, is a social network for Jewish mothers. Although the site is centered on the New York City Jewish scene, it has postings on raising children, cooking, travel, health and wellness, starting a business, and all things connected to being a Jewish mom wherever you find yourself. The site has regular contributors as well as guest postings, and members can post their thoughts freely. This site is just one example of a way to get connected to a larger Jewish community, tailored to a specific audience, without leaving your couch.

Deuteronomy 6:7, recited each day at as part of the Shema, reminds us that parents are responsible for teaching Judaism to their children. The internet can assist with websites such as This interactive site gives kids the chance to watch videos, read articles, or play interactive games on many Jewish topics. The site also includes a section for teachers with sample lesson plans on many subjects.

Ever since the revelation at Mount Sinai the Jewish people have had a special connection to the written word. Our books may have started on stone tablets, but now you can explore them digitally by pointing your web browser to This is an online community for exploring Jewish books and their authors. It has separate sections for fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books, as well as sample first chapters of newer books to see if they should go on your reading list.

Long ago are the days when you needed a guide to help you jump into exploring Jewish life. Here are just four examples of virtual roads leading to an armchair Jewish journey. You just need an internet connection and a little time to surf the Web.