It is one of the commendable contradictions of Jewish learning that its educators, in the service of imparting their traditional wisdom, are continually seeking innovative methods and means.
To celebrate this impulse, the Jewish Education Project is presenting its 4th annual Young Pioneers Award to teachers of teens and children.
One of this year’s five recipients, Benjamin Gross, director of educational technology at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, known as HAFTR, is integrating cutting-edge technology with Jewish learning for students from pre-K through high school.
Gross introduced HAFTR students at all levels to a variety of technological innovations, including 3-D printers and computer programming. Students then use this technology to complete projects that introduce them to concepts essential to design, geometry and computer science.
For example, HAFTR high school students are currently working on a project on the Mishkan, the desert-wandering Israelite’s portable proto-Temple. After drawing on Biblical and rabbinical sources for the Mishkan’s divine specifications, (hint: given at Mt. Sinai) they will convert the ancient units to inches and use a 3-D printer to produce a scale model.
They will then present the model to HAFTR’s younger students, explaining the background research and the process by which the model was made.
Introducing younger students to technology of this sort can “make an impact on the rest of their lives,” and potentially prepare them for future careers, Gross said, noting that an acquaintance of his in the medical field uses 3-D printers similar to the ones the students are familiar with. He worked with Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education to develop the program.
Gross emphasized that he uses technological innovations to enhance traditional education — not to replace it. Only if both students and teachers are comfortable with the technology will the innovations effectively enhance the learning process. “We pride ourselves in [making] lifelong learners,” he said.
Receiving the Young Pioneers Award “makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something,” Gross said, adding that he appreciated the recognition not only of his own work, but also of the general drive to use technology to enhance Jewish learning.
The other Young Pioneers Award winners are:
Lindsay Ganci, director of youth engagement at The Community Synagogue, in Port Washington, L.I., for creating a “sustainable model for teen engagement” through use of social media and technology as well as a teen philanthropy program.”
Maya Blank, special education consultant at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, in Manhattan, for making inclusion of autistic children in Jewish life a community priority.
Noah Hichenberg, director of the Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School at JCC Manhattan, for his work integrating Reggio-inspired education with Jewish values, and for inspiring more men to become involved in education.
Rinat Levy-Cohen, a Hebrew teacher at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, in Manhattan, for her unique Hebrew-language program that uses such technology as animated videos and e-books to promote creativity and challenge learning.