Jewish Education In The Age Of ‘New Power’
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Jewish Education In The Age Of ‘New Power’

Malka Fleischmann
Malka Fleischmann

A few weeks ago, my teenage nephew and his friends turned a mild day at a public park into a raucous outdoor party by wirelessly connecting all of their UE Boom speakers, effectively amplifying personal playlists to concert level sound. The ground beneath their feet throbbed, mightily vibrating just as the ground beneath us — beneath the world of education — currently seems to be doing. The environments in which we operate feel charged in a way that is new and unfamiliar, in a way that begs curiosity.

This past Shavuot eve, during a 3 a.m. lecture addressing the fate of Jewish holy books in the digital age, I listened to older audience members resist the arguments of a much younger lecturer heralding the era of iPad-as-handheld-beit-midrash. At the touch of an index finger, our children now have access to centuries of layered commentary and super-commentary, translations and citations. The teacher’s mastery of sacred texts — as well as the leather-bound version of those texts — have become secondary or obsolete in the face of the internet’s efficiency and ease of access.

This past summer, the country watched as thousands of teenagers organized and executed the Youth Climate March, using social media and protest to call on politicians to fully divest from fossil fuels and chart the path toward a future based on renewable energy. This, after we saw teenagers mobilize to found the global movement, #NeverAgain, and coordinate hundreds of March for Our Lives demonstrations in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., school massacre.

In their bestseller, “New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World and How to Make It Work for You,” Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms explore our society’s shifting power structures, arguing that old dynamics and mechanisms have been replaced by a new kind of power, characterized by “the deployment of mass participation and peer coordination to create change and shift outcomes.” Whereas Old Power is held like a currency, they say, New Power functions like a current (or a network of wireless speakers).

New Power is Airbnb, Kickstarter, Wikipedia and Twitter. New Power is WeWork and HitRecord. New Power is the way in which we use hashtags to aggregate our ideas and images at shared, open digital addresses. And, while much of the change we’re experiencing is made possible by advances in technology, the more fundamental and substantive changes are occurring at the cultural level, altering our behavioral orientations. As a society, we are increasingly interested in initiatives and designs that call upon the masses, allow for participation and that express openness and accessibility. People — and especially our young people — are “doing it for themselves,” and, at this year’s Jewish Futures conference, The Jewish Education Project and the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah invite the public to investigate that very shift.

As DIY culture proliferates and young learners hold more and more of the vast universe in the palm of their hands, what becomes of old power structures in education? What becomes of expertise or of the Jewish classroom, the Jewish educator, the curriculum and, even, the tradition itself? Where do these elements fall in a world in which groundswell interests are as visible and determining as the opinions of those who sit atop hierarchies and institutions?

If Sefaria can give students access to Jewish knowledge, if their own organizing efforts can fill their hearts with the call to social justice and if OneTable can give them the chance to design the Shabbat that best reflects their spirits, how can Jewish studies teachers, synagogues and Jewish schools reimagine their roles in raising and educating our youth?

Moreover, if our young people continue their steady embrace of New Power, will they favor experience over expertise to a point at which all expertise is lost? Or, perhaps, is a new kind of expertise emerging? Jews have long been the People of the Book, but, increasingly, as David Denby put it in his 2016 New Yorker Op-Ed, “…teenagers, attached to screens of one sort or another, read more words than they ever have in the past. But they often read scraps, excerpts, articles, parts of articles, messages, pieces of information from everywhere and from nowhere.” What becomes of our cultural heritage when the very vehicle through which it has been carried for millennia becomes passe?

What happens when the hierarchical structures that have long facilitated Jewish communal life become uncomfortable for a generation that would rather organize via equal and mass participation? In whose hands will we find the power of our community? In whose hands should we find it? Most importantly, we must ask ourselves: What changes ought Jewish educators and institutions make and resist in order to remain powerful in the minds of their empowered youth?

Malka Fleischmann is the director of knowledge and ideas at The Jewish Education Project.

This year’s Jewish Futures conference, which takes place on Dec. 20 at Columbia University, will delve into deeper exploration of these questions and more. To learn more about the conference and to register, please visit: jewishedproject.org/jewish-futures-conference-2018-power-to-the-people.

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