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Technology and Jewish Education Conference

Technology and Jewish Education Conference

Jewish techie Ari Davidow listened in on JESNA’s recent "Technology and Jewish Education" conference and posted some of his observations on the Jewish Women’s Archive blog. JESNA’s conference is run through its Lippman Kanfer Institute.

I repost some of Ari’s comments below, but first some background on the conference. JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute seeks to enhance Jewish education’s receptivity to and capacity for worthwhile innovation. In this context, the Institute began nearly two years ago to bring together – both physically and virtually – some of the most talented and thoughtful individuals working in the broad arena of technology and Jewish education to discuss their work and their visions for the future of Jewish learning and teaching in a technology-infused age. JESNA calls the project and conversations "JE3" for Jewish Education 3.0. It emphasizes that the future of Jewish education is being written and re-written as new technologies emerge and are put to new uses. Ari Davidow writes:

Earlier this week I listened in on the "Technology and Jewish Education" conference. I heard many familiar themes: Jewish education is underfunded, and in particular Jewish educators lack both resources and training to take advantage of technology. At the same time, the environment in which students today learn seems to rely increasingly on mobile devices and Facebook feeds—even more than my generation relied on bulky film projectors and film strip readers (both of which proved difficult for some teachers, who relied on us students to make the machinery work). Funding is also lacking to develop tools key to teaching Jewish subjects—to develop specialized software, for instance, or ensure access to significant Jewish texts, with translation(s).

Lisa Colton of Darim Online reminded us that technology should be the means, not the end—the real goal must remain one of Jewish education.

Meredith Lewis, of, spoke of how her site helps people looking for answers to specific questions, often phrased in ways that make it clear that the person asking has no understanding of Jewish traditions or cultures. In this she sees few signs of specific “Jewish learning,” if the term implies some engagement with Jewish life and continuity.

In a dinner-time address, Jeffrey Shandler reminded the audience that the challenge of technology as it meets Jewish (or religious) life is not new. He used the controversies around advent of the printing press and what it meant for Jewish learning, and the more recent example, in the US, of the advent of radio to drive home the point.

All of this suggests that technology is a stand-in for a larger problem, what it means to talk about “Jewish Education.” The term refers to more than the formal education provided by synagogue or day school educators. In yesterday’s discussion it also included the self-paced inquiry and learning as experienced by an individual on the web. Yet, as David Bryfman and others pointed out, putting tools to learn to chant Torah online is answering educational questions that, for many, are largely irrelevant to a community that is far more diverse, and far more diffuse than that experienced even 200 years ago. The question goes beyond technology to the diversity of ways being “Jewish” will be defined in this and in coming generations.

Dan Sieradski’s pleas for Open Source texts and tools to enable an unaffiliated individual learn to chant from the Torah highlight another non-technical question: What does it mean to acquire education? Is it enough to put Jewish resources online so that, like Madonna and her Kaballah “practice,” passers by can pick up what they choose? If one learns to chant a Bat Mitzvah torah [sic] portion without learning anything about Jewish history or culture, has one really become a Bat Mitzvah? Is it meaningful to become acculturated into a Jewish community of one?

To the contrary, most of us would argue that if one acquires knowledge without engagement, without learning about Jewish history, culture, and community in context, one has not become a member of the Jewish community.

These are all very interesting observations. Regarding Ari’s question about whether the bat mitzvah girl who learns to chant Torah online is missing out on other facets of her Jewish education. The answer is yes, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If that young girl lives in a remote area of the country (or world) in which no bat mitzvah tutors are in close proximity, then she and her parents should be thankful for the modern technology that allows her to prepare for her bat mitzvah through the Internet. Yes, there are still other pieces of her Jewish educational puzzle that will not be solved online. However, it has to be one step at a time.

The girl learns to chant her bat mitzvah Torah portion online and in doing so wants to learn more about Jewish history and culture. She asks her parents to send her to a Jewish camp that summer to meet other Jewish children and to be engaged in informal Jewish education. She is no longer a "Jewish community of one" and all because the online bat mitzvah preparation experience led to her becoming part of a larger community outside of her geographical borders.

Read the rest of Ari’s comments about the conference at the Jewish Women’s Archive blog here.

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