Changing Targets: Technology and Jewish Education
Earlier this week I listened in on the “Technology and Jewish Education” conference organized by the Lippman Kanfer Institute and Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner, held at the JESNA offices in New York. 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 MyJewishLearning.com, 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 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.
The Jewish Women’s Archive has always served multiple audiences. Our search logs and site surveys indicate that the more information we put online, with more detail—the more people come to our site. Publishing the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia online last year was a game-changer and had a tremendous, positive effect on the sheer number of people visiting our site. Usage logs and site surveys indicate that many of the people using our site are students preparing reports for religious studies and the like. Our materials are encountered by everyone from those seeking specific knowledge, to those looking for community and continuity.
Those same people post updates to articles, comment on the blog, submit pieces to “We Remember,” and use our latest project, a Google maps "mashup" to put Jewish women “On the Map.”
We also serve Jewish educators directly, both in providing materials to highlight broader Jewish American Culture, from pioneers of the Western United States to Civil Rights and Labor leaders; and by providing women’s voices to tell those stories, reminding both teachers and students that women, too, play a significant role in arts, culture, and political struggle. Indeed, in the last five years over 30,000 lesson plans have been downloaded from our site, countless more educators have used our “Primary Sources,” and starting this summer, more will be able to focus on Living the Legacy Jewish participation in the Civil Rights and Labor movements, using not only lesson plans and primary resources from our site, but objects uploaded by students or available on other websites. Our Bat Mitzvah Interactive project moves that critical rite of passage beyond learning a Torah portion for cultural engagement and continuity.
We have always used the latest technology, standards-based when possible to meet the needs of both the Jewish community and Jewish educators—including the independent self-educators championed by Dan Sieradski. Further, by defining ourselves as an “Online Archive” we rely on Internet technology for all access and learning.
But we don’t exist for the sake of technology. Once downloaded, our materials can be used in many other contexts. We use technology not just to “uncover, chronicle, and transmit to a broad public the rich history of American Jewish women.” It is technology that provides us tools to engage students, teachers, and the diversity of casual seekers forwarded to the site by Google and Bing so that their rich history becomes our history.
In a world where what it means to be Jewish and a part of the Jewish community—like technology—is always changing, so too will Jewish education remain in flux. Maybe that is the lesson of this week’s conference—it isn’t just technology that keeps changing on us; it is our understanding of community and its continuity as well.