The Jewish Future’s so Bright I got to Wear Blinders

Once upon a time there was “The Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York and Suffolk Association for Jewish Education Services.” The two have merged and the new organization has just re-branded itself as “The Jewish Education Project: We pioneer new approaches in Jewish Education for every age.” This is not that organization’s first name change. Before it was “The Board…” it was the “Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater New York.”

Once upon a time upon a time there was Dr. Samson S. Benderly the founder of the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater New York. He, with his good friend Dr. Mordechai Kaplan, reinvented Jewish Life. Benderly, who was one of the giants of Jewish Education is in need of a Wikipedia page. (Anyone need a project?) The New York Times ran a story on Dr. Benderly with the head line, “HOW THE KEHILLAH WORKED AN EDUCATIONAL MIRACLE; Faced a Big Problem in Teaching 200,000 Jewish Children, Only One-Quarter of Whom Had Religious Training and Solved It in a Way That Is Pronounced Unique in American Educational History.”

The Kehillah was the first large-scale communal tzadakah organization (a precursor of the Federation model). The standardization and professionalization of Jewish Education through the Bureau of Jewish Education was one their first projects. Benderly was hired to and succeeded at creating a modern education system in New York. The goal, here, was for Jewish education to become a professional school system, just like the public schools. The idea was, just as the public school system had “Americanized” a generation of Jews, a profession, modern, Jewish school system could “Judify” them.

I do not dislike this new name change though I am perplexed by it. Two things surprise me. The first is the equation of newness with goodness. Their catch phrase, “We pioneer new approaches in Jewish Education for every age” doesn’t suggest striving for excellence, doesn’t ask for effectiveness, and doesn’t set impact as the target. Also, newness can be an idolatrous end. It stands in direct opposition of respect for the elderly and veneration for the past.

I fully believe in the technological. I brush my teeth with an electric toothbrush. I floss every evening with a water pick, and am fully addicted to using my Smart phone. Yes, this article is being written on a computer and facts researched on the internet. What I am looking for is balance. Meanwhile, I mourn the number of veteran teachers and educators who are now jobless and unemployable because despite their years of experience they fail to know the secrets of worshipping the gods of “the future,” while they have many many tools and skills derived from experience and learning. Dr. David Bryfman, a staff member of the Jewish Education Project and one of the heroes of “the newness,” recently tweeted, “How can you learn Jewish texts in 140 characters?” 140 is the magic number of characters in a Tweet.

I recently attended the Jewish Futures Conference at General Assembly of Jewish Federation Councils in New Orleans. There was a lot I liked, some I will learn from and use, and some that repulsed me. Not bad on average.

I could have lived without “I would take a bullet for my Facebook friends” (no attribution will be given). I  was deeply riveted by a presentation by Russel M. Neiss and Charlie Schwartz. These two are young masters of the internet who are presently working on a project called MediaMidrash that links videos with compelling Jewish curricular content. They were among of the winners of The Jewish Futures Competition with a video you can see on line.

Charlie and Russel say that four factors should be the foundation of the Jewish Educational future. That future must be open, re-mixable, meaningful & relevant, and community building.

Open means that this material should be “open-sourced.” Simply put, it should be available for free on the internet. That is really good for the learner. I resented having to buy a back issue of an important Jewish Educational publication just to get information on Samson S. Benderly.

I do like Google and use it because it is free. Open is good for all but the producer who must either sell his creation (and therefore not be open), be independently wealthy, or get funded by a foundation to produce it. Foundation funding is a null sum game, and much of Jewish educational creativity has been entrepreneurial.

Entrepreneurial is one of those buzz words from the past. The beauty of commerce is that you are successful because people are willing to pay for what you create. We once sold Torah Toons and created a company. Torah Toons is now open-sourced and available for free at YouTube. It is accessible via Media Midrash.

Even though I have some problems with “openness,” I completely affirm their other three attributes.

Thomas Mann wrote a novel called The Glass Bead Game or Magester Ludi. It is a study in the sociology of knowledge. The center piece of the book is a game that is played following patterns of an idea or image through its appearance in all of human culture. In the book one can follow a piece of literature into music into mathematics. I loved the novel as a teenager (and have been less successful at re-reading it recently).

For the first Jewish Teachers Handbook (Alternatives in Jewish Education, Denver, 1981) I wrote a short story called The Pin Game. This was a Jewish adaption of The Glass Bead Game. It told the story of a synagogue where students played a game using a deck of cards filled with Jewish quotations and had to build “runs” out of different quotations that expressed the same idea. This was a vacuum-tube era version of remixing.

The idea of remixing is that one can take parts and pieces of the old, cut and paste them, and create one’s own new whole. I have always liked that idea. When we created Torah Aura Productions, I spoke of our educational mission as vocational. This is essentially remixing, where students take parts and pieces of the Jewish tradition and reshape them into a Judaism they can live. In a 1996 essay, “Welcome to the Gorilla Habitat” I wrote:

The job of the Jewish Educator in North America is close to that of the Zoo keeper. Both jobs require the creation of an artificial environment in which the species can hopefully survive and breed. The original habitat of the gorilla can never be reproduced in the zoo–rather the zoo keeper is sent searching for “essences.” S/he is busy, trying (with the resources at hand) to bring the right minimal elements which will support and sustain gorilla life. The literature of Jewish education, both philosophical and methodological, when viewed from this perspective, is also a search for the “essense” of Jewish survival…

Text learning is a communal process. It usually takes a combination of insights to crack a text open. In class direction, it often happens when enough energy has been pumped back into the ancient words that the text regains living voice. It is at these moments that the teacher gets a chance to withdraw. What is left is student challenging student, student questioning the text, student defending the text, and the ongoing insights of 2,000 years of consideration alive in the classroom. Text teaching can be magical for it bring the past book to its own new life.

Russel and Charlie do not limit their vision of Jewish education to text study (though they do actively include it.) Rather, as children of Web 2.0, they understand sampling and adapting, picking and choosing as an artistic vision that can create a way of life.

Meaningful & Relevant
Who could disagree? I would only add one caveat. In A Passion for Excellence, Tom Peter’s sequel to A Search for Excellence, he quotes a mission statement from Brookline High School. He says, “We believe that learning is an addiction to the tart, not the sweet.” It understands that most really addictive things (other than sugar) are acquired tastes. It takes someone to guide you into coffee, wine, and the rest.

The job of the teacher, especially the Jewish teacher, is to make the Jewish tradition be more than Twinkies and chicken nuggets. Meaning & Relevant should be an end goal, not a starting requirement. That doesn’t mean that one should have a long period of boredom before the good stuff kicks in, but that deep, worthwhile Judaism isn’t necessarily the first click on a website. We have to get learners past moments of impulse and move them into the area of reward for accomplishment.

Recently, I was asked by a rabbi why I included the idea that angels were not dead people. He asked me, “How am I going to sell this idea to my students?” I explained the idea that Jews, if they go anywhere after death, return to the Garden of Eden, and not to choir robes and wings. I told the Rabbi, “You don’t have to sell it. You just have to open it as a possibility.” The idea may be uncomfortable for some learners who live in a pop-Christianity (The Horn Blows at Midnight) bubble. But, “uncomfortable” is a major part of real learning.

Community Building
Yes. Judaism is not a game played solo against a backboard. I believe that Jewish community can be started, deepened, and maintained on the internet. I am just not convinced that it can happen without moments of sharing physical space. PunkTorah’s (2nd place winner in the competition at the GA) vision of online Jewish worship communities doesn’t do it for me. Let’s build socially networked communities, but let’s not rule out the value of classroom, gatherings, and teachers.

One of the end goals of a Jewish Education and Jewish Life is the formation of community. We must embrace the goal of community and any tools that can build it.

I will admit that I may be stuck in real life gatherings where teachers meet with students. I believe community that gathers in real space and where students can connect directly with a Jewish dating pool. That may be my lack of vision. Neil Postman wrote Teaching as a Subversive Activity and then, later, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. He said,

“A new technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups. School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press. Technological change, in other words, always results in winners and losers.” (Talk given at the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) on October 11, 1990 in Stuttgart.)

Teachers have survived the television, let’s hope that they also transcend the silicon chip. As I have blogged before, I believe in classrooms and technology, not classrooms or technology.

Russel and Charlie ended their presentation with “And on Friday we turn off all of our gagets and celebrate Shabbat.” There is the balance of future and past that I was hoping for.

Today, the word “new” scares me. It often means “less.” And more often, it means “killing off the old.” What I learned at the Jewish Futures conference is there are tomorrows that can make me comfortable and even excited.

Harlene Appleman, Director of the Covenant Foundation opened the Jewish Futures Conference by saying, “As professionals, educators, and forward-looking thinkers making an impact on the Jewish future, we will be inspired, challenged and energized to be agents of change within Jewish education and our greater community”

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Jonathan Woocher, the Chief Ideas Officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA) and Director of the Lippman Kanfer Institute borrowed this quote from Alan Kay, computer scientist and visionary, to end the Jewish Futures Conference. And let us say, “Amen.”

7 Responses to The Jewish Future’s so Bright I got to Wear Blinders

  1. Throughout Jewish history sages and scholars have attempted the equivalent of summing things up in a Tweet. What would you call the Rambam’s 13? The various tri-fold summations(like Micah’s) of Judaism found in the Tanakh and later Jewish writings? Hillel sadi ti best-ONLY if we recall the tagline “now go and learn it.” What Bryfman is suggesting is simply the equivalent-asking what we can impart of our texts in 140 characters-as a spark to generate deeper and further learning.

  2. Moishe says:

    Who’s ruling out the value of classroom, gathering, or teachers? Certainly not PunkTorah. I think you missed the message my friend.
    All respect to Russell and Charlie, but how many times do we as Jews have to say, “maybe we should do this…” or “The future should, possibly, maybe think about being like this”. PunkTorah is making the future happen, not just sitting around talking about what we maybe, possibly, should consider doing in the future.
    It is people like that who are holding us back.
    And who said they were second place anyways?

  3. Jill says:

    FYI…The Glass Bead Game or Magester Ludi was written by Hermann Hesse.

  4. judy aronson says:

    Many years ago, I had Joel in my sixth grade class, a very hyper student. Then he became my colleague, friend, and teacher. From his compelling teaching, I learned that our students young and old want to “crack the code’ of Jewish life. To do that, we need strong inter-generational connections and the courage to ask the difficult existential question. From challenging discourse on line or off, we build Jewish identity. If my teen-age granddaughter can interest me in the 60’s music scene (I must have slept through it or was too busy as a Jewish educator to have paid attention to any group but the Beatles) then I can teach her that my passion for Jewish learning gets stronger as I grow older. She can help me set up my blog, and I need to dream the content.

  5. blakritz says:

    Brick and mortar, people connecting with people, stories, anecdotes, and experiences, history, culture, identity all shared by a group of like minded people. Media and technology can be used to explore and present these ideas. However, none of it can be “done” through technology. People need to be with other people.

    Recently, I attended Debbie Friedman’s funeral via the Internet. It was a very moving experience sitting there at my desk sometimes even crying. But, nobody in my office knew what I was doing or shared with me in the experience. There were some amazing moments in the video stream when people started chatting in “singing in Haifa,” “singing in San Francisco” and other bits of comments to help each of us online feel like we were part of a community celebrating the life and music of Debbie Friedman. However, when it was all said and done we all went our separate ways. It was not the same as being there.

    Media and technology can help us and make a difference. But it does not build a or even maintain a community.

  6. You have the words for expressing my thoughts. It is indeed sad when excellence gives way to innovation, especially when the “innovation” seems so often to be the same at every site. Not sure who said it, but when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. No one is opposed to improvement, but it takes judgment to decide what to discard.

  7. Hermann Hesse wrote The Glass Bead Game, not Thomas Mann.

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