|Jewish Learning in the 21st century|
|Thursday, 03 December 2009 23:00|
By Rabbi Laura A. Baum
Jewish learning has never been restricted to classrooms. For generations, rich learning experiences have taken place at kitchen tables, corner stores, fields, and campfires. Even Biblical mythology describes the Jews carrying the Ark as they wandered in the desert. With today’s technology, Jewish education is more portable and more accessible than ever. BlackBerries, iPhones, satellite radios, and electronic book readers put Jewish learning in our pockets and at our fingertips at any time and in any place.
Every learning venue -- engaging with a teacher in a classroom, visiting a website, reading a blog, having a conversation on Twitter, listening to an educational podcast, or watching live, video-streamed High Holiday services -- offers unique advantages.
As the rabbi of an online congregation (www.OurJewishCommunity.org), I see technology enhance Jewish learning in many ways.
A reality of the 21st century is that few people live their lives where they grew up. Hundreds or thousands of miles often separate families. According to recent U.S census data, 75% of adults under 39 moved in the last five years.
Fortunately, webcams and web-conferencing technologies like Skype let families light Hanukkah or Shabbat candles with each other, kibitz over a Seder meal, and plan the details of an upcoming celebration.
In 2008, some congregations video-streamed High Holidays services for members who could not attend. OurJewishCommunity.org streamed our services for anyone around the world. This email from one online participant conveys the power of technology to foster a deeper, more informed connection to Judaism:
“[On Rosh Hashanah], I came to work and my partner took the kids to services. I thought I'd be fine, but I was so isolated and getting really upset. I did a google search for a live streaming service, and there you were…. New ideas make a world of difference….
My mother also did not go to services for her own reasons. She was also sad and called me just before the shofar blew. I quickly sent her the link and we sat on the phone, d.c. to florida, and listened to your shofar together. It was an amazing moment for us. I know neither of us would have words of appreciation grand enough to capture what we felt.”
Living far from home, many adults realize that they are also far from the synagogues and schools that shaped them. Technology can play a powerful role in continuing to engage these individuals in Jewish learning. A graduate of the brick-and-mortar counterpart of our online congregation explains:
“I am now hundreds of miles from Congregation Beth Adam and my family. This year I was able to watch Beth Adam services live, over the Internet. It’s an amazing gift to be able to feel connected to my family and the Judaism I relate to, all in the comfort of my living room in New York.”
Facebook and other social networking sites also help congregations maintain connections to individuals and families that have moved away. By sharing educational materials, articles, videos, and podcasts, congregations have an unprecedented opportunity to continue and expand Jewish learning.
For those who are homebound or geographically isolated, technology may provide the only viable model of Jewish learning. But these individuals are among the majority of Jews – those who choose not to join synagogues. Over 50% of Jews in America are unaffiliated. And the majority of those who join (74%) tend not to participate more than once a month.
American Jews are clearly making choices among many priorities and needs. This does not mean they are not interested in Judaism. It means that traditional Jewish institutions require people to show up at particular place at a particular time. Judaism isn’t making it easy to become involved.
It’s time for Jewish institutions to meet people where and how they live their lives.
One online visitor explained how our educational materials and discussion guides make it easy for them to create Jewish experiences in their home, on their time.
“My wife and I have two young kids and our temple is about a half-hour away and we both work… I know it is no excuse, but I know I’d like to be involved more, so your site seems like a pretty cool way to telecommute to temple.”
Online participants not only choose when they want to learn, much like subscribers of TiVo watch their television favorite shows when it is convenient to them. They also choose the amount of time they want to spend. We try to make sure our content respects their hectic, time-starved schedules by offering lessons, sermons, and videos that are compelling, informative, and not too long. It is our hope and belief that even a few minutes of enriching and entertaining content can have a significant impact.
An online exploration of Judaism also offers a much-needed comfort level for some:
“There are some questions that I would like answered but don’t want to feel like a fool asking. I can ask online and the red face doesn’t show up.”
While some OurJewishCommunity.org visitors choose to print educational materials like art projects, stories, and games, many people interact with others in real-time online forums:
“I like having an online community that I can find in my living room instead of 20 miles away.”
People who read blogs can leave comments and exchange thoughts with others whom they have never met in person. The topics include everything from book reviews, to holiday recipes, to family rituals and experiences. Conversations that begin online sometimes lead to face-to-face meetings as people expand and redefine the notion of community.
This past spring, I experimented with a new kind of Jewish learning: I led a Passover Seder on Twitter.
Twitter is a type of blog that subscribers can read on their cell phones or computers. The trick is that the blogger must compose in a series of very brief messages, or tweets. Maximum tweet length is 140 characters¾less than the first two sentences of this paragraph! Over 500 people participated as I tweeted sections of the Haggadah and offered play-by-play descriptions of Seder activities. Some people responded by tweeting descriptions of what they were doing for Passover; others asked questions; many shared their thanks for being able to participate in a Seder experience.
The Seder-on-Twitter is a powerful example of the accessibility of today’s Jewish learning. People could follow the Seder on their computers or cell phones, which created an extremely low barrier for participation.
The more we make Judaism accessible, the easier it will be to build and strengthen relationships with people who desire a connection with Judaism, but for whatever reason, have not yet found a way to connect.
I often post articles, discussion questions, and links to other websites on Twitter and Facebook. Many people reply back to me; the conversations often continue over time. This is from a young woman whom I have never met:
“Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been reading on your site a lot and it’s making me think of becoming active in Judaism again!”
Twitter and Facebook are just two examples of technologies that foster Jewish learning. New technologies are evolving very quickly. This is the power of technology at its best: We reach people. We encourage thinking. People become involved in Jewish learning.
The notion that people can only learn from teachers and books, or in classrooms is antiquated. Years of high quality television programming provide extensive evidence that learning does not only happen in a classroom. Technology is creating new and exciting opportunities for Jewish learning and engagement. As one visitor to OurJewishCommunity.org wrote:
“Certainly, a virtual congregation is a new idea but face it, while our meeting place is a virtual site, WE are real. Our need for a congregation with like-minded people is real.”
Jewish learning, in all of its wonderful, experiential aspects, should be embraced. Jewish learning that engages people on their own time and in their own space is merely a next chapter for people who have valued learning throughout their entire history.
Jewish tradition teaches that the home is a mikdash me’a, a small sanctuary. Jews have never needed a synagogue to be Jewish. Judaism was never intended to exist in people’s lives only on Friday nights, Saturday mornings, or Sunday mornings. Judaism is ours to experience anytime, wherever we are. If we can extend the idea of our homes to include all of the places we take our technology, then we can make our cell phones, computers, and iPods small sanctuaries too. With technology, we can take Jewish learning wherever we go.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 28 January 2010 14:46|