Wednesday, January 26, 2011

From Sinai to Cyberspace, Pt. 2: Thawing out

As I reflect on the Jewish Educators Assembly conference that just ended, the lyrics of an old song pops into my head: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”  It’s not that we’re clueless when it comes to us knowing what Jewish education will look like in the future; it’s just that we’re not sure in what direction we’ll be traveling.

So…maybe we are a little clueless after all.

Let me back up for a moment. The close to 200 participants at the Conservative movement’s education conference were exposed (many for the first time) to web 2.0 platforms that foster collaboration and have the potential to build community in new ways. For many of those present, the learning curves were steep as questions were posed, such as: “How do I set up a twitter account?” and “What is a Personal Learning Network?”  Lisa Colton (@darimonline) presented the challenges facing Jewish professionals as we reach out to a new generation of Jewish parents. Caren Levine (@jlearn20) introduced tools that enhance professional development, all within the context of social media, and opportunities of cloud based collaboration.  David Bryfman (@bryfy) stressed the importance of stepping out of our professional and institutional comfort zones as we look at existing structures, re-visioning them through a process of re-prioritization. discovering  new opportunities we never dreamed of. 

So in this embarrassment of riches with which we were blessed at the JEA, we must ask the hard question:  What is truly necessary in our work and for our constituents? And here is where we get to the hard stuff.

Who are our constituents? Parents?  Kids?  How are Baby Boomers, Gen “Xers” and Millenials different from each other?  How do we rise to this challenge of being effective in reaching different generational cultures? How do we cope with the democratization (or is it the rise of the consumer ethic) of knowledge? More than any other time in history, not only do people have a greater exposure and ability to get answers to ALL their questions; they also demand a say in what they want to learn, and when.  We seem to be on the cusp of a reordering of the traditional dynamic between parent, teacher and child.  Pam Edelman, from Yerusha, presented a model of Jewish education that is sort of a combination between home-schooling and the scouting merit badge program.  It exists outside of current institutions, and was born out of young families’ frustration with organized Jewish life today.  Is this a fad or a trend?   Should we, as Jewish professionals, feel threatened by this new phenomenon, or embrace it?  

The new tools that enhance collaborative learning (like Voicethread and Google Docs) and building school communities (such as interactive school websites like Activit-e) reflect the reality that relationships are central to building authentic Jewish lives. What this means is that the digital tools we have available to us today are only means to create a 21st century Klal Yisrael. This idea of unity certainly isn’t new.  It’s just that the way to achieve it, is.

 Ultimately, the question that underlies all others, in my mind, is what will Jewish communal life look like the day after tomorrow?  The idea of Social Networking was ubiquitous at the JEA conference. It’s all about relationships and how technology can be a tool to enhance the growth of community. As others have said before me, it’s not about the tech, it’s about the people.

As I write these words, I’m sitting in the Philadelphia airport waiting for my flight to take off in the driving snow.  At the same time, the final keynote address is being given back at the conference.  Robyn Faintich (@Jewishgps) is live-tweeting it at #jea59. The speaker, David Bryfman has asked the participants to close their eyes and “think about the future: What COULD Jewish life look like in your imaginary vision.  Who are the learners? Where? When?”

Next week the Reform movement's educators are meeting in Seattle for their conference: called "Imagineering Jewish Education for the 21st Century". They too are exploring the frontiers of technology and Jewish education. I can't help but think that we are at a serendipitous moment, when we all are on the same page of Talmud. We all know what needs to be done, we're just trying to figure out how. I believe now is the time for Jewish futurists, educators,and leaders from all movements to come together and explore tomorrow. If I may borrow Jack Wertheimer's imagery, we need to break down the denominational silos and finally collaborate.

We don’t know what next week will look like.  Before us are possible paths. In this age of cloud computing, virtual communities, and social networks, we need to take the leap of faith and move forward, not knowing exactly where it will take us, but being confident that by embracing the future, we will ensure a Jewish context for all those who will live in it.


  1. Peter - you said that "we all know what needs to be done..." I am curious as to what you think that is. I'd say that there are many paths but no one is yet sure where they are leading.

    I certainly am not one to be stuck in the past, yet I am not sure that all the paths being explored will lead to a stronger, engaged Jewish community. Far too many being celebrated are far more focused on what is good for "me at this moment" without any long term connection or commitment.

    I agree we need to start exploring together. When we model community collaboration - across denominational and communal organizational lines - perhaps others will join us.


  2. Iris:
    Not all paths pursued will lead to a stronger, engaged Jewish community. However, not pursuing all possible paths is likely to have an even worse outcome: no Jewish community. We must be willing to take the risks, to try things that might fail, might even prove to be ultimately detrimental. We can't really know which paths are the ones that will lead to a stronger, more engaged community-dare we risk not trying them all on the assumption that we already believe some of them won't? Peter is correct-we must put aside our paradigms and open ourselves to the wonders of possibilities and unknown outcomes.