Multimedia revolution bypassing Jewish schools

BE’ERSHEVA, Israel, Dec. 19 (JTA) — Click into the “shmooze corner” of JewishFamily.com, and you will find Web surfers of diverse opinions and backgrounds engaged in a debate over whether Jewish kids in the Diaspora should celebrate Christmas.

Maya, a 14-year-old Israeli, thinks it is good to share in the celebration of a culture you live alongside. Her comments sparked an angry response from Devorah, who wondered why then do Arabs not celebrate Chanukah in Israel. Meanwhile, Aline, who was married for 20 years to a non-Jewish man, says she celebrated Christmas to share in her husband’s holiday but believes it confused her children.

It may seem like just a discussion, but Yosef Abramowitz, publisher of Boston-based Jewish Family & Life, which runs this and several other Jewish-oriented Web sites, says cyberplaces like these are the key to the future of Jewish education.

Surveys, he says, show that his sites have profoundly impacted the lives of visitors, leading some to talk about God for the first time, read Judaic articles to their children and even convert to Judaism.

“New media is the key to mass Jewish renaissance because it encompasses the home and school and is able to engage and inspire a whole new generation,” Abramowitz says. “It can totally reconfigure Judaism to be relevant to people’s lives. Most Jews wouldn’t walk through the doors of a Jewish institution but every month we are invited into 150,000 homes, half of whom are unaffiliated.”

Yet with the information technology revolution in full swing, the Jewish world is still struggling to integrate new technologies with ancient teaching traditions.

Distance-learning classes, Torah software and Jewish Web sites with informal education content are increasingly being used to bring Judaism to life. But as 80 professionals and experts from Israel and North America convened for a Jewish Educational Technology (JET) conference in the desert town of Be’ersheva recently, the prevailing feeling was that there are many hurdles to overcome before technology makes a big impact on Jewish education.

Although the Jewish Family group of Web sites has been lucky to win $1 million in funding from various groups, convincing donors was not easy. The problem, Abramowitz says, is that many decision-makers in philanthropic organizations are older. Often, they do not understand technological proposals.

But Susan Bass, the Jerusalem-based project editor of the Pincus Fund, which supports educational projects outside the United States and Israel, says not all technology proposals are necessarily worth funding.

“We are looking for innovative Jewish education projects,” she said, noting that her fund has supported a technology-based distance learning program. “But we are also interested in quality. Every proposal needs to be evaluated on its merits.”

In some respects, JET producers face problems similar to mainstream Internet entrepreneurs who are struggling to discover the key to profitability. However, JET producers are in a particularly difficult financial position for several reasons.

Development is much more expensive than for typical Jewish educational projects. Building a technological project requires technology experts who must be paid salaries on par with the private sector, which are usually much higher than wages paid to Jewish educators.

Yet Jewish technology firms cannot raise money from venture capital funds or private investors who are pumping massive amounts of money into mainstream high-tech start-up companies. Those investors expect high rates of return that no Jewish company can ever deliver because the market is very small.

Even if funding starts to flow, it is difficult to infuse new technologies into teaching institutions. Some educators may question the educational worth of new, unproven technologies, but technology experts say this is the only way to engage a generation of tekkie youth — especially on Judaism — into the next century.

“Talk and chalk is not necessarily the best way to put across something as rich as Jewish culture and heritage,” says Meir Fachler, conference organizer and director for JET and multimedia at Gesher, an Israeli organization that tries to bridge the religious-secular gulf. “Technology has the potential to make Jewish culture accessible and relevant.

“The problem is much more for educators than for kids,” he says. “We’ve got to catch up with the kids. It’s a total role reversal.”

Fachler calls the Internet an “enormous Jewish library” that is being used as a resource center instead of as an interactive tool.

“There’s a lot of ‘shovelware.’ I shovel it on the Web and hope it’s of use for someone,” he says. “Has it been edited for the Web for screens? Download, print it and read it and that’s a fantastic benefit but that doesn’t utilize the technology of the Internet.”

Fachler says there is a new language being spoken by a new generation, a language that involves bombardment of the senses with all media. Jewish teachers, he said, need to be dynamic and able to speak the language to make Judaism more relevant to this generation.

Rabbi Martin Schloss, director of school services at the Board of Jewish Education in New York, says his organization is embracing technology, for example, with a “cyberchaver” program linking high schools students in Jerusalem and New York.

“But people are very cautious and the serious question we all face now is how to redefine education and teachers in a completely new learning environment,” he says. Schloss says new teaching technologies offer “incredibly exciting” opportunities, yet schools should be cautious in their adaptation of unproven concepts and methods.

Even if schools begin embracing technology more widely, there are still barriers to overcome.

Chaim Feder, director of Education Matters, a Jerusalem-based private consulting firm on Jewish education, recalls a seminar he delivered at an Israeli school where two-thirds of the teachers did not know how to use a mouse. “The vast majority of teachers are people who grew up with the computer being at best, a second or third language,” Feder says. “Kids grow up today speaking computerese.”

The trick, Feder says, is to create educational technologies with Jewish content that is so compelling, teachers will want them. “In education, and certainly Jewish education, that does not exist yet,” Feder says.

Several conference participants agreed that so far, compelling content remains elusive. Fachler, the conference organizer, labels much of the existing Jewish software and Web material “cybershlock.”

Abramowitz, whose Web sites are delivering original content on a range of Jewish related issues, thinks one problem is that Orthodox content dominates Jewish educational technology and may not be relevant enough to engage the spectrum of Diaspora Jews. Indeed, the Be’ersheva conference was dominated by Orthodox participants.

“In many respects the Orthodox were the pioneers who believed in new media to service their members and do outreach,” says Abramowitz, himself a non-Orthodox Jew. “The non-Orthodox movements have not stepped up to the plate with gusto.”

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