You Don’t Have to Be a Kid to Love New Jewish Web Site, but It Helps

There may be dozens of educational Web sites out there, but a new one could be the first where kids teach kids.

Toldot.org, an online Jewish museum, is part textbook and part time capsule that relies on “artifacts,” or pictures of physical evidence of Judaism, to teach Jewish history.

In an effort to reach younger Jews, the site uses state-of-the-art graphics that offer users both a Jewish history lesson and the chance to meet like- minded users.

The site also gets personal.

Stefanie, 19, a native of Germany, has a collage of her life on the site – - both as a teenager who loves shoes and as a German Jew living with the history of the Holocaust in her hometown.

Her page on the Toldot site — like those of Sam from New York, Sasha from Ukraine and Shiri from Israel — tells the story of Jewish life in Europe.

The “artifacts” that Stefanie submitted include a hand-drawn map of Hamburg, a picture of a local synagogue, a portrait of German-born Rabbi Moses Mendelsohn and an image of a yellow star like the ones Jews were forced to wear during World War II.

Elsewhere on the site, users are presented with information about other Jews around the world.

In three lesson plans that schools can purchase for a $100-per- classroom fee, Toldot educators focus on different parts of the world where Jews have lived throughout history.

The lessons discuss why Jews settled there, what their experiences were and how the surrounding environments affected their traditions.

Toldot’s emphasis is on the teens’ voices, their interests and their connections to Judaism, says Miriam Ancis, who founded the Web site. She says she started it because she felt children would be the best vessels for teaching other children about Jewish life.

“The students are put in the position of being shapers of our cultures,” says Ancis, an artist turned rabbi. “I hope they will learn there are many ways to be Jewish and be tolerant of one another and the differences that exist within our people.”

Ancis started Toldot nearly three years ago, during the Internet boom.

She chose the digital medium not only because of its appeal to teens, but also because it could reach Jews in cities that didn’t have “brick-and-mortar” Jewish institutions.

Early on, Ancis persuaded New York State to accredit Toldot as an online museum.

Next, she designed and marketed her site for pre-teens and teenagers, rather than relying on chance that Web surfers would find the site, she says.

Ancis apparently has touched a nerve among Jewish educators: Toldot will be used in 10 day schools and 10 supplemental synagogue schools this school year.

“One thing I feel is critical in making Jewish studies attractive and meaningful to our students is to utilize the newest educational techniques – - in particular technology — hand in hand with Jewish studies to see that this is something not only ancient, but modern and exciting,” says Melanie Berman, the head of Jewish studies at the Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto, Calif.

In particular, Berman praises Toldot’s ability to help students see that their own experiences and family customs are “important pieces of the global tapestry. “Toldot is finding an innovative way to tap into that,” she says.

Toldot users find the site more interesting than “boring” textbooks, and they value the personal connection with other teens, writes Hana Meckler, a high school junior, in a Toldot review.

The Los Altos High School student says the exchange told her things about other teens — like their heroes and favorite books — that were fun to hear and compare to her own experience. Their opinions also encouraged her to consider other viewpoints, she said.

“It tells us how other Jews from around the world celebrate their Judaism,” Meckler says. “This is a crucial aspect of this site because it lets Jews know that there are different ways of practicing Judaism in addition to their own.”

The site is still working out some design kinks. It takes a few minutes and several clicks of the mouse to find the two central components, the history lessons and the teen collages.

Ancis also must convince would-be users and funders that Toldot is not just another Internet project. For teachers, this means convincing them that this new program can add tremendous value, though it’s not a necessity. For funders, it means persuading them that the multi-faceted film, textbook, theater and art project is a sustainable education tool that educators and students actually will use.

Toldot got off the ground thanks to grants from Bikkurim, the business incubator for New York City-based Jewish organizations, the Jewish Educational Services of North America and the United Jewish Communities.

Ancis’ dreams for Toldot are big. She hopes to expand its audience, install features of Toldot’s presentation as exhibits in traditional museums and translate the Web site into other languages.

For the moment, Ancis is satisfied with the excited responses she has been getting from students like Meckler.

“I think its fascinating for kids to see that other kids live a Jewish life in a completely different environment,” Ancis says.

Looking at their “artifacts,” she says, is like meeting a new Jewish friend.

Users who want to submit artifacts about their Jewish world to the site can send their information to artbuzz@toldot.org or to Toldot, 111 Eighth Ave., 11th Floor, New York, 10011.

NEXT STORY