‘Mommy, are you done with your e-mail yet?” my 6-year-old daughter Ellie demands, hovering behind me in our study.
A few months earlier she’d have been asking because she wanted my attention. Now, however, she’s interested in something far more alluring: the computer, specifically JLand, an online Jewish “virtual world” for kids, where she has already logged countless hours, earned hundreds of virtual gold coins and mastered various educational games.
Convinced that small children are better off playing with “real world” toys and books that they can physically touch (and also wanting to reserve the computer for my Facebook addiction), I kept Ellie away from technology for many years. But a few months ago, when her first-grade teacher sent home notes recommending the Starfall and Razkids educational sites, we began dipping our toes in the sea of computer games. Soon after, JLand, with its lavender-complexioned, orange-coiffed genie, entered our lives — thankfully, just in time to distract my daughter from the temptations of Club Penguin, Webkinz and other more commercial sites.
While Jewish educational computer games have been around for decades, mostly as software marketed to Hebrew schools and other institutions, JLand (www.jlandonline.com) is considerably more sophisticated and ambitious than its forerunners. Developed by an Israeli producer of educational software, and launched in September, JLand is working with Jewish federations and other Jewish organizations throughout North America in order to promote the site, which organizers are hoping will appeal to unaffiliated Jews.
“Our goal is to get this out to as many different Jewish children as possible,” says Adam Fenster, JLand’s North American executive director.
JLand arrives on the scene at a time when the Jewish education world, like the general education world, is struggling to keep up with the latest technologies and determine whether the Internet, social networking and computer games can be genuinely useful — or simply serve as distractions — to promoting learning.
“Technology is inevitably going to be more and more a part of what the future of education is,” says Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer (and former executive vice president) of the Jewish Education Service of North America. “For Jewish education, it’s critically important, not because it’s a fad, but because Jewish education needs to be able to speak in the idiom of our time.”
Last month JESNA’s Lippman-Kanfer Institute launched JE3 (Jewish Education 3.0), an open-source Web site devoted to sharing information about technology in Jewish education. The site (www.jesna.org/je3/) features a variety of articles and resources related to everything from Twitter to videoconferencing to online Talmud study, and aims “to inspire people to discuss the impact that media and technology have on Jewish education today, and also how they — as both educators and learners — can utilize these tools to improve and empower their own learning and teaching.”
Computer gaming in particular is becoming a significant focus for educators, says Caren Levine, a consultant on educational technology who also directs the learning network at Darim Online, a group that helps Jewish institutions make better use of technology.
Games are increasingly being “viewed as another venue for learning,” Levine says.
Developed by Compedia, a for-profit that designs educational software for distribution in over 40 countries, JLand describes itself as a “safe, personalized online world promoting Jewish identity” for children ages 4-10.
“The thing that makes JLand unique is that it’s an ever-evolving world,” explains Fenster. Games vary in complexity and focus depending on the age of the player and the preferences of the parents. New games, features and activities are frequently added. And the system “learns what the child is good at and what they need help with,” Fenster says.
Perhaps more importantly, JLand — unlike, say, the stereotypical Hebrew school experience — is something children actually want to do, rather than have to do. Like Birthright Israel and its popular 10-day trips to Israel, JLand (which also starts with a “passport” and a “flight” on a plane bearing a Star of David) offers a Jewish education soft sell in which participants learn through fun.
The Jewish content (along with secular educational materials) is embedded in games. For example, Hebrew letters and facts about Israel are taught through a memory game, scenes from the Purim story appear in collector’s cards and albums that children can “buy” with coins earned from other activities, and children can communicate with Jewish peers in Israel and elsewhere. And, using a “communicator” feature that allows players to choose from pre-selected phrases in Hebrew and English (a tool that not only bridges the language divide, but prevents pedophiles and others from using the site to prey on children), players can socialize and trade cards with peers around the world.
Significantly, JLand, thanks to Compedia, has the financial resources that most previous Jewish technology ventures have lacked.
Whereas mainstream children’s games, like Club Penguin, can finance their hefty development and programming costs by signing up millions of paying users, Jewish programs are limited by virtue of serving a niche market.
As a result, says Gil Ilutowich, who founded Compedia 22 years ago shortly after completing his service in the Israel Defense Forces, most Jewish computer programs are “very poor” and unable to compete with their mainstream counterparts.
“If a kid doesn’t like it after 10 minutes, you lose him,” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview from Israel.
Ilutowich, who serves as vice chairman of Spirit of Israel, an arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, says agency officials approached him a few years ago about developing Jewish educational software.
JLand, which is available in Hebrew for Israeli children (under the name Pele Land), has leveraged some of the development costs by using many materials and features developed for a non-Jewish Compedia game called “Wonder Islands.”
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“When you come to a project like this, you can’t expect to make a profit. I never expect to see my investment back from this project,” Ilutowich says.
Rather than be a moneymaker, JLand’s goal is to provide “Jewish exposure to children who otherwise might not receive any,” Fenster says.
So far, JLand has 2,000 users in North America and another 2,000 in Israel.
Although JLand charges a monthly fee of $9.95 (following a free trial period), fee revenues are not expected to cover the site’s costs. In addition, the site’s marketing focus, for now at least, is less on reaching individuals and more on developing partnerships with Jewish federations and other American Jewish organizations.
So far 21 North American Jewish federations, including two in New Jersey, are sponsoring JLand subscriptions for children in their communities, and JLand is in discussion with the Union for Reform Judaism, Chabad, UJA-Federation of New York and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which is known for the PJ Library, a sort of Jewish children’s book-of-the-month club that is offered free of charge.
In addition, JLand is partnering with the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute, which is publicizing JLand both on its Web site and among participants in programs like the Mothers Circle, a group for non-Jewish women raising Jewish children.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, JOI’s executive director, calls JLand “a really interesting entry point” that “speaks the language of young kids,” is “very accessible and palatable” and “has a subtle, but real, educational component to it.
“We were attracted to it because the people who designed it are professionals in the field of Internet media, but wanted to develop a nonprofit approach to reach people at the periphery of the community,” he says.
Because anyone can access JLand from a home computer and it requires no previous knowledge, the program “does not have any of the barriers that traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions have,” Rabbi Olitzky adds.
Not surprisingly for a startup venture, JLand has its share of technical glitches. Loading times can be slow, and on several occasions it has frozen altogether while my daughter was mid-game (on our brand-new MacBook Pro). In addition, I’ve had difficulties registering my younger daughter Sophie, who is almost 4 and already clamoring for a turn to play.
Along with the tech problems, some of the activities seem to be of questionable educational merit. A memory game teaching about Israel relies on grainy photos of tourist attractions, some — like the Israel Railway Museum and a water park near the Kinneret — that don’t seem all that important for a diaspora Jewish kid to know about.
I’m not entirely sure, so far, what Ellie has learned from JLand, other than being able to name the Seven Species and tell me that the Israel Railway Museum is in Haifa (pronounced Hai-FAH, like a true Israeli).
Nonetheless, I’m content to let her keep logging on to JLand. It’s no substitute for Jewish camp, family activities or formal Jewish education, of course. But if nothing else, it makes a delightful Jewish babysitter.