Keeping Up With The Future


If Hillel could summarize Judaism’s teachings while standing on one foot, can modern-day sages do so while standing on one tweet?

This and many other questions came to mind at last week’s Jewish Futures Conference, where educators from a wide range of institutions spoke about adjusting to our world of accelerating technology and ever-shrinking attention spans.

Titled “Whose Torah Is It Anyway? Is Jewish Text Irrelevant to Today’s Youth?” the joint initiative of New York’s Jewish Education Project and the Jewish Education Service of North America’s Lippman Kanfer Institute had a TED-conference-like feel, was simulcast online and spawned a busy Twitter discussion.

Audience members were encouraged to participate via the micro-blogging social-networking site, from asking questions of speakers to summarizing what Torah means to them in six words (e.g. “It started with stoning at Ramah…”). During one moderated conversation between two presenters, tweets from audience members were projected onto the wall behind them, ranging from questions to critiques to jokes. (“Everyone only half listening because we are reading tweets.”)

Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now,” spoke of modern technology’s effect on not just human communication, but on our very awareness of time.

“The authenticity of everything now, rather than coming from its origin is coming from its ‘now,’” he asserted. “The Torah is more than up to this challenge, so it’s not a threat to Jewish continuity. I would say this is Jewish continuity.”

According to Rushkoff, in a society where the interactive video game is replacing the passive experience of the novel, “text, rather than being valuable for its fixedness … it initiates the conversation.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said, “Torah is ownerless; that’s why it was given in the desert. This question [Whose Torah Is It Anyway?] is a masked question of the anxieties of this room.”

The always-provocative Kula compared the Jewish philanthropic system to the military industrial complex in its inability to look inward and reform, and suggested that formal Jewish educators may not have a future. He concluded by chanting final calls of 9/11 victims to their loved ones in Eicha [Book of Lamentations] trope.

Dalia Davis, the founder of Beit Midrash in Motion, had attendees meditate on Jewish texts and spontaneously create a text-inspired dance-like movement before relating the exercise back to a famous midrash (prompting the tweet “Having a hard time tweeting with my eyes closed”). Matt Bar of Bible Raps performed his “Cain and Abel” rap, and made the case for hip-hop as a natural fit for Jewish education: in addition to its popularity among young people, its tendency to reference previous works resembles Jewish oral tradition.

From excitement over democratization of text online to frustration with a Prezzi presentation, the speakers were united on few fronts, but knew that for Jewish education, the 21st century is a time of great change.