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School is back in session

 
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The man sitting on the commuter train focusing intently on his iPhone might be playing Angry Birds. Or he might be studying Talmud, Skyping with a chevruta partner in Israel, or even teaching Hebrew school.

“Mobile technologies could help people practice Judaism,” Barry Schwartz said. Schwartz is CEO of Rusty Brick, a West Nyack, N.Y.-based software company that has created more than 30 Jewish mobile apps. “It is the future. Wherever you go — the airport, shul — people are looking stuff up and praying.”

Welcome to Judaism’s digital age.

Mobile technologies are augmenting traditional learning and how people fill their free time, said Rabbi Jack Kalla of Aish HaTorah, which has been at the forefront of digital Jewish outreach with videos, podcasts, and an extensive website. Later this summer, the Orthodox organization will roll out its first mobile app, produced by RustyBrick, which will reproduce content from Aish’s website for mobile devices.

“From our perspective, the use of the Internet in trying to reach people who are searching or may not even have started their search in Judaism is really wide open,” Kalla said. “This is where people are, and the Internet itself is the means to reach people today.”

Jewish organizations across the spectrum are taking advantage of developing mobile and digital technologies to reach new people across multiple platforms. And all seem to agree: Get on board or get left behind.

“It’s not going to be the new model; it is the new model,” Rabbi Simcha Backman, director of Chabad’s Askmoses.com, said. “This is the new way and we should embrace it. Forward-thinking organizations are doing that.”

Created to reach people who don’t have access to rabbis, Askmoses offers live chats with scholars on its website, Backman said. Earlier this year the site began a text-messaging program. Later this summer, AskMoses will unveil its first mobile app, part of a larger strategy to continue reaching people wherever they are, according to Backman.

“Social media is literally a whole new world for Jews and Judaism,” he said. “The options are limitless how we can reach out to people.”

RustyBrick recently released the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud, in an app for the iPhone and iPad that will allow users to get instant translations, highlight specific passages, and quickly jump from one section to another. Pricing has not yet been set, but Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, co-founder of ArtScroll, expects it to be a fraction of the cost of buying the entire 73-volume printed set.

“This opens up the whole world of Jewish literature for the past 2,000 years,” Zlotowitz said; it will put that world “literally at your fingertips.”

While such access already may have been available in schools, libraries, or private collections, Schwartz said that what’s innovative is what the technology allows users to do with the information. The data presented can change based on the user’s location, time of day or preference of Ashkenazi or Sephardi customs, he said.

“Enhancing the text around those criteria is the future of Jewish text learning,” he added. “When you’re able to actually interact with the words on the page, it’s going to change how people understand what they’re learning.”

Changing the way people learn is just what the Union for Reform Judaism is planning in its congregational Hebrew schools.

In August, URJ rolled out a digital format of its Mitkadem Hebrew school curriculum, which will allow students to communicate virtually with each other and their teachers. Students will work in small groups through each level of the curriculum, focusing on prayers, the meaning behind the prayers, and vocabulary while the teachers act as facilitators, testing at each level. This will allow students to work at their own pace in the classroom and work remotely with teachers outside of class, according to URJ’s head of books and music, Michael Goldberg.

“They relate to each other online on a regular basis anyway, but there’s something powerful about meeting virtually and in person,” Goldberg said.

In one pilot program, a student who plans to travel to Scotland with his parents next year will use Mitkadem to keep up with his Jewish studies back home. Goldberg said that students have reacted positively to the classroom innovations, and URJ hopes to expand the program eventually to every aspect of Jewish education.

Some catch-up might be necessary for educators, however. Teachers are the “digital immigrants” in the classroom, while students are the natives, said Wendy Light, director of integrated education in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s education department. A little more than a year ago, with grants from the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education, the Conservative movement began a handful of pilot programs to train its educators in Web 2.0 technologies and how to incorporate them in the classroom. The training incorporates a number of free technologies, such as Googledocs, Skype, and Moodle.

“It’s going to replace the old paradigms in schools that are savvy enough to grab on and adapt the new technology,” Light said. “For some schools it will never catch on.”

While Goldberg predicts Mitkadem Digital eventually will replace its printed predecessor, brick-and-mortar congregational schools are unlikely to disappear.

“Synagogue communities are evolving in so many ways and undoubtedly education will continue to evolve with it,” he said. “There’s a place for online learning, but the experience of being physically together and having those personal connections one to one is very important.”

For Rabbi Steve Blane, who for many years was cantor at the Conservative Congregation Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield, the Internet is the future of Jewish interaction and education. He is the founder and dean of the New York City-based Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, a completely online independent rabbinical school, now in its second year, that has students from around the world meeting in online chats and webinars. Each week, Blane will connect with his students over the Internet and teach traditional davening and praying, and then act as a moderator for discussions among the students.

“Students are required to lead their own sessions. This is not a teacher giving lectures,” he said. “JSLI is based on the idea that students have acquired wisdom. This nurtures everyone. They get credit for their past experience.”

JSLI ordained its first class of nine rabbis last August, including students in Florida, Seattle, and Israel. When students gathered together for the ordination weekend, it was the first time many of them had met face to face.

Blane also is the spiritual leader of Sim Shalom, an online synagogue that broadcasts weekly services to congregants who log on from around the world.

“As the technology gets more and more sophisticated, more and more doors open,” he said. “I had a gentleman who wanted to say Kaddish stuck in traffic.”

The advances allow Blane, who worked for years as a cantor in the Conservative movement, to reach Jews from all backgrounds. While he does not see the new paradigm completely displacing traditional venues, he does predict some attrition.

“It’s almost as if the structures we’ve created will supplement the Internet rather than the other way around,” he said. “Communities will live and breathe around the Internet and come together less frequently.”

With technology advancing at a rapid pace, just what Jewish education will look like in 20 years, or even in five years, is unclear, but the Jewish world appears ready for the challenge.

“All of these things are enabling us to realize our tradition and Judaism in ways that were simply unimaginable a few years ago,” said Backman of Askmoses. “I don’t know where it’s going.” But, he added, “It’s going to be phenomenal — and in a positive way.”

JTA Wire Service

 

More on: School is back in session

 
 
 

Learning online the Chabad way

What may be the largest program in online Jewish education is run out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

What started as a service for the children of far-flung Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries now enrolls 600 students. The original day-school equivalent programteaching Jewish subjects in Hebrew, Yiddish and Englishhas been supplemented with tracks for non-Chabadniks that also offer a one- or two-day-a-week Hebrew school experience and personal bar mitzvah tutoring for boys.

“We have students from all around the world,” said Rabbi Yossi Goldman, who runs the school at JewishOnlineSchool.com. “China, Kazakhstan, Germanyall around.”

 
 

With Ulpan-Or, local students gain fluency in Hebrew

Jewish day schools pack so many subjects into a long school day that Hebrew language instruction often is given a back seat. Teachers are always seeking ways to squeeze better conversational fluency out of limited classroom time.

With that goal in mind, Torah Academy of Bergen County hosted a four-hour June workshop, “High-Tech Hebrew,” run by the co-founders of Israel’s Ulpan-Or, attended by 30 educators and administrators from the Frisch School, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, the Moriah School, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, and Westchester Hebrew High School.

 
 

Hebrew school goes ‘Ninja’

Five local shuls merge their afterschool programs

You’re going to Ninja school?

Wait. What?

Starting next month, children whose parents belong to five Conservative shuls across northern Bergen County will meet for Hebrew school at NNJJA, a mouthful of initials, standing for the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy, pronounced as if it were a mutant green turtle expert in Japanese hand combat.

Cowabunga!

The school will meet at Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood. It will run from kindergarten — which is not, properly speaking, Hebrew school at all — through seventh grade. The young children will meet on Sundays, and the older ones will get together on Wednesday afternoons as well.

 
 

Blended learning, lower tuition

Yeshivat He’Atid, a less expensive school, opens in Bergenfield

Yeshiva He’atid, which has been hailed as a solution to the high price of Jewish day school education, is opening in Bergenfield this week. It will have 118 students: 25 in the first grade, 43 in kindergarten, and 55 in pre-k.

It joins five other Modern Orthodox elementary day schools in the area.

What sets it apart is its tuition. Yeshiva He’Atid charges $8,990 for kindergarten and first grade, and charges none of the extra fees that can bring the costs at some schools up to $17,000. (Pre-k costs about $1,000 less.)

 
 
 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

Dentistry in Africa

Local father-daughter duo fix teeth in Jewish Ugandan village

Kayla Grunstein’s parents, Shira and Dr. Robert Grunstein, didn’t want her to “be a brat,” Kayla said.

They wanted her to learn something about the world and her place in it, about the importance of work and the satisfaction of a job well done, about gratitude and generosity and giving.

They also were not adverse to allowing the 14-year-old some excitement and adventure at the same time.

In fact, a lot of excitement and adventure. With the Abayudaya in Uganda.

This is how it happened.

Her father, Dr. Robert Grunstein, is a dentist. He lives in Teaneck but has spent his career working mainly with lower-income children in Passaic and Paterson. He had the brilliant idea (yes, this is journalism, but some things are so clear that they just must be said, so brilliant idea it is) of buying an old fire truck and turning it into a mobile dental office. “Kids love fire trucks, and they are ambivalent at best about going to the dentist,” he said. “If you mix the two, it becomes more palatable.

 

We’ve got the horse right here…

Local Orthodox family wins the Kentucky Derby. Really!

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.

There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.

How did they get there?

 

The with-luck-not-too-lonely woman of faith

Local hiker joins love of Judaism and wilderness to create walking adventures 

When you think of the words “wild” and “New Jersey,” you might think of bloated, run-amok politicians, or Sopranos in driveways or diners, or cement-shod bodies tossed under the Meadowlands. It is, after all, the country’s most densely populated state, and better known for the stadium than for actual, you know, meadowlands.

But New Jersey also is home to natural beauty, to wild animals and rattlesnakes, to gravity-defying geological formations, and to part of the Appalachian Trail, as well as to abandoned iron mines, crumbling old mansions, and other human-made artifacts decaying back into nature.

If you look at the maps put out by the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, sturdily and colorfully printed on a rip-proof, paper-like material called Tyvek — because it is meant to be used by serious hikers on real trails — you will see that the northern part of this state, beginning in western Bergen County and going west from there, is full of parks that are ringed with hiking trails. Just to their north, Rockland, Ulster, and Sullivan counties in New York state are similarly rich in accessible but rough trails.

 

RECENTLYADDED

‘Indescribable’ connections

Zahal Shalom brings Israeli veterans to Ridgewood for touring, love

What happened when the alarm went off in the Pentagon was a reminder of one of the reasons local volunteers behind Zahal Shalom are so eager to open their homes, their schedules, and their wallets to 10 wounded Israeli veterans each year.

During their two-week stay, the Israelis get to see New Jersey, New York, and Washington, D.C.

In Washington, they visited the monuments, ate in the Senate dining room, and took a tour of the Pentagon, where — and this was not on the five-page itinerary — a fire drill caused alarms to clang loudly.

For Anat Nitsan, the alarm brought back memories from the Yom Kippur war, more than 40 years ago. Now an art curator, then she was a soldier at the air force base at Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of Sinai. She survived the initial surprise attack from the Egyptian air force. And then, in a case of friendly fire, she watched in horror as a missile seemed to target her directly. Somehow she survived that too — though not without a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

We’ve got the horse right here…

Local Orthodox family wins the Kentucky Derby. Really!

It took American Pharoah barely more than two minutes and two seconds to win the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

For Joanne Zayat of Teaneck, whose husband, Ahmed, owns American Pharoah (and yes, that is how it is spelled), those two minutes and barely more than two seconds stretched out and then blurred and bore little relation to regular time as it usually passes.

There she was — really, there they were, Ahmed and Joanne Zayat, their four children — all Orthodox Jews — and a small crowd of friends and relatives, in one of the owners’ boxes at Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky, on a glorious flowering spring Shabbat, watching as their horse won America’s most iconic horse race.

How did they get there?

 

100 years in Hoboken

United Synagogue’s building celebrates its centennial

Hoboken is surprisingly small, given its outsize reputation.

It’s only got 50,000 residents, and its nickname, Mile Square City, is roughly accurate. (“It actually covers an area of two square miles when including the under-water parts in the Hudson River,” Wikipedia helpfully tells us. It’s hard to understand why anyone would want to count the underwater parts.)

It’s a city with a storied history — Frank Sinatra, “On the Waterfront” and therefore Marlon Brando, gangsters, music, angst, longshoremen, gritty local color. Its lack of parking, which makes finding a space in Manhattan seem relatively as easy as finding one in, say, Montana, is legendary.

For the last few decades, Hoboken’s been home to young people who work in Manhattan but don’t want or can’t afford to live there; it pulses with singles, who might make noises about staying but have tended to move once they’re married and certainly once they have kids.

Hoboken also has a more recent history of apparently being on the cusp, the verge, the very sharp tip of change, but somehow not quite making it.

 
 
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