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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

 

Turning point

Local man rises above injury to start home health aide venture

Ronald Gold’s life is so dramatic that it’s hard to resist the temptation to start with a cliché.

The story of his life is about the moment when everything changed, the second that split it inexorably into before and after. The time when he almost died, when his understanding of himself in the physical world ended, when through great pain he was reborn.

But really, the person Mr. Gold became after the terrible accident that rendered him paraplegic was a logical outgrowth of the person he was before. His integrity, athleticism, ambition, courage, tenacity, brains, competitiveness, and strength — as well as, yes, his deep Jewish connections — not only saved his life but allowed him to embark on this next part of it.

 

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Turning point

Local man rises above injury to start home health aide venture

Ronald Gold’s life is so dramatic that it’s hard to resist the temptation to start with a cliché.

The story of his life is about the moment when everything changed, the second that split it inexorably into before and after. The time when he almost died, when his understanding of himself in the physical world ended, when through great pain he was reborn.

But really, the person Mr. Gold became after the terrible accident that rendered him paraplegic was a logical outgrowth of the person he was before. His integrity, athleticism, ambition, courage, tenacity, brains, competitiveness, and strength — as well as, yes, his deep Jewish connections — not only saved his life but allowed him to embark on this next part of it.

 

Working for smart guns

Mahwah rabbi forms coalition to help cut back on gun violence

It would have been entirely understandable if Rabbi Joel Mosbacher wanted to ban all guns. Just collect them all, melt them into a lump, and be done with it.

Rabbi Mosbacher’s father, Lester Mosbacher, was eulogized as a “gentle soul” in 1992; he died, at 52, after he was shot by a burglar who was holding up his store on Chicago’s South Side.

His murder was the textbook definition of pointless — Mr. Mosbacher was shot in the head and arm by a petty thief who got nothing from the robbery and was tried, convicted, and then released for retrial, which never happened. Nothing ever happened, except that Mr. Mosbacher remained dead.

For years, Rabbi Mosbacher, the spiritual leader of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, bottled his rage. And then, just a few years ago, he took its distilled essence, nourished by news stories of other shootings, equally senseless, like his father’s murder causing sudden, catastrophic, and lifelong pain to survivors as their own lives had to reweave themselves around a gaping hole, to lead a new campaign.

 

Working for smart guns

Rabbi Mosbacher reacts to the Charleston massacre Last week’s shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolin

Last week’s shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, which left nine people dead after their murderer, Dylann Roof, sat with them at Bible study for nearly an hour before spouting racists tropes as he gunned them down, has brought the issue, which always simmers just below the surface, to an angry boil.

“On the one hand, Charleston is another in a series of mass shootings that seem to happen almost weekly at this point,” Rabbi Mosbacher said. “That speaks to part of the core of this problem, which is access to guns. People will say all sorts of things. They say it is a question of mental health. Yes, it is — but it’s not fundamentally about mental health. I don’t think that we have significantly more mental health problems here than in Europe.” But laws controlling gun ownership are far more stringent in the rest of the Western world, and the numbers of shootings are correspondingly lower.

 
 
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