Thursday, June 27th | 24 Sivan 5779

May 3, 2017 11:21 am

New Study Advances Digital Future of Jewish Learning

avatar by Deborah Fineblum /

A picture that is included in “Smart Money,” a newly released study intended to help the Jewish community navigate the high-tech world. Photo: Lewis Kassel, courtesy of Moishe House. – A new report on the implications of advancing educational technology and digital engagement hopes to guide the Jewish community through the complex space of hi-tech learning.

Smart Money: Recommendations for an Educational Technology and Digital Engagement Investment Strategy,” sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation and the William Davidson Foundation, examines many of the newest hi-tech innovations and provides suggestions for navigating that often befuddling world.

The study’s recommendations include means of utilizing virtual and augmented reality; a user could, for example, experience the splitting of the Red Sea or participate in the rebuilding of Jewish life after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple. Jewish youths could also connect over learning how to code or other technological skills, and through those lessons they can also be introduced to Israeli high-tech companies. Other platforms with increasing popularity and possibilities include podcasts and music.

The report has garnered far more attention than expected, according to the sponsors.

“We did not originally intend for this to be a public report,” said Barry Finestone, president and CEO of the Jim Joseph Foundation. “But the substance of the findings and recommendations really challenge us, as funders, to think strategically, creatively and collaboratively about how we can utilize educational technology and digital engagement to advance our Jewish educational missions.”

Lead researchers at Lewis J. Bernstein and Associates interviewed 50 experts, investors and educators from both the Jewish and secular worlds to create the recommendations.

“It’s a huge media marketplace out there and most Jews are exposed to the same information as the rest of the world,” said Lewis J. Bernstein, a former producer of Sesame Street, explaining that with that exposure comes the “difficult choices” involved in navigating the competing Jewish and secular worlds.

Josh Miller, the Jim Joseph Foundation chief program officer, said the Jewish community “certainly dipped our toe in [the technology space], but we knew there was so much more to understand.”

“The report is giving us a roadmap for how to focus our efforts,” he said. “Training a good educator doesn’t change, but, as educational technology and digital platforms do, teachers and tech producers are working together to create educational opportunities.”

For example, as the number of Holocaust survivors continues to dwindle, the USC (University of Southern California) Shoah Foundation recently launched  “New Dimensions in Testimony,” a program that uses artificial intelligence to answer students’ specific questions from a pool of 2,000 pre-recorded survivor testimonies.

“It looks and sounds like you’re talking one-on-one with the survivor,” said USC Shoah Foundation spokesman Rob Kuznia.

“The gigantic opportunity for the community is the new ways we can access Jewish wisdom,” said Jim Joseph Foundation’s Miller.

When Liora Brosbe is not at work — where she is the family engagement officer for the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in Berkeley, Calif., reaching out to the community with a menu of opportunities for “connecting to Jewish life and each other” — she is raising her three kids, ages 2, 6 and 8, in a home “laboratory” that explores various Jewish learning strategies.

“Yes, they’re little petri dishes,” said Brosbe, who is also a psychotherapist, with a laugh. “Like most families, screen time is a huge issue at our house, both for time and content, but — as I tell families — it’s also an amazing opportunity for low-barrier Jewish engagement.”

As one option, Brosbe recommends a four-minute Jewish 101 video on BimBam — a creator and distributor of animated Jewish videos for children and families — for first-time parents welcoming new babies. Her own children engage with Jewish music and content through the Spotify app.

“They’re going to have screen time anyway,” Brosbe said. “So why not Jewish ones?”

A word of caution about the use of technology came from Brandeis University’s Dr. Jonathan Sarna, arguably the leading thinker on American Jewish history and an expert on Jewish education.

“There is no question that high-tech, which is so much a part of the lives of young Jews, needs to be part of their Jewish educational experience as well,” said Sarna. “History suggests, however, that these new technologies will certainly not substitute for effective teaching. Now, as in the past, educators should look for modest gains from the introduction of new technologies, and should be wary of high costs and hype.”

Lisa Colton — who specializes in implementing digital strategies for synagogues, day schools and camps — agrees that technology alone cannot substitute for a full education.

“Technical savvy is the easiest thing to find and hire, but smart design requires you to put yourself in your user’s shoes,” explained Colton, chief learning officer for See3 Communications and founder of Darim Online, which helps Jewish organizations align their work to succeed in the digital age.

“But the [“Smart Money”] report does give educators a new way to understand today’s audience, implications for innovative design, and the all-important relationship between content and technology,” she added.

There is already a growing field of Jewish organizations specializing in educational technology and digital engagement, including Sefaria, an online library of Jewish texts that welcomed 460,000 online users last year; Reboot, a producer of creative Jewish-related events, exhibitions, recordings, books, films, DIY activity toolkits and apps; and Let it Ripple, which uses film, live and virtual events to start conversation around complicated, 21st century subjects.

“The [“Smart Money”] report is the start of legitimizing the technical Jewish world and the practice of investing in it,” said Brett Lockspeiser, co-founder and chief technology officer of Sefaria. “It’s helping everyone become more comfortable taking that risk.”

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