Technically Teaching Torah: Educational Technologies in the Jewish Classroom

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Judaism is often said to be a religion of deed rather than of intention, an understanding encapsulated by the words of the Israelites upon accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai: “na-aseh v’nishma” – “we will do and we will hear/understand.” The order is important: first comes the doing, followed by an understanding of the content. Life has changed substantially since the times of Mt. Sinai, and what it means to “do Jewishly” is continuously evolving. When it comes to new technologies, how are Jewish institutions teaching students what to do with these new digital objects? How are they teaching what counts as “Jewish doing” when it comes to creating new things in a digital world?

While recent tech innovations have great potential for project-based learning in classrooms, technology is instead used primarily as a way to more efficiently deliver content, test and manage students, or communicate. Jewish education is not alone in this, and education in the United States has followed a similar path when it comes to the use of new computer and internet technologies. Namely, education tech has become more instructivist than constructionist, more Thorndike than Dewey. While Jewish education has recently started seeing shifts towards more experiential educational programming, the use of technology in Jewish classrooms hasn’t necessarily followed suit. Much like primary schools, new technologies such as computers, smart phones, and the internet are often used as avenues for more efficient ways of delivering content, rather than as tools for creating content.

ShalomLearning, for instance, is a company that offers online and blended learning programs for supplementary Jewish education programs. Using an online web portal, educators and students can access PowerPoints and resources to teach and learn Jewish studies and the Hebrew language. This often takes the form of YouTube videos, discussion activities, and in the case of the Hebrew curriculum, online quizzes and memorization games geared towards learning the prayers necessary for the b’nai mitzvah process. While undoubtedly an innovation, especially for Jewish families who live long distances from other Jews, it uses tech as a way to deliver information rather than using tech as a tool for students to critically engage and create with. Tech for ShalomLearning is a way to consume media in new ways, not a way to construct media in new ways.

Some Jewish organizations are starting to experiment with technology projects. My own synagogue, for instance, piloted a Girls Who Code club this past year, an afterschool club for 6th-12th grade girls to explore computer programming in a fun, friendly and, in our unique case, Jewish environment. The 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, a Summer Camp run by the Union for Reform Judaism, has campers explore how Judaism complements and informs technological innovations and science. The range of available STEM activities at Sci-Tech Academy is vast, from robotics and video game design to environmental science and digital media.

Digital technologies are one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. Many, if not most, young Jews will grow up to live, work, and love in a world where “the internet of things” is taken for granted as a foundational aspect of their existence. While limited by resources like time and money, especially for students who get most of their Jewish education from supplementary schools that meet only a few hours a week, the Jewish classroom holds great potential as an educational playground for students to experiment with tech and Jewish identity. Finding ways to better understand the intersections of Judaism and technology by having students critically (and ethically) create with these new technologies will be an important next step for Jewish learning institutions.