Monday, December 22, 2008

Jewish Education in the World of Web 2.0 - Book announcement and excerpt

What We Now Know About Jewish Education
Edited by: Paul A. Flexner, Roberta Louis Goodman, Linda Dale Bloomberg
Tora Aura Productions (2008)


As regular Bookjed readers know, this is a forum that offers reviews, links and announcements about published books and materials that may be of interest to Jewish educators. Today's "Bookjed special edition" stands out because it features a new volume that attempts to bring together a wide range of thinkers and researchers to comment on the current state of Jewish education - not only in formal settings but also in synagogues, camps, centers and other venues.

I have invited Paul Flexner, one of the editors of the volume, to share a few introductory remarks about the vision of the book, and have included an excerpt whose focus is on a new "venue" where Jewish education is taking place - the internet. Brian Amkraut's "Jewish Education in the World of Web 2.0" discusses some of the challenges and opportunities offered by modern technology and calls on the educators to become knowledgeable and familiar with a virtual world where so many of our students gather today.

A full sample section of What We NOW Know About Jewish Education: Perspectives on Research for Practice is available online at (Amkraut's article appears on page 39), and the book can be ordered online at or from online booksellers like

The articles in the book are not meant to simply be read for enjoyment, they are supposed to inspire discussion and dialogue, something that the internet generally - and Lookjed specifically - has had success at supporting. Towards that end, I invite you to read the full article online, and respond to it. Here are some of the questions that come to my mind, but I encourage you to share your thoughts and concerns on this matter.

Aren't there some foundations of Jewish education that don't change even in an age of web 2.0, which helped "do-it-yourself Judaism" gain momentum?
How can we engage students and teach them about Judaism (mostly a constant) while they are part of a web 2.0 generation (mostly in flux, with new media, a constant barrage of information, an endless number of opinions/soapboxes, an immediacy of information, etc.)?
Can we harness web 2.0 to teach/interest students in Judaism/Jewish subjects?
Can we use web 2.0 to rethink relationships between teachers/students/parents/board?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts Web2.0 and Jewish education.


Rabbi Shalom Z. Berger, Ed.D.
The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education
Bar-Ilan University


The code word of the recent Presidential campaign was ‘change’ and we have certainly observed a lot of change in the last few months as a result of the economic meltdown in the United States and the rest of the world. But, change is not something new. In Jewish education we have been experiencing dramatic changes over the last two decades with the rapid expansion of day schools, new initiatives designed to increase involvement and interest in our synagogues and youth movements, the impact of camping and the JCC’s on so many lives, and the entrepreneurial spirit that touches so many aspects of Jewish life especially through Birthright Israel.

All of these changes have been the result of and have spawned serious research in Jewish education. We now know so much more about what we are doing than at any time in the history of the Jewish people. Our colleagues in the universities, national agencies and on the front lines are seriously exploring Jewish education from every angle. Research papers, monographs and books have appeared in the last 20 years to guide the advancement of the field. However, all of this new understanding and knowledge is scattered in journals and monographs that appear irregularly and are often missed by the very people who might be in a position to create real change in their own programs

It was this need to take a fresh look at all of the research that motivated the compilation and preparation of the recently published What We NOW Know About Jewish Education: Perspectives on Research for Practice published by Torah Aura. Our goal was simple – to gather the best thinkers in the field of Jewish education to reflect on the latest research in their particular area and to present a summary of the knowledge and insights in a single volume. Little did we know when we started that the project would take four years and that the result would be a volume that is over 600 pages with over 55 chapters covering almost every aspect of Jewish education.

Contained within its pages are essays on the place of Jewish education in contemporary life along with reviews of the research compiled from the perspectives of the learners, teachers, curriculum and contexts. The book concludes with a section on planning and change which we hope will drive the future for the community as it grapples with the continuing need to improve on what we have already created.

We hope that the publication will inspire an ongoing dialogue on these pages as well as within every Jewish community about how Jewish education can be shaped to engage an even greater number of our youth and their families in the years to come.

Paul A. Flexner
What We Now Know About Jewish Education


Jewish Education in the World of Web 2.0
Brian Amkraut

Challenge of Web 2.0
That technology is rapidly transforming the very fabric of American society is no doubt an understatement. In a world in which broadband access and open-source software facilitate file sharing, streaming media, and the development of user-generated content, Web 2.0 represents merely the latest stage in this consistently fluctuating environment. The challenge for Jewish education—and all education, for that matter—rests not merely with ever changing technological developments—both the explosion of information available and the ability to access that information—but more significantly on the individual’s changing attitude towards authority and empowerment. The collaborative, interactive, and user-generated world of the new Internet enabled by Web 2.0 reflects a social and an intellectual culture in which the individual end user has the ability and is even encouraged to shape and create the frame of reference for Jewish life in the 21st century.

Jews today, both young and old, but more often young, define Judaism on their own individually generated terms, regardless of whether their perceptions coincide with the “establishment” of organized Jewish life. This phenomenon challenges the long-standing approach to Jewish life in which conceptions of community were defined by geographical parameters, and religious and cultural standards were determined by authoritative figures, most often rabbinic but occasionally otherwise. While “legitimate” Jewish authorities clearly dismiss such unauthorized attempts to redefine Jewishness, isn’t it possible that this user-generated Judaism represents the latest step in a chain that includes such revolutionary but ultimately significant challenges as the havurah movement, Kaplan’s call for reconstruction, Zionism, early Reform and even Hasidism? In every stage of modernity, Jews have developed interpretations and understandings of their tradition as a response to the challenge of new circumstances, and these reactions quite often build on contemporary trends in social and intellectual culture.

What responsibilities do Jewish educators have in the environment where anyone can blog on Judaism’s significance, Google provides the most popular answers to Jewish questions and a wiki-Judaism could soon represent a new type of religious denomination? Must our teachers and educational institutions serve, as Jonathan Woocher suggests, as a conservative force amid a sea of unrestrained individualized challenges to communal authority? While Woocher (see previous chapter) quite accurately assesses the concerns that emerge in the “age of Google,” the development and proliferation of Web 2.0’s infrastructure and software may already make some of those observations academic. Shouldn’t we also ask whether trying to restrict or repress the individualized expressions that are helping define the age of Web 2.0—in venues such as MySpace and YouTube—is either possible or even desirable? In the minds of the champions of the information revolution, access, not merely to information, but also to the tools of production and authority, represents nothing less than the most current manifestation of freedom. When parents genetically screen embryos, are they playing God or exercising their God-given right to shape their own future? The cover of New York magazine from February 2007 calls the perception of freedom embraced by 21st century youth “the greatest generation gap since rock and roll.”

When the landscape of Jewish life is shaped by mainstream American Jewish educators calling for conservatism, and social scientists like Cohen and Sheskin continue to measure Jewish identity almost exclusively by the yardsticks of intermarriage and affiliation, then Jewish leaders don’t address the many and varied ways that 21st-century Jews are using today’s cultural tools to express themselves and redefine what Judaism means for them. Cohen and others see the rejection of denominational models largely as an issue confronting Conservative Judaism, where the engaged and more educated segment of that movement feels increasingly uncomfortable in their synagogues. In a recent response Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, began an articulation of a clear Conservative outlook for the movement.

Cohen has also hypothesized that American Jewry can already be classified as bifurcated between the “inmarrieds” and the “intermarrieds.” Yet Cohen and others ignore the fact that 21st-century adherents increasingly relate to their faith or other aspects of identity in individualized and often innovative terms. Using the many resources available, including the Internet, cable television, and even books, to chart an expression of Jewishness, they respond to their personal needs and world outlook regardless of what “organized Judaism” presents as normative. Anecdotally, a significant proportion of the “user community” posting on the many Jewish websites calls for Jewish unity rather than denominational and political factionalism.

Not surprisingly, unconventional forums allow increasing opportunities for communication and connection among Jews sharing attitudes and interests they feel are underrepresented in the mainstream Jewish establishment. While, statistically speaking, only a slim minority of young Jews currently participate in the social networks, blogs, and other venues for “user generated Judaism,” the impact belies their numbers. As one colleague suggests, the historical legacy of the 1960s counterculture was not shaped by a majority, but rather by the active and engaged minority. We should not quickly dismiss the new attitudes toward Jewish community, Jewish identity and Jewish religion simply because most Jews do not yet share or even respect these innovative approaches. What is radical and revolutionary today may prove to be normative in the not-too-distant future.

Can any of us reach significant conclusions regarding the nature of Jewish life and Jewish education in the future based on the ever-expanding possibilities for Jewish expression? Perhaps the most important response by educators to the engagement of Jewish youth with the interactive world of Web 2.0 is not to apply a corrective or “authentic” view of Judaism, but rather to become conversant with user-generated Judaism and become personally familiar with the media, digital or otherwise, that enables such extensive individual engagement. Should we give any weight to a possible “Long Tail” of Judaism that allows all of us to provide our “recommendations” for Jewish life, in the style of and Netflix? On the other hand, whether or not the “Jewishness” that flows from these sources corresponds to late-20th-century normative patterns pales in comparison to the very fact that 21st-century Jews, many of them unaffiliated and removed from serious discussions of Jewish life, some raised in interfaith or faith-less homes, now actively engage with some aspect of their Jewish identity. Even if their opinions, behaviors, and religious beliefs fail to conform to standards deemed acceptable by communal leadership, they are creating their own dialogue while attempting to participate in the larger communal discussion. In large measure the culture of Web 2.0 is merely the latest means, and perhaps the most powerful, of continuing the 3,000-year-old conversation that is Judaism.

Implications for Educators
Considering the broad ideological and religious spectrum that Jewish educators represent, detailed policy recommendations to respond to the technologically enabled social culture seem inappropriate. Of course, some institutions do attempt to control the flow of information available to their students, but this approach hardly appears realistic. The following brief list suggests action steps Jewish educators may take on their own and collaboratively to respond to the constant changes in the 21st-century learning environment.

• Become familiar with the increasingly popular genres of technological and communal activity that currently engage children of all ages, including social networking, online gaming and user-generated content. (You might have fun while learning a bit about your students.)
• Assess how students use technology as an information source. They will continue to Google and rely on Wikipedia, so the informed educator should understand in general terms both the mathematical and advertising basis for Google and other frequently used search engines and the communal “wisdom” that creates wikis of all sorts.
• Continually update your literacy in this space. The constant flow of information and rapidity of technological innovation means that year to year, if not more frequently, significant change will likely appear.
• Don’t go it alone! Take advantage of the many resources that provide virtual community for Jewish educators to share their concerns, experiences, and suggestions for navigating this brave new world. And if you are uncomfortable with what you find, create your own and expand the conversation even further.

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