Before I begin this article please let me make it clear that this is not a puff piece. I’m discussing this element not because I’m saying that this is something everyone should adopt and that everyone needs to go after this. However, I believe that everyone needs to go after something like this. For me, Jewish education is one of the most important things. Why? Because, it is my belief, that what will allow Jews to continue into the future, and what has allowed Jews to continue until now, is not the Bible and its laws, and is not the clergy and their sermons, but rather, Jewish education. If our children do not learn about Judaism, its laws, what it means to be a Jew, the history of the Jewish people, both in biblical times and in our recent past, they will not be Jewish. Being born to a Jewish mother will not ensure that the grandchild will be Jewish if that child knows nothing about what it means to be Jewish or the elements of being Jewish. Look at many of the children, born to Jewish parents, in the FSU, where practicing one’s religion was essentially not allowed. I know quite a few of them. They have Jewish last names, and they tell me that, yes, their mother was a Jew. Are their children Jewish? Some of them; the ones who chose to send their kids to Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps,  and/or Jewish youth groups. Others, however, don’t even know what a Jew is. Jewish education is fundamental to our survival as a people, and that is why I’m writing this article.

When it comes to Jewish education, we have two clear types. One type is Jewish day school. That’s the system where a kid is sent to school all day (mine was 7:30/8:00 am to 3:30pm), which, in addition to teaching the core secular subjects of English, math, history, and science, also, teaches Hebrew and Jewish studies. Judaism becomes part of the education. I’m a proud product of Jewish day school, and I think its a fantastic way to teach children about Judaism. However, not everyone is able or willing to send their children to day school. The other type of Jewish education that we have is known as “supplementary” or “complementary” education. In this types, children who attend schools which are not Jewish in character, attend a religious school two days a week (i.e. the classic model of Sunday and Wednesday). In addition, we could, also, include in supplementary education things like Jewish summer camps and youth movements. These are all great ways to teach children about Judaism, and to help foster a love of Judaism.

Let’s focus, for the moment, on the idea of religious school; a typical supplementary education. There are problems with this method. First, parents and children, often decide that sports, drama, or other extracurricular activities are more important, and Jewish education gets left on the side lines. Second, even if they do decide that its important, and they send their kid to a a Jewish religious school, often the kids find it a s a “turn off;” they’re being forced to be there and its boring. One of the reasons is that in their “regular,” classes their teachers are in the 21st century. They use smart boards, the internet, and all sorts of media, but in their Jewish studies classes, they’re using handouts. You know today, what happens if a teacher loses a paper from the Jewish studies course-book? In today’s day and age, our natural inclination is to go online, download the course material from the publisher’s website, and print out a new page. But, right now, we can’t do that. The URJ’s textbook is not online; you have to contact them and have them photocopy and fax you that page. Why is our Jewish education so far behind our secular education? Of course the kids don’t relate to it, and of course they think it’s uncool, when in their math classes they get all sorts of online games, and their secular classes are part of the new world where things are available at the touch of their fingertips, yet in their Judaic studies classes, they are learning in the same way as our parents and grandparents did. There’s been very little change in Jewish education since the early 1900s. That’s what I think is so terrific about the ileaרn program.

During my recent trip to L.A., I had the great pleasure to speak with Rabbi Melissa Buyer, Director of the Religious School, at Stephen S. Wise Temple. She, in partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism, have come up with this incredible program. Here’s the basic idea: we’re going to bring religious school into the 21st century. We’re going to take that textbook, and have a computer-based version. We’re going to be able to use our smart-boards when we teach the material. But more than that, instead of having kids drive for hours to get this education twice a week, we’re going to do one day in the schul, where they will get the feeling of community, and we’re going to do one day online in a virtual classroom. They will see and communicate with their fellow classmates and teachers, online, just like in a regular classroom, but it was also utilize the tools that the 21st century has tot offer. It will utilize things like the internet, google searching, G-dcast (G-dcast, if you don’t know of it, is really awesome. They have a short animated clip for each of the parashot hashavua. I encourage you to go check it out.), etc. It will make religious studies seem as relevant to these students as math, science, and history.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: great, Stephen S. Wise Temple, this massive wealthy temple, has started this program. Why should this matter to us? What I love about this program, is that it isn’t just a Stephen S. Wise program for wealthy schuls with a huge budget. This is something that, once they have it figured out, can be applied to temples across the United States, and across the world, at a very minimal cost. Let’s say you live in a place like Kentucky, or you’re a service-man or -woman stationed somewhere without a lot of Jews. You may still want your child to have an excellent Jewish education. The local schul, if there is one near by, may not have a religious education program, or may not be equipped to start one. This tool, by having a virtual classroom, provides a solution. You can live anywhere in the world and have your kid join an online classroom, have Jewish classmates, and get a solid Jewish supplementary education, taught by the big machers, wherever they are; L.A., New York, Jerusalem, etc. The possibilities are endless. I think this is setting the way to the future. It’s been a long time now since Jewish education took that leap forward. As Jews, we’ve been leaders in so many things. We brought monotheism to the world. More recently, we were heavily involved in the civil rights movement (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel even marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and was one of the few people given the privilege to speak at his early funeral), we’ve been leaders in raising money to free slaves in the Sudan, and to respond to crises like Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Haiti. As Jews, we have a responsibility to the world, but we also have a responsibility to ourselves. How will Judaism continue on to the next generation, if this generation isn’t being taught to love their Judaism, and to recognize their Judaism? It is not enough that they know that we celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas. It should never happen that when someone asks a child what makes them a Jew, that the child responds “that we don’t believe in Jesus.” There needs to be a connection, and there needs to be a level of Jewish education. That’s why I think this program is setting the path to the future.

If you have any questions, I encourage you to leave a comment here and we’ll get someone in the know to respond to them. But more so, I encourage people to get involved. Contact the URJ, your own schul, use this idea as a launching board; the possibilities are infinite. Let’s make sure that this generation is more involved in their Jewish community than they are now. Online Schools offer both religious and non-religious classes for those seeking a higher education degree.

iLearn – Religious School from Stephen S Wise Temple on Vimeo.

As a last note, this isn’t the time or place for people to say “well, that’s why you should raise your family Orthodox.” To those who would, I’d like to remind them that, they too, have those who go down that path of latzeit le’sheela, and leave their community, too. This article is simply about the fact that Jewish education is important. and I hope you all agree.

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  • I applaud any attempt at innovation in Jewish education. The final paragraph of your post touched upon something VERY relevant. Of course I support the Orthodox option BUT, let’s forget that and simply state “well, that’s why you should raise your family Jewish.”

    What does this mean? It means that in partnership with technological innovation, parents should commit to bringing more Judaism into family life. It’s great to learn prayers like “Mi Kamocha” as demonstrated in the video at 1:59, it’s even greater to put that learning into practice at the synagogue – whichever synagogue you want to go to! Learning about shabbat and mitzvot is great, experiencing that on a regular basis outside of the classroom serves to make them relevant and meaningful. This isn’t a dig! ileaרn sounds great and I applaud the initiative, but let’s not forget to educate the parents too!

  • ck, i totally agree. i just like the idea of being able to bring jewish education into the 21st century

  • ck makes an excellent point that should serve to remind us that technology is, after all, just a tool. A program like iLearn, however, does two things:

    1) it makes it easier for the student to access Jewish learning
    2)it puts Jewish school into a context that is relevant to today’s learner through the use of multimedia and web-based learning

    This is an extremely important step forward (and only one, I might add, of the many exciting innovations in the world of Jewish complementary schools)in engaging the learner more fully. But, as a tool it is a means to an end.

    We provide Jewish education as a means towards enhancing and informing Jewish living. With this goal in mind, the use of web-based learning must be part of a blended program of Jewish experience and Jewish practice. Knowing the program at Stephen S. Wise, I can assure you that iLEarn is part of a dynamic educational experience that will help the student to craft their own meaningful, vibrant Jewish way of life.

  • I like the web part and it totally makes sense to do this once and have many people around the world benefit — great way to have good materials and lower costs.

    I don’t like the part where there’s only one day/week at religious school. I don’t think this will be enough to build community amongst the kids (assuming that they aren’t “regular school” classmates in their daily life). I’m not the most religious guy on the planet, but I loved our synagogue for the fact that it is a great community, and fine place where I kids could do some of their growing up enveloped in excellent values. Reducing human-to-human time in this environment would be a great loss.

    That said, it seems easy to still have two days of in-person religious school and to augment that learning with the use of the web materials.

  • It seems to me that the second day will allow the kids to interact with the other kids in their own class, in a virtual class–room so they will gain that sense of community– its just the location and technology that is different. The curriculumn, students, class members and teacher are the same and a sprecific time and day is the same. Personally, I think it will build the same sense of community after seeing kids and adults build relationsships over the internet. It is taking advantage of their interest in technology to maximiaze their interest in religious study.