Living in a digital age is an incredible thing. Communication and information is just a click away. New technologies have afforded us the ability to do things we never thought possible in the past. No one can argue that technology isn’t great.
But living in a digital age also places an onus of responsibility on all of us, and perhaps the most responsibility falls on the shoulders of parents and educators of young children, adolescents and teens.
Conventional wisdom assumes that parents should be monitoring their adolescent’s use of technology (in all of it’s forms) and even better—having regular conversations with their kid about the right way to engage with others online. This is important. Being a courteous, respectful and savvy citizen of the online universe is crucial.
Can Judaism help? It’s probably safe to assume that when most parents and educators consider the questions that need to be asked of their children and of themselves, they haven’t necessarily thought to include Jewish values in that estimation. What arethe Jewish values at issue in the use of technology, anyway? How has Judaism responded to technological change in the past? How might the ubiquity of technology in our lives today affect core ethical and Jewish dilemmas that we face? And how can the use of technology support Jewish life?
These are just some of the questions that Text Me: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology aims to help families answer through a variety of educational programs geared toward specific cohorts of parents and kids.
Developed by a team of family educators working out of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC), the Text Me program was based on the findings of those educators who discovered that local parents were indeed ready and willing to have these important conversations with their kids, and in a Jewish context. They just needed to be facilitated. And, of course, the parents needed to be willing to consider and reflect on their own use of technology as well.
When we post photos of our children online, do we consider the long-term implications? Could parents use Jewish values as a litmus test for whether they utilize technology in a spiritually enhancing way? And do we control our devices or do our devices control us?
“Text Me offers a series of opportunities for kids and parents to explore technology together, and to empower parents to enrich family learning with tweens and teens,” explained Dr. Jeffrey Schein, Director of the Covenant project: Ancient Jewish Wisdom Meets Contemporary Technology and Senior Education Consultant for the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood.
“It also offers parents the chance to conduct a technological heshbon hanefesh of sorts, and take a look at the kind of profile and media presence they’ve created for themselves,” he continued.
At its core, Text Me is about family dialogue. Along with his colleague Brian Amkraut, the Executive Director of the Laura and Alvin Siegal Lifelong Learning Program at Case Western Reserve University, Schein has developed methodologies that trigger these dialogues, including ice breakers, Jewish values and ethical frames that are used to examine how people interact, an exploration of the Jewish concept to love thy neighbor as thyself, and more.
For example, in a program affectionately called “awkward family photos” based on an open-source website of the same name, kids and parents look at a packet of eponymous photos and consider together which might be appropriate to post online, and what the outcomes might be of such decisions. The Jewish/ethical microscope for reflecting on their decision is “would it be okay to post if I were the central character” in the posted picture.
“We have discussions about laughing at versus laughing with people,” Schein said. “We ask families to take a step back and think about kavod habriyot (human dignity), chaveirut and yedidut (friendship) and how these values affect our decisions.”
Schein was quick to note that there are “extraordinary stories” of the ways in which technology has increased acts of gemilut chasidim, from caring communities providing digital support to a struggling member, to websites that allow individuals to perform acts of chesed in a very direct way.
“There’s a dimension of mussar in this conversation,” Schein added, referencing the Jewish ethical and cultural movement that originated in 19th century Eastern Europe and has, of late, experienced a revival amongst secular Jews. “In particular, we examine the Jewish value of shmirat halashon, and how watching what we’re saying and being careful with our words can help us live more ethically, online.”
The classic Text Me program was designed to be replicable and adaptable to a range of educational spaces and age groups, Schein explained. In fact, just last week he ran a program with teens and their parents in Evanston, IL, while later this year he’ll be in California working on a series of programs for adults and teens there. In one of those programs, Schein will partner with Common Sense Media, to help families further navigate different areas of technology. He’ll also bring Text Me to Philadelphia and New York City, later this year.
“Our dream is to keep growing and helping people think about these critical issues,” Schein offered. “But ultimately, the content of the programs isn’t what’s most important. What matters most is the dialogue that ensues.”
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
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“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
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“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
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“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project