Friday, November 20, 2009

My friend Josh Mason-Barkin is at it again. His ideas on how to move forward with Rabbi Yoffie's call for using technology as a tool to take synagogues to the next level was published by Jew Point 0 - a fabulous blog on Jewish life and technology, by Darim Online.

The Reform Movement Should Make the Most of this Moment
2009 November 19
by Joshua Mason-Barkin

As far as Rabbi Eric Yoffie is concerned, Reform congregations need to get with the program, technologically speaking, and they need to do so now. At the recent URJ Biennial in Toronto, the movement’s head delivered his annual sermon and used the opportunity to encourage every congregation to think seriously about harnessing the power of the internet to enhance their communities:

"[T]he web – potentially at least – empowers our members and democratizes our synagogues. The synagogue is the grassroots address of the Jewish world, and the web gives us an instrument to involve and include Jews as never before. Are our synagogues doing great things in this area? Absolutely. Are we making the most of this potential? Not even close."
Yoffie’s challenge to congregations is to be applauded. Too many synagogues and Jewish schools have an attitude towards tech that’s generations (a relative term, I know) behind their congregants and students who all have Facebook accounts, use Twitter, and are never more than an arm’s length from their Blackberries and iPhones. But the movement’s approach to addressing this issue — an organized program to train lay leaders to create and maintain congregational blogs — is only a first step. The Reform movement has an incredible opportunity on its hands, a chance to take the next steps and to get a lot more serious about using technology to build and strengthen communities.

Four suggestions for maximizing this moment:

  • Congregations should form committees (or task forces) to develop thoughtful strategies for using technology to increase the efficacy of communication. Rabbi Yoffie is right that blogs are a great way for synagogue members to connect online. But there are lots of other technologies — social networking, microblogging, podcasting, mass texting — that also might be useful to synagogues. And there are those congregations for whom blogging might not be the best fit. Every synagogue should gather their most technologically savvy members (and some socially savvy “connectors”, if we’re going to take Malcolm Gladwell’s advice) to make these sort of decisions for the community. Should the temple have a Facebook page, and if so what kinds of things should be posted there? If the synagogue has a Twitter account, who should be charged with maintaining it? And how often should they tweet? The URJ could be indispensible in providing consultants and experts to help congregations get on this path.

  • Technology can help Reform congregations do an even better job of running organizations that live up to the highest values of the movement. Imagine if a synagogue lived up to its commitment to environmentalism by going totally paper-free. The synagogue staff uses Google Docs to collaborate on projects. Rabbis project Temple announcements (and other administrivia) up on a screen during services so that programs don’t need to be printed every week. Instead of spending lots of paper and money on a newsletter, members receive a monthly email newsletter, as well as frequent updates on Facebook and Twitter. Lots of congregations are using all these technologies, and they’re preventing lots of paper waste in the process. The Union can support congregations new to these technologies by teaching professionals to use these tools, empowering congregants with tech skills to be leaders in their communities, and by pairing temples at the beginning of this journey with those who’ve already found success.

  • Technology is an important part of the future of Jewish education. I’m not talking about educational video games. I’m talking about using tools to help learners connect deeply to Jewish text, about helping schools better communicate with parents, about using inexpensive video conferencing to bring diverse teachers to isolated Jewish communities. Education is a central part of a synagogue’s mission, and we need to be asking new questions about how learning is changing. How can we utilize new technologies like Google Wave, Twitter, and YouTube to allow for collaborative (hevruta for the new generation!) learning? How can the internet help us engage (and empower!) parents and families in new ways? How can we use technology to open up the world of Jewish education to better integrate the arts, science, and communication?

    Thirty years ago, innovative Jewish educators were using
    filmstrips, slideshows, and video to bring Torah to life. Now, equally innovative educators are using Flash animation, social media, and hypertextuality to accomplish those same goals. The URJ should nurture and support these sorts of projects and help to bring those tools to congregations and their learners.

  • Technology is an excellent opportunity for collaboration. In the few days before the URJ Biennial, a group of educators gathered for a pre-conference symposium on Jewish identity. One of the teachers at that gathering was Professor Ari Kelman who shared research that suggests that the current generation of young, involved Jews (many of whom are “digital natives,” if you don’t mind sweeping generalizations) are redefining affiliation by resisting joining a single organization, and rather participating in lots of diverse parts of Jewish life. For these Jews, no single institution is the center of Jewish life.

    Institutions that pay attention to thinkers like Kelman realize that successful Jewish organizations of the future will be marked by cooperation and collaboration. They also know that efficient and financially responsible Jewish organizations are the ones that don’t insist on re-inventing the wheel but rather seek out partner organizations with different types of expertise. To truly move forward to empower member congregations to embrace a 21st-Century social-media-savvy technologically-engaged existence, the Union should seek out organizations, educators, clergy, innovators, experts, academics and thinkers who can help congregations do their best work.

    Perfect example:
    Darim Online has lots of experience helping Jewish organizations effectively utilize social media technology (including blogs!), and that expertise could really help (and in fact already is helping) Reform congregations look at new ways of communicating. Instead of trying to invent their own wheel, the URJ should seek out partners who’ve already invented pretty good wheels.

Let’s be clear: The Reform movement is taking unprecedented steps forward. Rabbi Yoffie’s sermon and the related URJ initiatives launched this week mark the first time a major movement is encouraging and supporting member congregations to take this trend seriously. This is an important moment, and it would be a shame to waste it.

Josh Mason-Barkin, director of school services at Torah Aura Productions, is a member of a Reform congregation and a graduate of HUC-JIR. He blogs at You can find his twitter feed at He frequently contributes to a conversation about Jewish Education in the 21st century on Twitter under the hashtag #jed21

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Students, please turn your cell phones...on!

Two weeks ago I was telling my wife and my faculty that we were only a year or two away from asking our students to turn ON their phones at the start of class. This article was pointed out by several people on twitter, and it turns out I have no sense of timing. It was written by Rabbi Karen G. Reiss Medwed and was posted on the Hebrew College Blog.

Hebrew College Blog
Why My Students Were Texting in Class…and Learning
Posted by Guest Blogger on Mon, Nov 09, 2009 @ 12:32 PM

Picture this: You walk into a Prozdor classroom of ninth graders and see them all texting on their cell phones while the teacher is writing on the board. "So sad," you think, "another case of teaching gone bad." In fact, I was the teacher (filling in as a substitute), and I was encouraging the students to text during an introductory class about mitzvot. How did I come to design a class using text messaging as my active learning experience? And why do I think this was a successful and effective class?

In designing my lesson plan, my hope, as a constructivist educator, was to create an active learning experience that would engage the students by using tools that were familiar and comfortable for them. At first my plan was to play a game, something like "Mitzvah Jeopardy." But I needed something different, something new, which would push my boundaries as an educator. Answering a text on my phone in the midst of my planning, I found my inspiration: text messaging in class as a tool for collaborative learning.

"How many mitzvot are there? Let's text a sister, a friend, Dad, as many ‘lifelines' as we want." My students eagerly clicked on their cells, and the numbers started coming in. "Do we have to fulfill all the mitzvot?" A quick yes/no text poll of everyone sparked an engaged conversation about the different understandings of commandment as obligation.

Comments from our lifelines punctuated our conversations: "My mom thinks that the mitzvot we fulfill are about making our lives feel more connected to other people." "My dad thinks we can't do mitzvot that have to do with the Temple." One friend remembered that there was "something about Israel" and how that changed which mitzvot we do. Our conversations became multidirectional--we were conversing around our text and around our texting, and we were conversing with one another and with our lifelines, who were conversing with us and with their texts (at least one parent was on Google and another on Wikipedia).

The students loved this lesson. They loved using their phones, but more than that, they loved the learning. Our classroom discussion was rich, full of personal connections and probing questions. While I have no empirical evidence that it was the medium that provided this depth, as a teacher, I had the clear sense that the conversation was informed by the medium. The explicit and implicit integrated curriculum brought it all together. An added benefit was that parents loved this lesson. It provided a rare window into their kids' experience at Prozdor without having that awkward car conversation: How was class? Fine. What did you learn?


It is time for Jewish education to engage 21st century technology, to connect with our students using the media that are such an integral part of their daily lives. This is an educational imperative for formal as well as complementary Jewish education, and it is a valuable pedagogy for experiential education, as well. Texting is only the beginning. Distance learning courses, wiki building for Jewish teen education, YouTube instructional videos, Twitter for Jewish education, fantasy world gaming meets the Bible--all this and more are the next steps in today's Jewish educational teen curriculum.

As for me, I can't wait to hear from you--how are you using technology in your Jewish educational venue? I want to know before I have to substitute for my next absent teacher.

--Karen Reiss Medwed

Rabbi Karen G. Reiss Medwed, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Hebrew College, where she is Dean of Faculty of Prozdor, Director of the EdD in Jewish Education Leadership and Coordinator for the Pardes Educators Program. This spring she will be teaching a distance learning course at Hebrew College, Theory and Practice of Jewish Education, where she will explore theories such as constructivist education, and practices such as collaborative education and technology in Jewish educational venues.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Can "Open Source" Teach Us How to Change The Game?

This posting about PresenTense paints an interesting picture of how we might reimagine the work of synagogues, centers and agencies in the Jewish Community. They are changing the rules of engagement to fit the needs of a new age. I got it from, but they got it from author Debra Askenase's blog, Community Organizer 2.0. She tweets as @askdebra.

Where is The Open Source Organization?
Posted by Debra Askanase November 5, 2009

Almost a year ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “The Non-Profit Quarterly Report.” In this post, I argued that nonprofit organizations should offer online quarterly reports, and mimic the transparency exemplified by Jonathan Schwartz’ online quarterly reports. (Jonathan is the CEO of Sun Microsystems.) John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design and social media advocate, argues that “in many cases complete clarity should be a leader’s goal rather than complete transparency.”

If you combine the concepts of organizational clarity with transparency and inclusionary decision making, then you create a new type of organization:

The Open Source Organization

One organization has stepped up to the plate to show us how it’s done: PresenTense Group.

The PresenTense Group calls itself an “open source organization.” Co-founder Ariel Beery defines an Open Source Organization as one that “enables all members to add to it, change it, modify it and improve it. Everyone benefits from the intellectual property of the organization’s members. The whole point is to make it as collaborative and idea-generated as possible.”
In mid-September, I received this email asking me to participate in a discussion of what PresenTense should be concerned about in the coming year:
There were three ways to participate in the discussion: I could have walked down the street to the Tagging Party, viewed the Party live via webcam, or clicked on the link and “tagged” the key ideas that I care about. This is an example one of the most inclusionary processes I can imagine, as well as superior utilization of technology for stakeholder inclusion and engagement.
This is just one example of how PresenTense adheres to its open source philosophy. Here are others:

All projects begin with an open call for a steering committee. For example, an idea for a magazine section about “philanthropy and the Jewish world” grew into a new steering committee. Steering committees solicit information and input from others.

Every aspect of programming is open sourced: each issue of PresenTense magazine, the PresenTense Institute, and the speakers.

The yearly workplan itself is open sourced via PresenTense networks. PresenTense uses the input to create a general plan, asks for comments, and incorporates comments into the final workplan.

PresenTense plans to offer further transparency by posting quarterly staff reports online, and asking for feedback and comments.

Technology is critical to being as inclusionary as possible when sharing and soliciting information. Whenever possible, PresenTense utilizes technology to include stakeholders. All educational seminars are “live tweeted,” and most are filmed and streamed live. According to Beery, “the main challenge is figuring out the the information technology issues related to open collaboration.”

And what arose from the Tagging Party and discussion? These ideas were fed into its blueprint for the year to come, which is available for viewing online here. You can also read an article about their commitment to being an Open Source Organization here.

Transparency + Clarity + Inclusionary Decision-Making =
The Open Source Organization

When will nonprofits become open-sourced? What is the critical technology needed for open participation? What is preventing nonprofits from moving towards and open source organization? In the spirit of this post, I’m looking forward to your comments and a discussion of this concept – and incorporating your ideas back into the blog post!

Further food for thought:
Asking Questions about Transparency
Leaders Should Strive for Clarity, Not Just Transparency

Debra Askanase has 20 years of experience working in nonprofit organizations, from Community Organizer to Executive Director. She is the founder and lead consultant at Community Organizer 2.0, a social media strategy firm for non-profit organizations and businesses. She blogs about the intersection of social media, nonprofits, and technology at Debra is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

image courtesy of ExtraFunky