by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz
San Francisco, California, June 16, 2011 – Take the ages-old Jewish impulse to question and challenge. Add 21st century technology. And mix it up a bit with educators’ emerging embrace of new media.
The result is potent. And it’s poised to change approaches and outcomes in Jewish educational settings.
Out here, capital of Google, Facebook, Apple and countless other cyber heavies – and with an open-eyed Jewish educational community to boot – an experiment is taking place, just blocks from Twitter headquarters, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM).
In the Yud Gallery, with its 60-foot ceilings, 36 skylights and embracing whiteness atop the Daniel Libeskind-designed building, a multi-media exhibit landed this spring. It is corralling new media forms, robotics, and sound and projection technology to consider the place and power of questioning within Jewish DNA.
And in an innovative twist, a group of Bay Area Jewish educators, watching closely as the exhibit grew from perception to design to reality, have spent the last year absorbing and studying the issues it provokes. They are now bringing lessons to schools across the country in the form of a new curriculum that is living and evolving through social media.
With no clear answers, and questions begetting more questions, visitors to the exhibit are left to ponder some of the 2,500 culled from the Talmud, Jewish literature, popular culture, and other sources.
Even more are fed to the exhibit through social media channels including Twitter, Facebook, a website, and even a custom iPhone and iPad app.
Are We There Yet?: 5000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions, running to the end of July, poses questions that run the gamut – from “If not now, when?” and “How big is the step between believing and knowing?” – to “What is the difference between faith and belief?” and “Will you forgive?”
An immersive auditory adventure, the exhibit uses new robotic algorithms and software allowing cameras to adapt and spatialize audio to the movements of each visitor, while questions themselves project on a bare, sloping wall.
But more than that, visitors – and those remotely following the exhibit through social media – are challenged to appreciate the place of questioning within Jewish teachings, tradition and culture. And, to ponder the power of inquiry to derive meaning, drive thought and fuel change.
“James Baldwin suggested that ‘the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by answers,’ “ said Ken Goldberg and Gil Gershoni, Bay area multimedia artists who collaborated on the exhibit. “By combining tradition with technology, we’re hoping that visitors encounter familiar questions in new ways and discover their own questions in a metaphor for the process of exploration that shapes identity for Jews and non-Jews.”
The potential of marrying technology, new media and Jewish learning was embraced by creators, museum officials and educators alike. A museum project – LINK: A Jewish Art and Technology Initiative – supported by The Covenant Foundation, convened a group of Bay Area Jewish educators in a yearlong fellowship program to engage in issues informed by the exhibit and to build a curriculum for students in grades 7 to 12.
The recently completed curriculum explores the purpose and impact of personal questions, illuminates the importance of questions in Jewish tradition, and encourages students to consider the power of questioning to affect social change.
Some of the recommended activities utilize computers and other devices if available.
“This curriculum is a standalone tool that we can use to teach about the Jewish nature of questioning and what that might mean,” said Dan Lange, a teacher at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, just east of San Francisco.
“At this age, students are ready and primed to ask tough questions for which there are no easy, cookie cutter responses. By empowering them with the notion of questioning, and how that fits into thousands of years of Jewish thought and perception, we are positioning them to really go out and do something.”
In a play to make the curriculum widely available to educators, designers created a Facebook page where the lesson plans and supplementary materials live. Educators may exchange ideas there and help the curriculum evolve further.
“We need to find ways to reach teachers around the country and around the world,” said Marilyn Heiss, a LINK fellow and teacher at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, just south of the city. “That is a constant challenge. But using technology, we let them know this curriculum is out there. It’s less likely to languish, as many do, because there are ways to find it and interact with other educators.”
The LINK initiative positions the museum as a “living lab to explore practical applications to forge new paths in Jewish education,” said Fraidy Aber, CJM Director of Education.
Key to the program was a monthly lecture series, attended by LINK fellows and other educators. Speakers came from the intersection of Jewish education, art and new technologies.
Among them was Sarah Lefton, creator and producer of G-dcast.com; Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto; tech guru Estee Solomon Gray; Galyn Susman, computer animation pioneer and associate producer of Ratatouille; and, Goldberg and Gershoni.
“The LINK initiative is creating valuable partnerships among educators and also between teachers and those on the forefront of broadly enhancing society’s use of technology,” said Aber. “We hope it serves as model for replication.”