A Magical Mystery Tour of Zoomland

By Rabbi Jeffrey Schein

Over the past five months, I have been trying to understand through my own experiences and through focus groups I have conducted the “zoom factor.” Clearly, zoom and other such communication platforms have changed Jewish life in rich and complex ways. As with any complex phenomenon, I have come to expect a multiplicity of perspectives. So I am not surprised to always hear the rumbles of mahlokets, of sacred debates. Prayer is a good example. There are those who are deeply appreciative that zoom allows us to continue praying; there are those who might comment (somewhat sarcastically) “you call that prayer”; and finally there are those who more politely assert that it is a good holding action until they return to their more traditional makom tefila, a place of prayer.

I understand all points along the spectrum because I myself am ambivalent. On a more philosophical-poetics plane I can b’dibur echad – as if living within the same word in a single breath – embrace this prayer from Alden Solovy praising Zoom (found at ritualwell.org

So many beautiful faces, So many radiant souls, Shining forth Into our hearts.

Look at those eyes. The smiles. The hopes. The fears.

The yearning. The questioning. The compassion. The love.

Take it in. Take it all in.

The tenderness. The humanity. The blessing of faces

Arrayed before you. The blessing of faces,Given, And received.

And the reservations of Rabbi David Wolpe and Kinney Zalesne as they write in an article What Would Martin Buber Think of Zoom

Even Zoom and Teams can be said to tug us toward I-It: every day now we show up to one another as audiovisual squares, who with the click of a mouse can be hidden, muted, and minimized. As human beings, we are increasingly app-like ourselves, easy to summon and easy to close.

But rather than being frozen in either of these mahlokets I’d like to expand our understanding of what is going on with the zoom factor. In keeping with the terrain of “zoomland,” I’d like to invite eJP readers into three zoom rooms where they might  be “brought up short” by how others are understanding  learning and living on Zoom. If this magical mystery tour of zoom rooms is productive it will leave the reader with at least a few new questions.

The three zoom rooms belong to futurist Marshall McLuhan, the educators Renate and Geoffrey Caine, and a room that Rabbi Elliot Dorff and I rented for a dialogue for American Jewish University’s B’yachad program. Each has a different logo to greet you as you enter their room and each has assented birshut havarei (with the permission of a colleague) to allow me to channel their thinking. 

Marshall McLuhans Zoom Room

I am still trying to take this in. I predicted in my Medium is the Massage (1967) that digital life would transform everything about human communication and community. The emergence of the global village and digital processing would put an end to all linear learning. We would come to learn as teens do: globally, organically, paradigmatically. The inevitability of multiple perspectives insured that learning would be “collidoscopic.” The subsequent neuroscience of a half century supports this kind of learning. And neither parents nor teachers would be the center of the learning process, replaced by the emerging internet with its wealth of information available and just a click away to the learner.  

Now it seems, parents need once again to become the guide for their childrens’ learning  as they are home-schooled. In one focus group I participated in (secretly lurking) I heard a parent admit that keeping it up with it all was very difficult but had enormous rewards. Finally, she says, she understands not just what her children learn but how their childrens’ learning process works. My colleague informs me that for forty years Jewish educators have been urging parents to become more involved in their children’s Jewish education with some limited success. They might want to be careful what they wish for if the engagement comes to overstressed, multi-tasking parents.  

But most of all I’m trying to take in the very nature of a zoom conversation. I was sure that learning had become “all learners/all places/all the time simultaneously,” global, tribal, and organic. So it was quite shocking to join any number of  zoom classes. They reminded me of the Encyclopedia Britannica films from the early 60’s: Students all eager, all white, all nearly falling out of their neatly arranged desks to provide the teacher with the right answer.

So in the Zoom class the students move in linear fashion, muting and unmuting, raising their own hands or using the zoom provided hand raising function. My colleague settles me down because I am furious at what I am seeing. He assures me that though he shares some of my own educational passions education is always complex. He shares how the shift to digital zoom learning had a surprising impact on his class. Both the very motivated students who were eager to learn and the learners with some learning challenges all began to shine in this old- new, more orderly environment. 

And one last thing if I still have your attention. I know everything is transformed by the pandemic you are going through. But as I’ve often observed we try to solve today’s challenges with yesterday’s technologies. At my friend’s apartment, the same one who settled me down, the printed version of the apartment complex’ exhorting everyone to wear masks in all public spaces has hung for two months unsuccessfully urging compliance. Finally, just several days ago the picture of the mask was posted. Those long printed messages are artifacts of the 20th century. I hope for the sake of everyone’s health this more visual 21st century approach will speak to his fellow tenants.

Renate and Geoffrey Caines Zoom Room 

Welcome to our zoom room dedicated to the precepts we first outlined in 2013 in a book called Natural Learning in a Connected World. We were then and remain enthusiastic supporters of digital learning when properly framed and structured. We suggested that this potential is untapped as one moves through three phases of learning: 1). relaxed alertness, 2). immersion in rich, complex experience, and 3) review and evaluation.  

Here is what we see as we survey the learning in Zoom platforms. They do a great job at relaxed alertness, the first phase of learning that is brain friendly and alive to the potentials of a network world. Coming into an individual space in the form of a zoom window is comforting for most; it puts the learner at ease. And sometimes that comfortable alertness is followed by teaching, q and a, and a review and evaluation that is effective (phase three).

Yet, all this unfolds as traditional teaching and learning. The middle phase of immersion in rich, complex content is missing. What a tragic violation of contemporary neuroscience and everything we know about experiential learning! Even when breaking into a zoom room allows the learning to personalize the learning  the question explored is usually posed by the teacher. What if we demanded of ourselves a twenty minute break in any given hour learning experience where learners left their zoom room and explored any number of links provided or even freely explored the resources that come with smart “googling.” Of course they return and share what they have “discovered.” In this model then learning by discovery is balanced with more guided learning.

Rabbi Jeffrey Schein and Rabbi Elliot Dorffs Zoom Room and Digital Responsa Center

Can Zoom be a Catalyst for Good Deeds?

speakers in front of Jeffrey Schein's book cover

B’yachad American Jewish University 

The Jewish tradition of responsa literature has often dealt with emerging issues of technology. In the tenth century Rabbenu Gershom issued a ruling that letters are a protected form of communication. No one may open a letter of another individual without express permission. New technology shifts our focus yet the ethical core of the dilemmas usually remain. It is not surprising then to find this mid-twentieth century responsum about the wide availability of telephone as a means of communication. Someone writes to Rabbi Jonathan Steif (Finkel, 1990, 167):

Question: Do you fulfill the mitzvah of bikur cholim, visiting the sick, by calling the patient on the telephone.

Response: There is no doubt that calling a sick person on the telephone is considered visiting him. Rambam classifies the mitzvah of visiting the sick under the heading of “loving your neighbor.” This being the case, any favor you do for your friend, even if you do it by telephone is a manifestation of “loving your neighbor.” Nevertheless, the essential mitzvah of visiting the sick should be done by personally going to see the patient. Seeing the patient’s suffering will stir your feelings more than merely talking to him on the telephone will. It will cause you to pray more fervently for him and you will see more clearly what his needs are….

So we might say circa 1930 that  a telephone call fulfills  minimum requirement of the mitzvah of bikur holim (visiting the sick). Yet, it invites a challenge of going lifnim meshurat ha-din, beyond the fulfillment of the letter of the law to understand its kavana, its enduring spiritual intent. This requires “seeing” the person in order to stir ourselves to prayer on his or her behalf which clearly in 1930 meant seeing the person in real time.

Fast forward 90 years and we can see that person via zoom or facetime. But will we be truly seeing the person if it is through a screen? What does it mean to “see” with the superimposed lenses of various technologies? Is this a Buberian seeing? A seeing as in the movie Avatar’s “I see you? Is it the same as “seeing” when the horizons of time, space, smell, touching, and hearing are fused together?  

We can only end with a note of hakarat ha-tov, of recognizing the good. Blessed is God who spurs us on to examine our lives at the unique synapses where ancient Jewish wisdom and contemporary technology meet with thoughtful attention to each. 

Dr. Jeffrey Schein is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the senior education consultant for the Mordecai Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood in Evanston.