Hey Siri

By Meredith Lewis

[This post is part of a series on the new report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media Are Reshaping Jewish Education, by Stanford University’s Ari Y. Kelman. The report, commissioned by the Jim Joseph Foundation, was released in conjunction with the recent Jewish Funders Network conference. The series shares multiple perspectives on the findings and questions raised in The Future of Jewish Learning.]

Last week I was having dinner with my family and some friends of ours. The kids were pouring over their latest PJ Library mailing. Included was a poster-sized map, with an illustrated version of the story of Passover. The kids were huddled around it, pointing to pictures and talking about matzah, Pharaoh, and the seder. Emma, an outgoing kindergartener, turned to me and asked an easy enough question. “What’s the order of the Ten Plagues.” As I struggled both in Hebrew and in English to remember if cattle disease or wild beast came first, she blurted out, “Just look it up on your phone.”

I almost blurted back, “What do you need me for?”

As an educator, I was mortified. As a parent, I was humbled. As someone who has worked in the niche field of the Jewish internet for more than a decade, I was intrigued.

In the spirit of Passover, this is the busiest time of year for Jewish questions. When an adult Googles “When does Passover start?” or “Why do we eat matzah?” or “What does Judaism have to say about slavery in modernity?” – the internet has answers.

There is a robust, online Jewish world, with valid and varied responses that come up in the results. Searching a topic as complex as “Is the Torah real?” yields articles from Chabad.org, MyJewishLearning.com, Wikipedia, and ReformJudaism.org – and that’s just the first page. Adults can choose a channel, whether it be an article, video, podcast, or social feed, that matches their values. Alternatively, they can look at multiple options and draw on all of them. No one judges them based on the questions they type into the search bar. One can now easily access Jewish knowledge beyond Jewish institutions while Jewish educators can harness the internet to enhance their teaching.

But that’s the online world geared to adults.

Have you ever watched a 5-year old access the internet? You’d be surprised how many children can swipe open an iPad, hold down the home button, and ask Siri a question. Or how many know exactly how to phrase a question to Alexa on an Amazon speaker. They can do it easily, and many young children use the internet independently, frequently.

Today’s parents grew up receiving their Jewish information through day schools, supplementary schools, summer camps, youth groups and Hillel. In nearly all of those situations, there was a trained Jewish educator.

Today’s children may participate in those activities as well, but increasingly they will also learn from internet virtual assistants, apps and social media. Are we ready for the results when a child asks Siri, “Why do people hate Jews?”

Digital natives, our youngest children, are already technology prosumers, those who simultaneously consume and produce content. Last year, Instagram users posted an average of 49,380 photos per minute. For comparison, the entire Talmud is 2,711 pages, which was created over hundreds of years. Moreover, with the push from the Constructionist educational movement, children today can build robotics systems, write their own code, create podcasts and build their own apps – all while still in elementary school.

But if our children are enabled by technology to produce content, we must ask ourselves if we are preparing them properly to do so. As we approach Passover we embrace the “peak season of Jewish questioning.” The Haggadah speaks of the Wise child, the one who with context and access to their own Jewish knowledge, can astutely find their place in the Jewish story. But on the starkly opposite side is the child who Doesn’t Know How to Ask, and fails to see themselves as part of the most existential Jewish narrative.

However, today – and certainly in the future – more people feel like they at least can ask. There are forms of technology that our children will use that we can’t even dream up. They are coming to life sooner than you think. But with an average of 3.8 million google searches a minute, it’s imperative that we honor the age-old Jewish mandate of teaching our children enough information so that they can ask the best questions.

How did Emma know to ask me about the 10 plagues? Who along the way not only gave her access to the story of the Exodus, but empowered her to ask questions beyond what she already knew?

The world of Jewish education is one that has struggled to keep up with the 21st century on many levels. Our children, digital natives, have the ability to dream up solutions to some of the world’s big challenges, only if we can prepare them with the stories – the content – that have come before them.

And if we are lucky, their curiosity and ingenuity will move the entire conversation into the next century and beyond.

Meredith Lewis is Director of Content and Engagement for PJ Library. The complete report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media are Reshaping Jewish Education, is available for download here.