By Anna Marx
From Jeffrey Schein, “Text Me: Judaism and Technology“:
“The experience of our family educators here in Cleveland is that parents are eager to explore the potential mindlessness of being shaped by technologies given the opportunity to do so in an environment with supportive parents and skilled facilitators. They are desperately eager for these conversations with other parents and scaffolded opportunities to explore digital habits with their own children. The energy and release we sense from parents when they have a forum where they can talk about their worries about their children and technology has been palpable and moving.”
The Text Me initiative of the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland (JECC) and The Covenant Foundation is a is a powerful example of learning designed in direct response to individuals’ deep questions and in service of their everyday lives. In short, the initiative was designed to help parents navigate technology in the lives of their teens. Text Me offers a Jewish context in which to ground family conversations and the related decisions that affect both parents and children.
But the story does not end there. Parents seeking meaning and support in guiding their children is not a phenomenon limited to Cleveland. Communities seeking to make Jewish learning relevant, personally meaningful, and integral to families’ lives in the 21st century, must listen to and answer the call from parents.
The JECC responded to parents: over several years, it surveyed families and developed and refined resources (available online) that offer an array of toolkit exercises and strategies for educators to support parents in this area. And then the JECC, recognizing the opportunity to share these resources, began partnering with other communities to bring Text Me: Judaism and Technology to parents around the country. Along with offering the resources online and sharing the initiative previously with the eJewishPhilanthropy community, Jeffrey Schein of the JECC has visited three communities – Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Detroit – to present Text Me to synagogue and agency professionals.
Cleveland is one of six partner communities in Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish Education. The story of the Text Me journey is exemplary of the core of what Shinui is all about: sparking, nurturing, and spreading innovation in Jewish education. Over the past two years, Shinui has developed a tight network of professionals who regularly share their stories, resources, and questions with each other – openly, quickly, and completely. And it is no accident that the three communities Jeffrey has visited so far are also partners in the Shinui network (Detroit being the newest member since earlier this year). Over time we have learned that building a tight network based on trust leads to easier and smoother learning and sharing when unexpected opportunities arise (like Text Me). With this structure, we can more quickly spread dynamic models of Jewish education and continue to reshape what Jewish education looks like across the country. But the sharing must be done effectively and efficiently for it to translate to impact on the ground. Here are some informative key elements of this sharing process we’ve learned over the last two years:
1. Networking is more effective around a core goal: Building connections among colleagues is great. Building those connections for a clear, targeted purpose is even better. In Shinui, we don’t share just to share. We share because we have a very real, common goal that requires we learn from one another and work together to achieve it. We see tangible results when one initiative like Text Me starts gaining traction in other communities too.
2. Live and in person still matters: In various formations, but with the overall same framework, Jeffrey facilitated a workshop on the curriculum encompassed in Text Me. Modeling various exercises made it easier for educators to envision themselves utilizing it, and to ask questions when necessary.
Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco actually had Jeffrey present Text Me curriculum at an event for parents, discussing strategies for families to create a “sacred space” that is tech free. Ariana Estoque, Director of Adolescent and Adult Education, explained that this type of interaction showed parents that “we want to help them and that Judaism has something to say about this.”
3. Recognize that every community is unique: Every community has its own culture and unique ways to address its own needs. When communities meet to learn about each other’s resources, it’s important that each community identify who is the best suited audience and how it’s delivered.
In Philadelphia, Jeffrey met with education directors and Jewish Learning Venture’s (Philadelphia’s Jewish learning agency) family engagement team; In San Francisco, he met with education directors from congregations; Detroit had him meet with seven family educators.
4. Initiatives that offer a “slice of the cake” are great for sharing: Text Me offers numerous discrete lessons plans and modules, including the “Jewish Communications Timeline” curriculum; the “Awkward Family Photos” curriculum; information on how and where the Talmud addresses communications; and numerous other Text Me components. They were not overwhelmed by the initiative because they could select specific curriculum and resources that works for their audiences and their community needs.
5. Adaptability – not replicability: If curriculum is relevant, useful, and developed in the right way, communities of various shapes and sizes will find ways to use it that best suit them and their families. During their time with Jeffrey, for example, Philadelphia’s JLV’s consultants already were thinking how they could adapt the curriculum for use with families with young kids or in interactions with just parents. Models and initiatives won’t necessarily be replicated as is. They will be tweaked, adjusted, changed … adapted to maximize impact.
We’re learning the necessary ingredients to continue to transform part-time Jewish education. Initiatives like Text Me garner support and generate excitement when they clearly fill a void or a need expressed by parents. And if these types of initiatives encompass proven curriculum and education models, we must find effective avenues to share them with others – and share them aggressively. In-person workshops; follow-up consultation; and support in helping each community adapt the model are all key. Shinui is comprised of six communities passionate about innovation in part-time Jewish education. We work to spark, nurture, and spread models like Text Me and the many innovative approaches to Jewish education we’ve seen so far. We want others to be inspired to tell their education innovations stories too. What’s your unique model? Have you shared it with others? If not, start now, and help other communities offer even more engaging Jewish learning opportunities.
Anna Marx is the project director of Shinui: The Network for Innovation in Part-Time Jewish education. Shinui’s partner agencies are the Jewish Education Project (New York), the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Jewish Learning Venture (Philadelphia), and Jewish LearningWorks (San Francisco Bay Area). Shinui is funded by The Covenant Foundation.