Introducing the Future of Jewish Learning: A Response

By Dina Rabhan

The recent article by Stanford University’s Ari Y. Kelman introducing the report, The Future of Jewish Learning is Here: How Digital Media are Reshaping Jewish Education, was simultaneously heartening and demoralizing. It was heartening because it finally shined a spotlight on a vital truth that the Jewish community must know and understand with certainty: learning has entirely changed in the 21st century, and most dramatically in the past ten years. Our team, along with many of our colleagues in the Jewish educational digital media space, has been urging the Jewish community, and specifically the philanthropic community, to take heed of this truth. The article was nothing less than exhilarating and validating. Perhaps a formal research study will lead to important conversations about the urgency of leveraging digital learning. This fills me with a sense of hope and optimism for the Jewish community’s future and the potential for Jewish education.

At the same time, the article was demoralizing because it highlights a level of ignorance in the Jewish community, and the slow pace of change that is rapidly rendering Jewish life and learning obsolete and irrelevant to an increasing majority of Jews who are disaffiliating.

Anyone paying attention to media and learning has known for years the incredible potential for reaching and teaching more human beings than ever. In fact, the Smart Money research report, released more than 2 years ago, underscored the vital importance of leveraging digital media to meet the changing needs of learners and the Jewish community.

Further disheartening is the tone of discovery and surprise Kelman uses as he explicates two ideas:

  1. People’s preferences for learning extend to their Jewish learning as well. People are not bifurcating their learning between Jewish and non-Jewish content. Learning is learning is learning. And online is a preferred learning environment.
  2. People who either do not have access or who choose not to access traditional Jewish education structures like schools, synagogues or immersive experiences, are choosing various digital media as their primary Jewish learning platform.

Jews do not compartmentalize their Jewish learning from their “non-Jewish” learning. To truly understand the contemporary learner is to fully grasp that learning habits and behaviors extend seamlessly across all disciplines. If the entire world is using YouTube and online learning as a primary learning environment, why are we surprised that this extends to Jewish learning as well?

YouTube is the #1 education platform in the world, with more than a billion learning-related videos watched every day. The education genre on YouTube is exploding with dozens of learning channels that have millions of subscribers.

Moreover, it is no secret that there are Jewish communal trends away from affiliating, especially with traditional Jewish communal and educational structures. Why is it a surprise that online learning, which removes all barriers to entry, is a preferred choice for Jewish learning?

I remain deeply concerned about the slow pace of adoption and adaptation of the Jewish philanthropic community and the Jewish community in general. Every single media company worldwide knows the power of digital media and is leveraging it. While research is essential, the Jewish community must commit more seriously to supporting and advancing Jewish media organizations – and to stop waiting to decide, or waiting to understand more, or waiting to see the results of yet another study. The “slow to change” and “fear of innovation” mindset is hurting the Jewish community and stalling what needs to be done full speed ahead. Media experts tell us that we need to jump-in and test-learn-and-pivot in real time. With digital media, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and slows down learning and progress. But the rate of disaffiliation will not slow down.

While face-to-face educational programming will always remain critically important and unparalleled in its richness, digital media are the only tools that can scale and reach and teach every Jew across the world, turning the tide of disaffiliation. Jews are seeking content, information and learning online, and the Jewish community needs to be there to democratize Jewish education, making it accessible and relevant to any Jew or person interested in knowing more.

Dina Rabhan is CEO at Jerusalem U.