Jewish Education is Not a Game

by Russel Neiss

In an evocative Eli talk, Sam Glassenberg suggests that by ignoring global Jewish problems and focusing on market based solutions to meet the needs of individual Jews we’ll sell a lot of things and as a side effect we might do some good too.

As evidence, he sites JDate’s success at building ‘Jewish continuity,’ paying particular attention to the amount of users and money that the site generates. I’m not going to spend much time quibbling with Sam’s statistics, (despite the fact that there have been countless articles about gentiles on JDate), but instead I want to get right to the heart of the issue.

Sam’s argument demonstrates the same quintessential flaw that all of our multi-million dollar population surveys do. They conflate in-marriage or inter-mariage as the sole measure and worth of one’s Jewish connections. Under this flawed logic, we build policy and programs around the idea that if we can just get more Jews to marry Jews we’ll be able to fill all of our synagogue pews, or increase donations to the federation 8-gagillion percent. But the truth is intermarriage is not the cause of slipping synagogue attendance. It’s not the cause of decreasing federation donations. It’s not why fewer Jews are lighting shabbat candles, or attending Passover Seders or not doing anything of the the myriad of things that we think are important to measure. Intermarriage is simply a symptom of a broader lack of engagement of these people.

So while JDate has been successful as a business, and probably even at fostering an endogamous lifestyle for many Jews, it hasn’t done anything to address the core feelings of engagement or disengagement with the Jewish community. That is, the people who wanted to date and marry Jews were already predisposed to sign up for JDate, and those who didn’t care saved themselves $20 a month and signed up for OKCupid or

Put another way, JDate’s emphasis on generating profit instead of focusing on solving a global Jewish problem has been incredibly successful at raising capital for JDate’s investors, but has done bubkes on the Jewish continuity front… But that’s ok – it wasn’t their goal.

And therein lies the big problem with Sam’s pivot from JDate to harnessing games to fix Jewish education. Our Jewish educational goal can’t simply be to provide entertainment value to kids and hope that along the way they’ll learn something valuable. Instead we need to craft specific, measurable and attainable educational goals that we expect Jews to learn over their educational career, and then we need to figure out the best way of implementing those. Personally, I think digital gaming has a large role to play in that endeavor, and there’s a good  deal of data to support that assertion. But this same research, along with decades and decades of other educational data emphasizes the need for these educational initiatives to be grounded in solid pedagogy first.

Getting excited by a Jewish character on the Simpsons, seeing Jerusalem in Assassins Creed, or simply knowing that there is a Golem character in Pokeman or WoWC in it of itself is useless in fostering a well-rounded Jewish education, and less than useless in helping to craft a coherent Jewish identity. Yes, we can use video games to fill student’s heads with all the back-story and facts that we want – and I assure you that we’ll enrich a number of coders, programmers and technology consultants while we’re at it (this author included). But unless we actually apply a laser like focus on the big problem of helping students gain and apply Judaic knowledge to make sense of the world in which they live to help them live a Jewish life, we’ll be no closer to solving the big Jewish education problems that we face as a community.

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist and activist, and the coding monkey behind PocketTorah, The AlephBet App and other Jewish educational technology initiatives.