Jewish Family Educators Unite Online

by Robyn Faintich

While teachers look to inject technology into classrooms and other learning settings, they must not overlook its power to build community among themselves to enhance skills, share and gain new ideas, and collaborate.

Aiming to equip Jewish family educators with resources, creative ideas and connections to strengthen their work, passions and outcomes, Shevet: Jewish Family Education Exchange is utilizing digital technology to coalesce the field and empower it.

In Digital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities, authors Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith say that Web 2.0 and 3.0 tools “facilitate the convergence of content and networks of people, creating new possibilities for communities to develop and grow,” and that communities of practice “help us find learning partners and engage with them meaningfully” and “experience ‘learning friendship.’”

Digitally based cohorts can be powerful forces within the Jewish community, with the myriad areas of interests and specializations that can grow and become more potent and effective through this web-based networking.

Since the virtual community of practice was established by Shevet – a growing affinity group for Jewish family educators – less than half a year ago, nearly 100 Jewish educators and lay leaders are networking, sharing resources, and participating in debate and discussion 24/7 through the convenience of their desktops, laptops and tablets.

On this online platform, they are educating and engaging each other, and also empowering and equipping each other to be better Jewish family educators and advocates for a segment of Jewish education often overlooked or taken for granted.

The embrace of a virtual community of practice as a main pillar of the Jewish family education movement came two years ago, when the Consortium for the Jewish Family – previously known as the Whizin Institute and a precursor to Shevet – envisioned the powerful role for technology in inviting, connecting and encouraging Jewish family educators from around the country, and even the world, to share resources and network.

One goal is to use the virtual community platform as a launching pad for on-going professional development and information sharing. Soon, participants will be able to join webinars on a variety of topics, to be archived by the virtual community along with conversations begun during the synchronous learning, therefore expanding to ongoing asynchronous discussions.

The platform is already a place where those who participate in face-to-face conferences – sponsored by Shevet or other organizations – can continue the learning once everyone returns home. It’s often frustrating to leave a professional gathering inspired and on a high, only to return to home institutions where we feel isolated; the virtual community provides a holding area for all of the ideas, materials, and conversations that surface at a conference.

A stroll through the virtual community now offers rich content and interactions. For example, a blog post by scholar Dr. Ron Wolfson on Relational Judaism; a discussion thread reflecting on a provocative article in Sh’ma magazine; resource materials from the Jewish Outreach Institute; and assessment tools for the field.

Jewish family education certainly isn’t the largest field, and family educators often feel as though they are leading an isolated silo in their institutions. But Shevet offers a centralized, national community of Jewish family education professionals. So the organization, and its virtual platform, is an antidote to a sense of alienation by some practitioners.

The power of the virtual community is that it’s a safe space where passionate leaders of Jewish family education can meet and network with other professionals and lay leaders. They can easily access professional development without the boundaries of geography or financial resources.

The tricky aspect is that it’s a cooperative effort. Put simply, it’s a user-driven community. This is a dynamic entity, and is by no means ever a finished product. But as the community grows, the field of Jewish family education will only be strengthened by collaborations and relationships built in the virtual space.

In July 2009, the Jim Joseph Foundation funded The Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan University to launch a two-year fellowship to educate and train Jewish educators in creating online communities of practice. And a report issued in October 2011 by the Jim Joseph Foundation – Jewish Virtual Learning Networks – outlined the immense possibilities of these channels, and the challenges in reaching full potential.

Digital platforms are gaining attention not only in Jewish educational movements, but also in all aspects of Jewish communal life. For Shevet and the network of dedicated Jewish family educators scattered across the country and beyond, the decision to go with an active digital community of practice was an obvious one, as the field seeks to grow, deepen its effect and breadth, and become more empowered.

Educators, advocates and philanthropists passionate about the power of Jewish family education should visit and join Shevet’s virtual community and add to the rich discourse and sharing of resources taking place there. And for other communal leaders and professionals, the Shevet platform may serve as a model for robust community building that can only benefit us all.

Robyn Faintich has over 15 years of Jewish communal professional experience in areas that include youth movements and community teen initiatives, early childhood education, congregational family education, and adult education. In 2010, she launched JewishGPS, LLC, a Jewish education consulting firm. Robyn is currently pursuing an EdD in Jewish Education Leadership at Northeastern University and Hebrew College.