Steve Jobs, Apple, and Jewish Education: Can we Imagine the I-Thou Phone?

by Rabbi Daniel Lehmann

The untimely death of Steve Jobs, the entrepreneurial innovator and leader of Apple, has prompted me to think about the implications of his incredible success for Jewish education. Steve Jobs captured the imagination and ethos of an entire generation in ways that should be instructive for the sacred activity of Jewish learning. Jonathan Woocher, Chief Ideas office at JESNA, recently posted a blog entitled Reinventing Jewish Education in which he calls for a paradigm shift in our approach to Jewish education. In the first paragraph he suggests an analogy that, “Jewish education today is using a walkman, while the world is listening to iPods.” What is it about the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad that warrants a Jewish educational response?

The iPhone and the iPad, in particular, have produced an unprecedented level of connectivity to the world beyond our individual experience, at the same time enabling personal choice and the capacity for multi-tasking. I have often felt that the emphasis on “i” was powerful but problematic. These devices do focus on the individual user and the choices he or she can make in connecting to the digital world. Yet, somehow I felt that we were missing the opportunity for the “thou” of Buber’s I-thou relationship to be accessed as well. From the perspective of Jewish education, helping people find ways to deepen their connection to other people, to God, and to our tradition, to move from the narcissism of the “i” centered existence to the encounter with the Other, is at the center of the educational mission. Could we develop an i-thou phone, combining Apple’s ingenious design with a theological, ethical purpose?

Perhaps the tool is right in front of our face, and it is just a matter of how we use it and deploy it for our educational missions. As I spoke to my son at college, face to face, through our iPhones, I began to realize the potential inherent in this technology for real, compelling encounters. Could Jewish education use this technology to bring the Jewish American-Israeli mifgash, encounter, to a new level of convenience and intensity? Could the hevruta, the Jewish learning partner, be invited into our lives at places and times as yet devoid of dialogical, digital engagement?

All three devices focused on personal choice and convenience, bringing digital resources to your fingertips and allowing for a high degree of individual selectivity. I agree with Jonathan Woocher when he writes that “we need to put learners at the center of our thinking and practice.” This is an important lesson to learn from Apple’s i-devices: maximize the autonomy of the users and empower them to generate idiosyncratic forms, structures and content. The ability to manipulate images and their configuration for particular purposes has touched a deep, creative cord within so many. How can we capture that intuitive understating of personal empowerment to enhance Jewish education?

At Prozdor, the high school program at Hebrew College, we have seen how expanding choice and personalizing Jewish education though electives, specialized tracks, and independent study has engaged a wide spectrum of Jewish teenagers in a rich array of Jewish learning. Opportunities for on-line Jewish education, like that now offered by Prozdor and Hebrew College, can bring Jewish learning into the people’s lives through their personal communication devices wherever, whenever, desired and with choices unimaginable in the past.

Sleek aesthetics and a deep appreciation for beautiful lines are also important components of Apple’s success. The i-devices, and the Macintosh computers, are attractive in form as well as content. We often underplay the significance of our student’s artistic sensibilities. Jewish education needs to partake of the beautiful. I was struck by hearing Steve Jobs reflect, in his commencement address at Stanford in 2005, how his exposure to calligraphy at Reed College, led him to design his Macintosh computer with multiple, original fonts that enabled the user to share words in a visually beautiful and expressive forms.

When I, as Headmaster of Gann Academy, the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, was looking to design a logo for the school, I was thrilled when a parent who worked as graphic designer, offered to create an original Hebrew font. The buildings that house Jewish schools and institutes of Jewish learning, the educational materials we use, and the mode of presentation all need to appeal to the aesthetic imagination of this generation. Steve Jobs’ flair for dramatic presentation should encourage more reflection on education as performance. Apple understood the power of multi-media, and Jewish education must leverage media as well as message.

In a recent New York Times Op-ed article, Martin Lindstrom suggests that many people have a love affair with their iPhones. Rather than understanding the devotion some display to their iPhone as addiction, he concludes, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and concern, that it is more akin to love. We should, no doubt, be worried if the affection for one’s phone substitutes for genuine human interaction and engagement. I have at times felt jealous when I turn over in bed, early in the morning, to find my wife engrossed in her emails or Google searches on her iPhone.

The lesson, however, for Jewish education is that relationships matter. The bond between the teacher and the student, the life-long friendships created among peers, are critical factors in producing the educational outcomes we work to achieve. The famous rabbinic dictum in Pirkei Avot, “make for yourself a teacher and acquire a friend,” still represents a fundamental principal of Jewish education. Jewish institutions of higher learning need to train more teachers and Rabbis who want to be with their students, interacting on multiple levels to connect deeply with them. Our schools need to provide the necessary time and appropriate settings to foster meaningful relationships. The iPhones, iPods and iPads may have to be put away to focus people’s attention on the human beings sitting by our side or across the room, but Steve Jobs has left us with invaluable tools for communication and insights that can enhance our educational endeavors.

Rabbi Daniel Lehmann is President of Hebrew College.