Wrong Side of the Divide

We’ve learned from Garrison Keillor that in the town of Lake Wobegon 90 percent of the children are above average. How great for them. But when we apply technology to education, the Jewish community is on the wrong side of the tracks: the rest of the world is far ahead of us. Far more than half of us are below average.

A recent Behrman House survey of the parents of religious school students revealed that almost all have high-speed internet access, and three-quarters use it for at least some secular educational purpose. On the other hand, even the most successful Hebrew training software is adopted in fewer than 40 percent of the schools where it could be used; the digital content of religious education overall is even lower.

How can this be? Has our identity as “the people of the book” blinded us to the advantages of technology? But that can’t be – we revel in the percentage of Nobel Prizes we’ve achieved. And we compete – successfully – throughout the secular world. Do we think that technology doesn’t advance our purposes? That can’t it be either – we know that our children learn, make friends, form communities, and affiliate with like-minded people using technological tools that weren’t even dreamed of when we were their age.

Despite this, we check our technology – our innovation – at the door when it comes to educating our children in our religion and heritage. And it comes at a cost.

The cost is the compromise of Jewish religious education, in two ways: Most obviously, we fail to use many powerful tools and technologies. Online video, blogs and posting software, smart phones, games, and more – are all ways to engage children and to provide meaningful and enduring experiences, not to mention connections with the rest of the Jewish community.

Equally importantly we send a message: that the latest technologies – the ones our kids find so compelling – aren’t right for the Jewish world. Either they’re irrelevant, we say by ignoring them, or the enterprise of Judaism isn’t important enough for us to use them. Neither one is true, of course, but that’s what we say, every time we send out a sloppy black-and-white photocopy instead of a full color brochure, every time we fail to send our kids to the web for the kind of learning we want them to have.

So what to do? First we need to understand why it’s happening – why technological innovation within the Jewish community has lagged. Why there’s a Digital Gap. Then we must close the gap.

How? We’re working on ways. Join me in the discussion.

David Behrman is President and Publisher of Behrman House, the leading publisher of textbooks, software, and other educational materials for Jewish religious schools throughout North America. Behrman House has pioneered the use of online Hebrew instruction in the religious school environment, and in the Fall will be releasing its Online Learning Center to further bring digital instruction to the educational community.