New Media And Jewish Life: Discuss
Tue, 02/01/2011
Editor And Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

The primary advice I came away with from a fascinating panel discussion on new media, and its impact on the Jewish community, was to follow rather than lead.

“What we call technology, young people call life,” noted one of the speakers at the recent event, sponsored by Natan, a New York-based charity that seeks to inspire young philanthropists to become engaged in Jewish giving by funding innovative Jewish projects.

The four speakers, all in their 30s and active in Jewish life personally and professionally, agreed that people are spending more and more time online; that the opportunity to reach large numbers with Jewish content is great (but that the quality of most of that content today is sub-par); and that taking risks is essential to success, which, by the way, is almost impossible to measure.

“The only wrong decision is if you see that what you’re trying isn’t working and then you stop quickly,” said David Bryfman, director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at the The Jewish Education Project here. “The important message is that none of us knows what the next big thing in technology will be.”

And experimentation and failure are a necessary part of the process.

Jewish organizations and educators would do well to take advantage of what is already available in terms of online technology and content, and modify it for their own purposes rather than try to reinvent the wheel, the panelists agreed.

Ari Kelman, a professor of American studies at the University of California-Davis who has researched the Jewish presence on the Web, observed that for many Jews, the first place they turn to in seeking information about Jewish life is not a rabbi or educator, but the Internet. And what they’ll find is a decidedly mixed bag — a great many Jewish sites, most of them of little substance.

Kelman noted that there are a disproportionately high number of Orthodox-oriented sites, but “very little cross-conversation” between the Orthodox and other Jewish sites, which is regrettable.

One popular educational site, he said, is MyJewishLearning.com, a sophisticated transdenominational nonprofit offering thousands of articles on Jewish information and education. But “the first place people go to is Wikipedia.com,” said Bryfman, a fact that he said “symbolizes the lack of authority in the Jewish world.”

Rebecca Goldman, program officer at Steven Spielberg’s Los Angeles-based Righteous Persons Foundation, said her organization invests in new media to help its grantees do their work more efficiently.

She observed that the old model of religious practice focused on going to a certain place (the synagogue) on a certain day (Shabbat, most notably) and at certain times (hours for services), but that is becoming obsolete. “Now you have to be where young people are” and that’s the Internet, which reaches across all generations, all the time.

Goldman said that while the first thing people ask about a website is how many page views or unique visitors it gets, her foundation’s goal is to help “create more meaningful Jewish life,” so the actual numbers are not necessarily critical.

“I don’t know what success looks like,” she readily admitted.

Sarah Lefton, the creator of “G-dcast,” a popular animated cartoon treatment of the Torah portion of the week, agreed.

She said her primary goal is Jewish literacy, and “for me, the metrics of success is about impact, and changing Jewish lives,” acknowledging that gauging such things is “a mystery.”

In the three years that “G-dcast” has been producing its films, Lefton said she has learned that “people won’t watch a video longer than 3 minutes and 45 seconds,” and that it is best to make incremental changes, “then get it right and keep making it better.”

Several of the panelists agreed with Ari Kelman’s observation that “success in Jewish education today is measured by the thickness of socialization” — the social networking relationships created — rather than “the acquisition of Jewish knowledge.”

This may be a bitter pill for educators to swallow, but David Bryfman, a professional Jewish educator himself, noted that teens are drawn to Jewish experiences like camp and Israel trips for the social aspect.

“In general,” he said, “knowledge plays a smaller role” these days, predicting that teachers may be replaced by online courses and web designers with appealing style.

How are we to respond? We can resist such views on pedagogical or ideological grounds, or embrace them as insights into the reality of a rapidly changing world. But we need to remember that the new media is all about personal choice, not only in receiving knowledge but in creating and sharing it, too.

Technology is a tool, not an end in itself. So while we should be following young people to meet them where they are, we can still be leading with good ideas, including ones based on the teachings of our sages from centuries past.

That path can take us from an idea in our head to the furthest reaches of cyberspace.

More from Gary Rosenblatt:

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Great piece! A lot of what is covered in this article is what we have discovered over the past 3 years at www.OurJewishCommunity.org. As the world's first contemporary online synagogue, we not only use tools of the time but also have a philosophy that sees Judaism as constantly evolving - this nicely complements our evolving use of technology. New media have allowed us to reach hundreds of thousands of people in 150+ countries - and to make real differences in people's lives. We're willing to bring Judaism to people where they are. As for the comments above about Chabad, Chabad's web presence serves a purpose but they have a very narrow view of Judaism. Let's get more Jewish voices on the web representing the widest spectrum of Judaism!
Looking at the phrase: “What we call technology, young people call life.” Instead of the words "young people" write "unemployed people still living with their folks."
These people always seem to miss the elephants in the room -- sites like aish.com and chabad.org get way more traffic than any of the sites mentioned in this article, and are impacting lives far deeper as well. Aish.com has 250,000 email subscribers, and although operated by orthodox jews, the content is geared for jews from all backgrounds, in a way that engages the most secular reader. why not learn from the folks running the largest jewish content websites?
I greatly enjoyed this article and learned from it. My additional thoughts would be that the people on the panel were delivering what I call "received internet wisdom" -- which may not be totally correct -- i.e., numbers can't be measured, success is measured by layers of "social thickening," Jewish institutions and educators will go online or collapse, Jewish knowledge is not important to Jews on the internet, etc. I would suggest that actually the internet has been a great blessing for Jewish education. Far more people, Jewish and non-Jewish, are learning about Judaism because of the internet, in ways that were not possible in the past. Many profound Jewish texts are now available on the web and are downloaded and studied. Chabad.org's website has made tremendously good use of the internet for teaching, community-building, outreach, fundraising, showing videos, distributing books, CDs and DVDs, etc. If more Jewish organizations followed Chabad's example in building websites, they would soon see their ability to reach out grow. I know from running the Half-Jewish Network's website that I'm able to reach adult children and grandchildren of intermarriage whom I could never have reached before the internet existed.
It's a shame none of the folks mentioned in the article really seem to understand what success online is, or how to go about achieving it. Contrary to some of the claims in the article, it's not such a mystery, and the numbers *do* mean something.
I think you're a bit off base here. I have worked in technology development for 15 years and know quite a bit about what online success is: it means achieving the goals that you set out in building your work. If you are selling shampoo (and I worked on Pantene's online presence in 1999 so I mean this literally) then it is about impressions, because a successful branding campaign requires a certain amount of actual visual impression-making. But if you are trying to raise basic Jewish literacy, success certainly cannot be measured in video views. It can only be measured in careful analysis of impact. Of those viewers who watched the video, how many of them watched the whole thing? How many of them shared it with a friend? How many of them mentioned what they learned out loud, in public? How many of them came to understand the importance of a Torah story to their own Jewish identity, ethics, values or religious experience? How many of them had an attitudinal shift concerning the importance of Torah in their lives? So yes, numbers mean something, but not always the kind of numbers you can track in Google Analytics. It's complicated and often a bit mysterious. If you have ideas for G-dcast about evaluation and metrics when it comes to measuring literacy changes and some of the other ideas above, we are certainly all ears and welcome your input!

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