As a former Hebrew school teacher myself, it seems to me that the survival of the Jewish community is dependent on synagogues modernizing and incorporating technology into the study of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
While in the past synagogues were competing for time with soccer practice and ballet lessons, they now have a more formidable and more permanent “enemy” in the internet. However, this “enemy” must be acknowledged and embraced to keep Hebrew school education relevant and worthwhile.
Many synagogues are slow to adapt technology because many of the educators are unfamiliar with it. It’s understandable, considering that the average 11-year-old can send 10 texts by the time a teacher gets through writing the Hebrew Alphabet on a white board. And these days, synagogues are strapped for cash and may not have the resources to invest in new technologies.
However, to stay relevant, I believe synagogues must find a way to transform the way they teach, closing the ever-growing gap between student and educator.
This doesn’t mean that teachers are replaceable. You can’t mechanize relationships and you can’t replace charisma and good examples. However, what can be changed is how people teach.
One basic example is learning Hebrew. There are numerous programs that can assist in language acquisition to help students become Hebrew speakers, not just Hebrew readers. New programs make it possible for bar and bat mitzvah students to scroll over a word and hear the trope so the learner acquires the skill to read any Torah portion and not just memorize their own. Eventually, there could be online synagogues where students can sign up for Hebrew school from the comfort of their home.
Additionally, technology can help teach Jewish values and tradition. For example, studying the Holocaust from a text is less impactful than hearing the stories of survivors online through the Yad V’shem website.
To maintain and grow community, a synagogue must know how to incorporate learning through technology. And the argument that the Torah is thousands of years old and the web is only 20 does not hold water. Judaism has survived because it has adapted to modern concerns and needs. The necessity of incorporating technology is no different than the development of local synagogues because Jews were far away from the Temple, or to the writing down of the oral law so it would be codified.
Although this task is important, it isn’t an easy one. It is going to take forward-thinking congregants and lay leaders to prioritize the acquisition and use of new technologies and Rabbis and teachers to be willing to be trained in them. I am one of those teachers—are you?