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Discussions of Jewish EdTech

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ovadiah and the Asifa, Using the Internet to Perfect an Imperfect World

As a Tanach teacher, one of my favorite people has always been Ovadiah. You might remember Ovadiah as the author of one of the books of the Trei Asar. However, Ovadiah first appears in the story of Elijah in the Book of Kings I Chapter 18 where he represents the counter-balance to Elijah's zealousness. Let me explain.

Both Elijah and Ovadiah are faced with the same dilemma. The evil King Ahab and his even wickeder wife Queen Jezebel have spread the cult of Baal to Israel where every hilltop now has an idol and the prophets of G-d are being hunted down and murdered by Jezebel's henchman. How does one deal with a society that has descended into such a state? Elijah, the righteous zealot, takes one extreme. He curses the land with no rain and then at the behest of God goes into hiding. Meanwhile, the righteous Ovadiah who VERY much feared G-d takes a different tactic. He becomes Achab's chief of staff using his position of power to successfully hide and feed 100 prophets of God from the clutches of Jezebel. Eventually the two meet when Elijah returns to arrange a grand "Asifa" on Har Carmel. Although Ovadiah clearly reveres his master Elijah, one senses a fear on his part that Elijah will once again disappear and Ovadiah will be once again have to keep things going while he is gone.

Eventually, Elijah is forced to flee to the desert after his great Asifa against the prophets of Baal, an apparent astounding success, does nothing to change the fundamental reality of the situation. After Elijah receives a heavenly vision at Har Horeb, he still refuses to budge from his zealous position that the children of Israel have forsaken the covenant of God. At this point, Elijah is told by God to prepare for his retirement as he has yet to learn that prophets of God should not speak with fire and brimstone but should lead the people with a soft voice and cords of love. (For a more extensive elaboration on this approach see the Malbim on Kings I Chapter 19 Verse 11 and the book Yonah ben Amitai ve-Eliyahu: le-hora'at sefer Yonah al pi ha-mekorot by Rav Yehoshua Bachrach.)

Our rabbis teach us that Elijah's zealous approach can only work in a perfect world and it is for this reason that he will be the harbinger of the redemption when the world will be perfected. In this imperfect world, we need to follow the example of Ovadiah and seek to engage the forces of evil and darkness and attempt to bring out the light. In one noted irony in the story, while Elijah is hiding, he is fed meat and bread by ravens. Our rabbis teach us that the meat came from Achab's slaughtering house which was under the kashrut supervision of Ovadiah. In this way, even Elijah benefited from Ovadiah's engagement with the imperfect world.

When contemplating the recent Asifa against the Internet in Citi Field sponsored by some elements of the Hareidi world, I cannot help but think back to this fundamental argument between Elijah and Ovadiah. How does one deal with the darkness in some areas of the Internet? Does one spout curses and hide behind fences or does one seek to engage in this world and bring light to it? The element of the Hareidi world represented by this Asifa seeks to hide behind bans and whitelist filters (used only for business of course). Since there are many bad neighborhoods in the Internet they assert that the only viable approach is to disengage from it. My approach, greatly influenced by my Centrist Orthodox philosophy, is that the Internet is a tremendous tool which can be used for bad, I admit, but also for great good. (For two well balanced defenses of the Modern/Centrist Orthodox position on the Internet, see recent blog posts by Aaron Ross and  Doni Joszef.)

As I tweeted during the Asifa, I believe that the only way to combat the darkness in some areas of Internet is to use it to spread the light of Torah. Many great Centrist Orthodox Yeshivot are accomplishing this by using the power of the Internet to spread high level Torah on websites like YUTorah, the Gush Virtual Beit Midrash, and WebYeshiva. I personally benefit from this as I "attend" a shiur from Rav Herschel Schachter during my morning and afternoon commutes thanks to podcasts that I subscribe to which automatically download from YUTorah. I seek to follow this approach with my high school students by posting my own Flipped Classroom Nach videos on my YouTube channel and many of my colleagues in Jewish educational technology do the same.

I do not see a similar level of engagement with the Internet from the great Haredi Yeshivot of higher learning like Lakewood, Ner Yisroel, The Mir, or Ponevitch. Honestly, I think it is a shame. The world would greatly benefit from the broadcasting of high quality Torah from these and similar Yeshivot. I would benefit. The Torah world embraced the printing press, the last great innovation in the spread of information, and as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asserts, Judaism began the revolution in information technology with the invention of the first alphabet in ancient Israel. It is my hope that the Hareidi world will soon engage with the Internet, the next great leap in the information age and realize its tremendous potential for spreading the light of Torah to the world. Then perhaps Elijah will be ready to return to this perfected world.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Regarding a Jewish Educator's Guide to Facebook Interaction

In yesterday's Lookjed Jewish Educator's Listerve, Shalom Berger posted a link to A Jewish Educator's Guide to Facebook Interaction which had elicited a healthy discussion back in August when it was posted and asked from feedback by members of the List. Below is my response which should appear in a future Lookjed issue. I welcome your feedback in the comments section to this blog.

Dear Shalom and List:

In reference to the posting on a Guide to Facebook Interaction, I think a balanced approach is the most effective. Facebook is neither "good for the Jews" nor "bad for the Jews". It is a neutral platform which can be used for great positive or negative effect. Our students, even those in high school, need guidance and modeling on how best to navigate this powerful new medium which has increasingly become a major part of their lives. Therefore, for an educator or school to have a policy to never use Facebook with students, I believe is shortsighted. However, at the same time, as a seasoned teacher, I understand the importance of professional distance. Our students are not our friends and even if we never post anything objectionable on our personal pages, which I would hope we would never do, we still might want to shy away from the informal social interaction with our students that we would have with our friends and family members on Facebook and similar social media platforms. This is why in the past, I have recommended against "Friending" students on Facebook. (See my blog post on this here.)

So what is an educator to do? How do we guide our students in Facebook without being their "Friend"? I believe that Facebook itself provides an easy solution. Let me explain. There are a number of ways that one can interact with others on Facebook. On one side of the spectrum, one can "Friend" someone. This allows the other person to see all status updates, pictures, videos and other postings that you have shared with your "Friends" which for most people includes most of their Facebook activity. I would recommend against a teacher "Friending" students although I am friends with many alumni and use it as an essential tool to keep up with my many former students who have moved on to college, the work force, and started families of their own.

On the other side of the spectrum, a school, company, or organization can create a Facebook Page to push content to their constituents. This allows others to see content from your school even if they are not your "Friend". For example, my school has set up a Frisch Facebook page for parents, students, faculty, and other stakeholders to see a window into the daily happenings at school. These postings are all marked "Public" for anyone to view and if one "Likes" this page, then one can get the updates from this page loaded directly to their newsfeed. In this way, as a school, we can provide timely news to our community and model for our students a healthy use of social media.

Facebook also allows for a third approach, a Facebook Group which is something in between the free interaction of "Friends" and the more one-sided interaction of a Page. A group is a way for like minded people on Facebook to freely interact with each other even if they are not their "Friends". This I believe can sometimes be the most powerful way to interact with our students informally. It allows the teacher to on the one hand not be the student's "Friend" and not allow students to see all of their Facebook postings (and not see their student's postings as well) but on the other hand communicate and collaborate online with students within the Facebook Group. This is where the important guidance and modeling of online behaviors can be most effective as long as the teacher or school creates the group and closely monitors and moderates the activity on it. We used this very successfully in our recent Shiriyah which you can read about here.

In summary, as with most things in education, Facebook requires a nuanced approach. Facebook does not seem to be going away (until it is supplanted by some other social media platform) and our students continue to struggle with the proper use of this powerful tool. How could we abrogate our professional obligation to provide them with valued guidance? At the same time, one should think carefully and plan out in advance one's approach to interacting with students using social media as one should carefully plan out other areas where one interacts with students. I hope that my posting, although a bit technical, can help a bit in this planning process.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky
Director of Educational Technology
The Frisch School