iPads in Jewish Day Schools

A version of this appeared on the JTA.org website

Bill Gates paid a visit to Steve Jobs toward to the end of the Apple visionary’s life. The two technology giants talked about the future of education. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, both men agreed that computers had made surprisingly little impact on schools. Gates said, “Computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback.” One of the many projects Jobs had hoped to develop before his life was cut short, Isaacson explained, was “to disrupt the textbook industry and save the spines of spavined students by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad.”

High School students using their iPads at
the Frankel Jewish Academy in Metro Detroit

Rabbi Joshua Spodek regularly studies the Talmud at home with his son, but when he began using an iPad and the iTalmud app, he noticed how his son responded to the “fusion of modern technology with ancient text.” Spodek, who works at the Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, thought of a way to bring that technology to the classroom. The school is now offering an entirely paperless Talmud course.

“The increased levels of engagement, portability, and space and cost saving have been enormous,” said Seth Dimbert, the school’s director of learning technologies. “Normally, when you study the Talmud, each page is covered with cross-references and tertiary commentaries, and you have bookshelves filled with dozens or even hundreds of secondary reference texts. Using an iPad application puts all of that reference material in hypertext. It’s an ideal way to study the Talmud, which is in some sense the original hypertext.”

At the Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA) in suburban Detroit, students began this school year with a nice surprise. Each student in the high school received a new 16GB WiFi iPad2. The school-wide distribution of the iPad to each student is the result of both a generous gift from an angel donor and the advantageous timing in the school’s computer lease agreement with Apple. Patti Shayne, the school’s director of technology, believes the iPad project is in line with FJA’s reputation as a cutting-edge institution, especially in the area of technology.

“The move to this incredible new technology gives teachers access to so many more sources and enables students to leverage their learning. With the iPad, students have one central place for assignments, communications and in many cases, text books and reading material. They will be able to access sources not available before,” explained Shayne. “Our job is to make that learning as inspiring and exciting as possible and prepare FJA students for a future where competency with all web-based devices is the norm.”

Kindergarten students at the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy
of Morris County, New Jersey (Photo by Johanna Ginsberg)

The students aren’t the only ones in the school who have embraced the iPads. The teachers had a chance to play with them before the students even returned from summer break. One teacher at FJA was already an iPad pro. Robert Walker, a government teacher, has had an iPad since 2009 when they were released to the public. “Where I see the iPad really impacting learning is that it appeals to so many different learning styles. Students will have more freedom in choosing the direction they want to go to master their coursework,” Walker said. “While meeting the requirements, students will also have the ability to go above and beyond what they are required to do. It’s a powerful tool that will support learning in any number of ways.”

One way the iPad will help students learn is by giving them the opportunity to review a lecture they might not have fully understood the first time. FJA’s chemistry teacher videotaped himself going through a problem and then uploaded the informational video onto the students’ iPads. “Students now have the opportunity to watch his demonstration several times,” explained Shayne. “Sometimes you don’t catch it all and some students are hesitant to speak up. With the iPad they can listen to the explanation as many times as they need at home or at school.”

That same chemistry teacher uses a free app called Mahjong Chem, which his students use to practice matching elemental names to symbols, naming polyatomic ions, assigning oxidation numbers, earning electronic configurations and understanding metric prefixes. Other apps that are being used include Pages (for word processing), Keynote (for presentations) and Numbers (an app similar to Microsoft Excel). Students are allowed to purchase their own apps, as long as the apps meet the standards of the school’s Acceptable Use Policy. Teachers may even require students to purchase apps; a requirement explained to parents in a document from Shayne as the equivalent to asking students to purchase a calculator, notebook or other necessary school supplies.

Are the students using the iPads for serious academic work or are they just expensive video game consoles with a pretty screen? According to 12th grader Shira Wolf of West Bloomfield, it’s a mix. “In Jewish Leadership, our teacher, Mr. [Marc] Silberstein, is trying to be completely paperless so we went over the syllabus on our iPads and got to play around with the neuAnnotate app to annotate it.” She also noted that it’s common to see her peers playing the popular game “Words with Friends” on their iPads during study hall or even in class, which is frowned upon.

Other Jewish day schools across the country are incorporating iPads into the schools as well. While it’s mostly middle schools and high schools, there are also some elementary schools that have made iPads part of the learning process. At the Modern Orthodox Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, all fourth-through-sixth graders have an iPad. As Julie Wiener, educational writer at The Jewish Week points out, the iPads “bring challenges as well: they are fragile, expensive, awkward to type on and chock full of distractions, especially when connected to the Internet. And it is unclear whether — once its novelty wears off and if it becomes as commonplace as pencils and notebooks — the toy-like iPad will retain its magical power over children.”

Some educators are quick to point out that if teachers use the new technology to teach the same way they always have then the technology is not being used correctly. “To let students simply listen to lectures on their own time – that doesn’t require an iPad. It requires a tape player. Or to study Talmud in the same way, just with a different visual – again, we’re not revolutionizing education,” argues Dr. Erica Rothblum, the Head of School at Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, California. “At our school, we have a 1:1 iPad program for all students in grades 4-6, but we are very aware that this is a tool. There are times that a pen and paper are better tools, and students will use those. The iPad does allow us, however, to encourage discovery, play and research.

At Rothblum’s school, the students are creating a “visual tefillah” by finding visuals that represent their prayers and using keynote, including animation, to illustrate what the prayer means. Students there are also creating “voicethreads” in Hebrew in which they record themselves telling a story or a conversation in Hebrew and then parents, teachers and their peers can listen to the recording and leave comments.

So, what’s next? Mobile device learning is certainly the wave of the future and school administrators are predicting innovations that never would have been believed a decade ago. When cell phone technology became inexpensive enough for high school and middle school students to be able to bring their phones to school, policies were quickly implemented to first ban the communication devices and then eventually place restrictions on their use.

One thing that has changed with this younger generation is the innate comfort level they have with technology. After all, this is the generation that has grown up with iPods, digital cameras and smartphones. Shaindle Braunstein-Cohen, former director of the Hermelin ORT Resource Center, underscored this when she said, “We used to teach technology as a subject. We would teach how to use a device. It’s no longer the ‘something’ that we teach; it’s the platform on which we deliver information.”

When asked how long Shayne expects FJA will keep the current crop of iPads until they become stale or even obsolete as Apple continues to release more powerful versions each year, she responded, “We are looking at a three-year refresh rate. As to what the future holds, maybe one of our students will invent it.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Matisyahu, Moishe House and Kickball: Detroit’s Coming Back

The last time I was at Belle Isle, the almost 1,000-acre island park in the Detroit River (the largest in the United States), was in the mid-1980s. I don’t remember if I was there to go to the aquarium (which closed in 2005) or the zoo, but I know I haven’t been there since. Today, Belle Island is most known for the Detroit Grand Prix, the Indy Car League auto race around the island, but that hasn’t taken place since 2008 due to the automotive industry’s economic crisis.

Crime has kept many in the Metro Detroit Jewish community from venturing down to Belle Isle in recent decades, but a young cadre of Detroit Jews is set to change that. Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs planned a dodgeball game on Belle Isle that would seek to break the world record for most people playing in one game of dodgeball. Yesterday’s game had 1,800 players (a good number in Judaism) and was ESPN SportCenter’s #10 play of the day. While it wasn’t enough to set the world record (2,136 in Rochester, NY), it was an impressive showing.

Jacobs tells me that sports leagues for young Jewish Detroiters will continue on Belle Isle with softball and kickball leagues. And speaking of kickball, there is a kickball tournament in Los Angeles today (Kick for Detroit) that is sponsored by Community Next and seeks to reconnect young adults with the city of Detroit and raise money for improvement projects in Detroit.

As I’ve written before, we are seeing a real renaissance here in Detroit and it’s being led by young members of the Jewish community. This is making headlines around the country. Rabbi Yonah Bookstein wrote about the rebirth of Jewish life in Downtown Detroit today in the Jewish Journal Los Angeles today, citing such initiatives as Motor City Moishe House, Repair the World, and the saving of the landmark Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.

Here’s native Detroiter Rabbi Bookstein’s article:

Matisyahu stood out in front of the crowd. He had just stage-dived head first off of a 15 foot-high stack of speakers from the side of the stage. The crowd held him aloft and returned him to the stage as if rehearsed.

“Detroit,” he yelled into the microphone, “you are f***ing crazy!”

The crowd roared back.

Lights made the already stifling heat even more unbearable. How they could continue to play?

Yet, an hour into the show, the pace and intensity of the music was growing. The crowd jumping up and down to the beat of the music. Rivers of sweat ran off the drummer who was shirtless by the end.

With over 1,000 people packed into the air-condition-less hall, many took turns outside on the front steps of St. Andrews. It was that hot inside.

When the band finished, and walked offstage, the crowd would not leave. They started to chant for more.

Matisyahu, already drenched head to toe, returned with his signature anthem of peace, “One Day.” He brought dozens of concert-goers on stage to accompany him. St. Andrews Hall pulsed with sweat, cheers. Across the room of outstretched arms the crowed chanted the words at the top of their lungs unmoved by the searing heat.

Earlier in the day, a few miles from the venue, I brought Matisyahu to visit the newly established Motor City Moishe House. The community and residents transformed a historic home which once housed a venerable rabbi of yesteryear into a communal home, part of the national Moishe House network.

In this blighted neighborhood, Detroit’s Jewish community is banking on this collective to be a hub of programming for young adults. Theough opened only months ago, at least fifty people showed up with just two days notice to meet the singer and enjoy a vegan feast prepared by a young kosher caterer.

When I was growing up in Detroit in the 1970’s and 80’s, the notion that Jews would return to the city — literally the areas of old Detroit that housed the core of the community for a hundred years — was a remote fantasy. The community had been moving to the suburbs since the 1950’s. By the time I was born, the Jewish community, all the synagogues and temples had moved to the suburbs. My parents choice to live in the city was never quite understood. Two small shuls stuck it out.

It’s no secret that Detroit is on the ropes. The city is a shadow if its former self, even with gorgeous new stadiums for baseball and football. Miles of the city have been razed and nature is reclaiming them. Miles of empty commercial real estate line the streets of the sprawling suburbs. Corruption and mismanagement were rampant and reached their zenith when the mayor was arrested two years ago.

However, Detroit’s Jewish community, who live almost entirely in the suburbs, is not ready to give up on a city that has such a rich and vibrant Jewish past. In addition to the new Moishe House, and a Repair the World volunteer, a landmark synagogue recently was saved. The Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue was about to close its doors and sell their building after 90 years.

The situation had been so bad that they needed to recruit the bartender of a nearby night club to make a minyan. A group of my contemporaries, old shul members, and younger Jews have banded together and saved the shul. The compelling saga was even covered by NPR who ran a story about it.

Detroit’s Jews are resilient and instead of closing the Downtown Synagoge, they celebrated their 90th with 300 people.

As the Motor City’s modern bard Eminem, offers, “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity…Would you capture it or just let it slip?”

I’m looking forward to taking my family to Belle Isle. It’s been too long!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that there was also a bike tour of Old Jewish Detroit yesterday in which 150 bikers got to see the old neighborhoods and landmarks of Jewish Detroit up close. Here’s a link to the Detroit Free Press coverage.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Do It For Detroit

I was born 35 years ago today in Sinai Hospital on West Outer Drive in Downtown Detroit.

Detroit was born 310 years ago today.

Detroit hasn’t aged well in my lifetime. Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1953 to give Jewish doctors a place to practice, was the the central medical institution for the Jewish community. Even as the Jewish community migrated northwest into the Metro Detroit suburbs, Sinai remained the hospital of choice for Detroit’s Jews. Gradually this changed as it became increasingly more dangerous to venture Downtown and a handful of outstanding hospitals sprouted up in the suburbs with the Jewish doctors who received their training at Sinai. In 1999, Sinai merged with Grace Hospital and ceased being the Jewish hospital.

Jewish Detroiters had one less reason to head Downtown. The Jewish Federation building moved to the suburbs in the early 1990s. The synagogues had long since been sold to Black churches. The fancy restaurants that the Jewish community still flocked to had shuttered. With the exception of a Tigers baseball game or a Red Wings hockey game or the occasional concert or theater performance, there were little reasons for Jewish Detroiters living in the suburbs to head Downtown.

But that has changed. Detroit is now seeing a renaissance. The first attempt at a renaissance in Detroit was in 1977 when the Renaissance Building was erected as the great hope for the Motor City to turn around following the race riots of the late 1960s. That plan never materialized. However, the time has finally come for Detroit’s revival.

Here are a few of the great things happening in Detroit that are contributing to its revitalization:

Moishe House – On June 1, Detroit opened its first Moishe House in Downtown. The mission of Moishe House is to provide meaningful Jewish experiences for young adults around the world by supporting leaders in their 20s as they create vibrant home-based Jewish communities. Detroit’s new home for a handful of entrepreneurial Jewish young adults was funded by local Jewish philanthropists including A. Alfred Taubman, Max Fisher’s daughter Jane Sherman, the Seligman family, Bill and Madge Berman, and the Norman and Esther Allan Foundation. The young people living in the house, including Community Next’s Jordan Wolfe and Come Play Detroit’s Justin Jacobs, are pioneers. Like the young, idealistic pioneers who immigrated to Israel to resettle the land, these visionaries are taking the lead in Detroit.

Come Play Detroit – Founded by Justin Jacobs, Come Play Detroit began as a way for Metro Detroiters to play sports together in leagues. What began as a basketball league in the suburbs has morphed into a way to help bring excitement to the Downtown area. Softball and kickball leagues in Detroit, parties, and an attempt at setting a Guinness Book World Record for the largest dodgeball game are just some of Justin’s ideas that have encouraged Metro Detroit’s young adult Jewish population to venture Downtown.

Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue – Detroit’s only surviving synagogue is a Conservative congregation on Griswold Street in the center of the city that until recently functioned as the only minyan where Jewish businessmen could go for afternoon services if they had to say Kaddish (the mourner’s prayer). Its story of rebirth is an interesting one. Young, passionate Jews have saved the building from falling into disrepair and becoming a slum building. Its new mission is to rediscover Jewish life in Detroit. The synagogue no longer functions as a traditional Conservative synagogue, but more of a Jewish center of social justice programming and cultural activities offering Shabbat services and luncheons, film nights, classes, and dance parties.

LiveWorkDetroit – Detroit’s business leaders are the city’s biggest cheerleaders for a renaissance. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation includes many Jewish businessmen who are at the forefront of creating new jobs for young people in an effort to get them to stay in Detroit. A Crain’s Detroit Business article included several Jewish leaders in its list of the most powerful people in Detroit: Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak, and Jewish Federation President Michael Horowitz. Jewish businessmen like Gilbert, Schostak, Stanley Frankel and Gary Torgow are working behind-the-scenes to retain Jewish talent and help bring back the young Jews who fled Detroit. With the full support of Detroit’s Mayor Dave Bing, Dan Gilbert has teamed up with Josh Linkner, Magic Johnson and Brian Hermelin to invest in new companies that will help revitalize Detroit.

My birthday wish today is that the City of Detroit, which shares its birthday with me, will become the city that we dream it can be. I hope the Motor City returns to a vibrant urban center that we can be proud of. It is exciting that so many young Jewish Detroiters are finally saying “Do It For Detroit.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller