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  • Best Jewish Education Innovation Since Two Tablets

    Posted on March 12th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    You know how it goes, you learn a great piece of Torah and want to share it.  Or maybe you have a big idea and you know just the mishna to exemplify it.  Sometimes it is as simple as the source of the words to a new song you want the choir to learn. But standing between our understanding and interest in the text and the people you want to reach is that ever so finicky tool of the trade, the study sheet.

    Sure the days of mimeographs and carbon copies are gone but even with Hebrew data bases and Hebrew language word processors the cutting and pasting, the margins, the fonts can all make one throw up their hands.


    But, NO MORE!!!


    There is a new kid on the block by the name of Sefaria, which is in my opinion the best thing since Moses brought us the tablet. Okay, an exaggeration for certain, but Sefaria is indeed a wonderful tool that every Jewish educator should be taking advantage of. Merging the best of what modern technology has to offer together with a well honed sense of what goes on when people study Jewish texts, they have created a site that allows users to create and share study sheets with ease. The texts are in Hebrew and in English. There are a few choices about how to lay out the material. You can see traditional commentaries or add your own annotations. And lickety split, you have a hand-out ready to go.


    Okay, true not every text is there and you may not love the translations that are available. But, there is a great deal available and in the best of open source ie. collaborative tradition, if you want to add or contribute, you are welcomed and encouraged to do so. It was co-founded by Brett Lockspeiser who has worked in tech including places such as Google and Joshua Foer an author of many books including Moonwalking with Einstein. The main team includes rabbis from across the spectrum like Rav Yehoshua Kahan and Rabbi Ellen Bernstein. But they need more of us to get involved. If you don’t want to translate or enter text, then make some sheets and share them. Help build the future of Jewish learning.


    And if you are the kind of person for whom learning a new tech tricks is hard, there are training videos and detailed instructions that lay things out pretty clearly.


    Try it. It really is pretty cool and mighty useful too.


  • Do Good: NFTY, Hollywood and Social Media

    Posted on January 23rd, 2013 Special Contributor No comments

    Last week was Josh Malina’s birthday. The Hollywood star of the West Wing and Scandal decided to ask his fans and social media to celebrate with him by giving a donation to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

    But it has gotten much bigger than that. Whereas Malina’s first hope was to raise $5,000, they’re now at $12,313. This illustrates the power of asking for small contributions from lots of people – they are able to illustrate support for someone whose work they appreciate, understanding that this person adds value to their lives, and they’re able to improve the lives of others as a tribute. This is wonderful.

    Secondly, what the Causes page doesn’t reflect is something else that happened on Twitter. NFTY (The National Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group for Reform Judaism) made Malina an offer:

    @NFTY@JoshMalina We’ll match your @causes campaign for@StopHunger up to $10,000 if you’ll join us in LA to pick up the check.#NFTYConvention

    Malina’s response:

    @JoshMalina: Seriously?! Done!!!

    Author: Esther D. Kustanowitz

    It’s not a surprise that this happened via social media organizing – Twitter has emerged for so many celebrities as just another PR engine, feeding the American hunger for information about the minutiae of celebrity existence and creating a perception of insiderness for pop culture consumers. But Malina gets it in a way that not all actors do – he shares authentic insights of intelligence and humor in a way that shows you it’s not his PR team doing the tweeting. (Or if it is, WOW. Great job.) On Facebook, he uses that medium to expand on the cleverness and to interact with people in the comments. Malina’s using social media to actually reach people. And that’s why a campaign like this is working – because he writes from a place of authenticity and value. People relate to that, and trust him for it.

    So this is how the world of fundraising can work today. Someone authentic with a large network (and loyal followers who relate to and feel connected to him) identifies a cause they’re passionate about, and a reason to ask people donate, and sets a decent, but modest goal. This person is not a celebrity spokesperson – this cause was their idea, emerged from their understanding of a need and their trust in a particular organization to achieve that need. People respond as generously as they want to, helping that person reach the goal and go beyond. Other people or organizations see the movement and are inspired, putting their own money up to match the cause.

    Now, because a celebrity is involved, NFTY realized it was an opportunity to do good, but also an opportunity for their organization, whether it is greater visibility for their programs or enhanced inspiration for their participants. Neither one of those is a bad thing. Although one could look at this as celebrity blackmail – we’ll give you a check, but you have to make a personal appearance to pick it up – the whole concept of a matching gift itself issues a challenge not unlike blackmail – we will do this, if you do that.

    In any case, Malina seems happy to submit to this specific kind of blackmail, which I described to someone else as “the good, mitzvah-laden kind of blackmail.” Being “ultimatum’d” into a public appearance in order to fight hunger isn’t the worst thing in the world. And maybe that’s the lesson – that when you’re passionate about a cause, you do what you need to do to get it done.

    Best of luck to Mr. Malina, wishing him much success, many happy returns of the day, and much nachas from the success of this campaign. (And in the 20 minutes it took me to write this post, donations have shot up – the total is now $13,597 and growing. Why not add a few bucks of your own to this cause? Donate here.)


    This week’s post was originally posted on My Urban Kvetch and was written by Esther D. Kustanowitz a Los Angeles-based writer, consultant and Jewish communal professional, who is also Program Coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a well known blogger.

  • High Holiday Tickets, Video-Streaming, and Mission

    Posted on July 29th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    As technology makes its way into every aspect of modern life, each community has to consider how to engage with the multitude of possibilities. This week’s guest bloggers Rabbi Robert B. Barr and Rabbi Laura Baum are pioneers in working with technology on multiple fronts to connect and expand their community. Through their work they are creating models that can be used in many settings.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    At this time of year it’s not uncommon for boards of congregations to reconsider their policy on High Holiday tickets.  For some congregations, ticket sales are a significant revenue stream.  For other congregations, tickets encourage unaffiliated individuals to join.  Some congregations use tickets to ensure that members have paid their dues in full, while others have dispensed with tickets all together.  Tickets at the High Holidays are used by congregations for a variety of reasons.  While we each may have our particular bias regarding High Holidays tickets, we probably can agree that there is no one “right way” to handle tickets.   Each approach has different outcomes – intended  and not.

    Rabbi Robert Barr

    Given that the notion of video-streaming services is a relatively new phenomenon it is worthwhile to consider it through the lens of ticket sales.  There is no one answer to whether a congregation should stream, why they should stream, and who their audience will be.  Streaming isn’t “one size fits all.”  There are different approaches that congregations can take which would reflect their values and sense of mission.

    At, we will stream the High Holidays for the fourth year.  Since our launch, our online services have been viewed by tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries around the world.  When we started streaming, our audio and video quality were not great, but people came online anyway, and they appreciated having the opportunity to “attend” the High Holidays.  Some came because they were homebound, others because they could not afford synagogue membership, others because they appreciated our unique liturgy and philosophy, others because they were geographically isolated.  The reasons were endless.

    One woman and her mother attended online and learned the power of online video streaming – all of a sudden a family separated by miles could attend services together.  A woman in DC who had to work watched our streaming services from her office, called her mother in Florida and told her to click on the link, and the two had a very powerful moment listening to the sound of our shofar together.

    Over time, we’ve needed to improve our technology and make significant financial and time investments in the technology – as people’s expectations continue to increase and technological change happens in what seems like nanoseconds!  We’ve also had to wrestle with meaningfully connecting to both our bricks-and-mortar congregants and those watching online.   By deciding to video-stream, there is a responsibility to ensure that the online participant has a quality experience.

    Rabbi Laura Baum is an initiative of Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH.  Our brick-and-mortar congregation’s vision is to be a spiritual home, a meaningful voice, and a humanistic resource for people worldwide, seeking a contemporary Jewish identity and experience.

    With that vision in mind and with funds available after 30 years of fiscal responsibility, our congregation decided to boldly launch an online congregation.

    We do not use technology for its own sake.  We use technology because it helps us move our congregation’s mission, vision, and values forward.  Just as philosophy guides our Jewish practice, our philosophy guides our use of technology.

    Each year, a few more congregations decide to video-stream.  For some, streaming doesn’t make sense.  After all, if you require tickets for the High Holidays why would you offer ticketless High Holidays online?  Some congregations still want to be able to stream for their members who may be homebound or travelling during the holidays.  Those congregations may offer their streaming on a password-protected basis, essentially requiring a “ticket” to watch.  For others like us, we never had tickets at our bricks-and-mortar congregation, so streaming for everyone made sense.  Beth Adam was so committed to reaching out that it expanded its rabbinic staff specifically to serve the needs of the online community.

    Lots of questions arise in congregation’s board rooms about streaming.  Are we encouraging folks not to join?  Are we sending a message to our members that they are footing the bill while others get it free?  Why would someone show up if they can watch it at home?  What does my congregation have to offer online that will be more enticing than showing up?  Can we afford the technology?  How will having video equipment in our sanctuary interfere with the experience of those physically present?  Do we have volunteers and/or employees who can invest the time in this?  How can we protect our members who do not want their attendance to be broadcast on the Internet?  What are the copyright issues if we stream and archive words and songs that others have written?  Will those watching online feel like participants or like voyeurs?  What will the quality look and sound like?

    Just like discussions about membership, tickets, and liturgy, there is no one answer when it comes to technology.  What we have found, though, is that a significant investment of time, energy, and resources is important not only in creating the technology – but also in thinking about how the technology fits with the philosophy, mission, vision, and values of the community.


  • God and Twitter 2: Spiritual Innovation and Connection

    Posted on June 27th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Last year during the High Holiday services at Temple Emanuel of Beverley Hills California, Rabbi Laura Geller paused during her sermon and asked those assembled to take out their cell phones. Contrary to expectations, she did not ask them to turn them off, instead she asked them to turn them on. The theme for the holy season at synagogue was, “What are you doing here?” Smart phones in hand, over a thousand people joined in the conversation with Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) moderating an online conversation that mirrored the lively live discussion led by Geller. The entire dynamic of the service changed. At best, a rabbi leading a traditional conversation from the bimah can hope to engage a handful of people, who may or may not stay on topic. Here everyone was involved and limited to 140 characters, people were considered and deliberate about what they shared.

    At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.

    In the Spring of 2010, Rabbi Oren Hayon (@rabbihayon) gathered a group of rabbis to retell the story of the Israelite experience in Egypt. Setting up accounts for Moses, Pharoh and many other biblical players, the story unfolded in Tweet the Exodus (@tweettheexodus) a narrative that had nearly 1,500 followers and received attention in the Wall Street Journal and on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Such a broadly collaborative and interactive retelling would be impossible to imagine in any other forum.

    Traditionally Elijah the Prophet visits Jewish homes on the first and second nights of Passover, but uses Twitter to let see what that often elusive angel of old does throughout Passover. As Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) explains throughout the 8 days of the holiday, “We had him in various places, he would go on 8-9 cities a day and we would photo shop him in.” Instead of having the holiday fizzle out in malaise of matzah menu madness, this creative use of Twitter maintained the aspect of interactive anticipation that is meant to infuse the sedarim.

    In this era of being overloaded with information, time and again, Jewish professionals cite Twitter as a means by which they can vet articles and information to help make sure we are getting to the material that we want to focus on. It was this element of Twitter that led me to propose the idea of tweeting the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia to the Jewish Women’s Archive (@jwaonline). The Encyclopedia, which is housed on their site is an incredible resource of exceptional and diverse content. Taking up the idea, JWA recruited about twenty people to choose an article a week during American Jewish Heritage month, to summarize it in 140 characters and link to the source. The project caught one quickly and soon large numbers of people were delving into Jewish history and sharing info on more than 200 articles. Not only did it bring in new readers and feedback to the JWA but it engendered conversation about serious Jewish history in a democratic non-hierarchical format.

    Another one of the consistently reported upon benefits of Twitter is that it allows users to connect with others who you might never otherwise connect with. One such person for me is Reverand Naomi King (@RevNaomi) a skilled user of social media and a Unitarian Universalist minister. Writing on Patheos, a religion site, she explains how Twitter can be used for what she calls, “Digital Faith Formation.” Using a Twitter application called Tweetchat, she brings together experts with those interested in discussing “particular texts, or to speak to particular emotional, spiritual, or social issues.” By locating these conversations in the virtual world of Twitter, she is able to connect across location with a range of people that simply could never come together. As she explains,  “Using a few free and inexpensive tools, people of faith also have a chance to live so openly that others who are seeking can actually find them.” What she is describing is that far too elusive ability to reach in Jewish parlance, “the unafilliated.”

    The use of hastags (#s) is another element of Twitter that is allowing broad conversations to happen. The # symbol in front of a word in the Twitter system allows one to signal that a particular topic is being discussed and to add to a broader series of comments about this topic. A few years back for example JewishTweets (@JewishTweets) introduced #shabbatshalom. Now you don’t need to be on the streets of Jerusalem to feel as though everyone is in on the Shabbat spirit.

    Hashtags allow more much more than list formation. They are a means to virtual participation. Were not at the Women’s Rabbinic Network? Missed out on a session at NATE? You can follow along by following the hashtag associated with the conference and seeing what people have to say. Recently, Collier Meyerson (@WoodyAllenNot)  in the New York office of my organization, Be’chol Lashon, participated in a conference in that city. Sitting at my desk in San Francisco, I monitored the reaction to her presentation on Twitter. As people commented, I chatted with them, (@bechollashon) adding my thoughts. As an organization, we were able to use Twitter to augment and shape the perceptions that were created face to face.

    In the days before Shavuot, a new tradition is emerging that uses the #Torah hashtag to create an international Torah study free for all. Rabbi Mark Hurvitz (@rebmark) keeps hoping that the concerted effort of Jews around the world to send out significant numbers of tweets with the #Torah tag connected will result in Torah trending, or rising to the top of the list of popular Twitter topics. So far it has not, but given the dispersion of Jews and the diversity of our approaches to Torah, this may be as close as we can hope to get to a recreation of the gathering at Sinai. Several of the conversations in which I participated as we “Tweet[ed] Torah to the Top” this year, were as profoundly meaningful as they were direct. And there is no other forum in which so people of such diverse backgrounds, in so many geographic locations, could ever get into serious Torah conversations.

    18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold. Let me know what I’ve missed, and keep me posted on what develops.


  • God and Twitter: Helping Clergy Do What They Do Better

    Posted on June 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments

    A few weeks ago, Rabbi Marci Bellows (@moosh2) got into a bit of trouble with the members of her youth group. Her sin? Not sending out a Shabbat Shalom tweet on a particularly Friday night. She was a little surprised by the outcry of disappointment. In the many months of sending out these Friday messages she had never heard back from any of her youth group followers. She was not in the least bit sure they were paying attention to her many Twitter missives. But clearly they were.

    Twitter is a social media that allows users to broadcast short messages no longer than 140 characters and followers to track these short bits of news and commentary. In October 2009, I (@rabbiruth) made some predictions on the ways Twitter might be used in a congregational setting. At the time there were a handful of rabbis, cantors and educators to be found using Twitter. While the specifics of that post have not materialized, Twitter has become a valuable tool with particular benefits in Jewish professional life. Today, there are many HUC-JIR alumni on Twitter, not to mention, accounts for HUC-JIR (@hucjir & @hucinci). Talking to some of those that tweet, it is clear that Twitter is playing a powerful role in the ways Jewish professionals do their jobs and live their lives.

    Avid Twitter users are often, like Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr (@FrumeSarah) who blogs and uses Facebook, or Rabbi Mark Hurvitz of (@rebmark) who has a professional focus technology, are heavy users of social media more generally. But experimentation and exploration is part of Twitter. At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) is a clergy leader when it comes to social media. He is still figuring out how best to use Twitter, as he explains, “I don’t think five years ago I understood power of Facebook or the potential. So when Twitter got into our consciousness I got this feeling I would get it, I wanted to get in earlier in the game, so now I have a presence and I’m taking a wait and see approach.”

    Even as he experiments with Twitter, Kliger has a clear strategy of mixing short personal and professional missives. Sharing about his kids and the upcoming adult b’nai mitzvah is part of his larger strategy for reaching out to families with young children. Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, (@lizwood1982) of Reform Temple of Forest Hills, New York, employs a similar approach. As she explains, “I tweet both personal and professional things from my account and I do so consciously and conscientiously.  I want my congregants to know I’m a person with a life…  Similarly, I post about our congregational activities because who I am is tied to my professional life as well.”

    One of the strong benefits Twitter allows Jewish professionals is the ability to broadcast their message far beyond their immediate community. As Wood explains, “we are quickly learning that people may not walk into our doors on a whim, but they will look us up online and when they can follow our activities on Twitter, they get a great sense of who we are.  People have told us they’ve come in to our events because of Tweets they saw.” For Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) of Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, a bricks and mortar congregation that sponsors the online, Twitter is an essential element of building the virtual Jewish community. The first year, they tweeted updates from the Seder as each of the rituals took place in real time. “We heard from all sorts of people that this was the only Seder they had,” says Baum. Now tweeting the Seder is a regular practice as is tweeting Shabbat services and the High Holy Days. When Bellows writes an article she is able to use Twitter’s system of tags to alert groups, like those working for marriage equality or women’s rights, that she has posted a piece on the topic. This reaching out has helped her build a following that extends far beyond the traditional synagogue crowd and is global in reach.

    Twitter also creates real communities of support and connection for Jewish professional. Hurvitz points to the ability of Twitter, which unlike Facebook does not expect one to know someone before connecting, to allow him to “meet” “people from various Jewish “flavors” and in parts of the world that I had not encountered before.” Though not everyone chats with others on Twitter, those that do speak of strong ties that develop. Einstein Schorr does not necessarily expect those who don’t tweet to fully believe the depth of connection she has felt from a virtual community but for her the coming together has been significant, “At times of profound sadness, I have felt a kinship with a global community that was completely unexpected.”

    Twitters limitation, that you can only use 140 characters, which as Wood explains, means that “it’s hard to always get your point across in a way that you know can be either meaningful, or even useful.” But as Kliger points out, “the structure of the 140 characters is an interesting limitation on how we convey our thoughts with hands or paper we would have had difficulty limiting. It makes you mindful of how you communicate your thoughts and ideas.”

    Twitter is enhancing the work that many Jewish professionals do. Still sitting on the fence about whether to get involved? Hurvitz says, “Just do it!” Though Einstein Schorr warns, “It’s addictive.”

    Next week: Twitter and God Part II: Opening Up New Possibilities, a discussion of how Twitter is creating new modes of Jewish engagement.

    If you are looking for information on how to get started on Twitter, you can follow the step by step instructions written by Twitter or a great informative post on the topic, or  follow this link for a short video.


    For those already on Facebook and looking to consolidate a variety of social networks in one place consider a service like or


  • Towards an Engaged Jewish Future

    Posted on March 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Being an alum of HUC-JIR means being part of a community of intellegent engaged Jewish professionals. When those professionals come together and share their passions and ideas, there is untold potential. A recent gathering of the Rhea Hisrch School of Education alumni capitalized on that potential. This week we welcome Rabbi Lydia Medwin who shares her reflection of the learning that went on.

    In a recent Day of Learning for RHSOE alumni, we spoke together on the topic of Jewish community – what it was and how to facilitate its being built.  After a communal breakfast, the alumni (which included a group of alumni who were video-conferenced in from New York) sat together with five panelists, who spoke about Jewish community from different vantage points: Community of Practice, Community of Learners, Community in Worship, Community through Action, and Community through Technology.  Each panelist presented on the ways in which they approached community building, followed by a question and answer period guided by the organizer of the day, Josh Mason Barkin.  The panel was followed by breakout groups where we discussed the implications of our previous conversation.  After lunch, we reconvened to brainstorm about ways in which we might further the goals of community building for our synagogues.  The following is an overview of what I perceived as the major take-aways from the day:

    Rabbi Lydia Bloom Medwin

    The sustaining and nourishing of the Jewish community is one of the foundational concepts upon which our synagogues stand.  It is a idea that includes nothing in particular, and everything in reality.  In some ways, it defies definition, because it’s so close to the center of everything that we do and are.  For what would a synagogue be that felt no sense of community?  Judaism emphasizes the community – we need a minyan of 10 people to pray a full service; we need a community to celebrate births and funerals and everything in between; we need each other to fill many of the basic commandments of our tradition.  And think of the implications – when we forge a thick social fabric, we also weave meaning into our lives, create a safe place for those who are alone, afraid, and in need, establish a refuge from the outside world in which we can consider a different kind of world, one that is slower, more thoughtful and self-reflective, one in which we are heard and in which our voice counts.  We can seek the Divine in community in a way that is different from our private seeking.  We can make changes in our innermost selves when we allow other people to join us on our journeys.  We can also begin to make some of those changes in the outside world, in our public lives, with the help of our community.

    And yet, as Jewish professionals, we struggle every day to help facilitate this sense of community.  We try desperately to imbue in our congregants a feeling that we need their presence to be fulfilled, and that they need us in many ways too.  We try to convey the message that they belong to the Temple, and that the Temple, their Jewish community, and indeed the entire Jewish people, belongs to them too.  They are, in fact, the Jewish people – not an idealized, Fiddle-on-the-Roof type of Judaism that (may have) existed long ago; not the small group of Ultra Orthodox Jews that our so many of our congregants consider the “real deal religious Jews;” and not us professional Jews that many have handed over their Jewish identities to.  Some clergy and educators risk sinking into resignation and despair when considering this uphill battle, and if we continue to think about community in the same old way, they will have reason to be sad.  Jewish community can no longer be about professionals planning programs for congregants.  It can no longer be about the professionals knowing what is good for our congregants.  It is not about a show and it is not about perfection.  Jewish community IS about getting into deep conversation with each other, one cup of coffee at a time.  Jewish community is about collaboration and making decisions based on broad-based consensus.  It is about creating a place where people can come to take off their masks, to share what matters in their lives, to not always be right but instead to just be.

    There is great power in the Jewish community – we are diverse, resourced, smart, and innovative.  We are risk-takers and, despite our geographic spread, we are quite hamishy.  We have much potential in our offerings to greater numbers of our own congregants, in addition to those thousands of unaffiliated Jews out there still in search for a spiritual home.  We need to re-envision community at every level, from its implications for how we make decisions to the values we hold up as most important.  We need to look serious at alternate models of membership and dues payment.  We should reexamine our stance on B’nai Mitzvah and its real relevance to our Jewish youth as disconnected from religious schools.  We should also take another look at the way we bring ever more people into the center of the synagogue, into leadership training, and into a way of life that emphasizes experimentation, honest self-reflection, and a devotion to helping our congregants discover their own gifts and promote areas of growth.  Most of all, we need to highlight the importance of relationship – between clergy and educators who work towards the same goals, between professional staff and lay people whose teamwork make the Jewish world go round, and between lay people and lay people who actually build the social fabric of the Jewish community in rich and colorful ways.  For while we can facilitate this process, the professional staff of a synagogue cannot fabricate community building for our communities.  Jewish lay people must be highly involved if we are to see the reemergence of an organic, holistic, and healthy Jewish community of tomorrow.

    It was these kinds of conversations that were just beginning to emerge at our most recent Rhea Hirsch School of Education Day of Learning hosted at HUC-LA recently.  While the work ahead of us is great, the reward is greater.  I hope this conversation will be continued in the months and years ahead.

  • Bible and New Media

    Posted on January 17th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    My piece What the Bible Teaches About Modern Media sparked some interest at Hebrew Union College.  Joel Duman, Ed.D.  Lecturer on Bible, Biblical History and Jewish Educational Technology at HUC Year in Israel Program,is an expert on both the Bible and technology. In addition to the work he does at HUC, he teaches at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem and JTS, New York.  Coordinator and writer of Visual Midrash, a website on “Biblical Art.” What follows is his response to my piece.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I’m about to finish the teaching of a course in Biblical History at HUC Jerusalem.  One of the issues that has come up is literacy in ancient Israel – we’ve talked about the Lachish letters, where a rural army commander writes in a huff that he is “of course” quite able to read and understand written communiqués;  we’ve mentioned an ostracon found several years ago in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere,

    Joel Duman

    apparently from the 10th century BCE (Khirbet Kaifeh) – writing about matters of societal morality; we’ve talked about the writing and rewriting of history in the Bible, etc.  Both in this course and in my other bible courses, for Americans and for Israelis, we often come up against the seriousness and depth with which the written text has been treated in the Jewish tradition.

    Although the small bytes of information characteristic of the new social media might look similar to the laconic style of the Bible, there’s also something essentially different, in how we deal with these texts.  I don’t think anyone would bother to give a long, hard read to the type of communication found on Twitter, etc. – like the piece I am writing now, not a lot of thought is put into this type of writing; the Bible, on the other hand, shows clearly that it’s formulations have been carefully considered, reworked, edited, changed and that each phrase and each word (each letter sometimes) is fraught with meaning.

    It occurs to me that what we can learn from the Bible about the new media derives from the difference between the use of writing in these two contexts, rather than in the similarity.  I don’t mean this as a rejection of the new media – although not a big fan of much of it, I am an avid e-mailer, although I was never a good letter-writer.  But I think such a comparison offers us an opportunity to notice what’s special, different, eccentric (in the literal and figurative meaning of this word) about our culture and to see how our tradition to offer alternatives to general tendencies of our contemporary world

  • What the Bible Teaches about Modern Media

    Posted on December 13th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    News Feed:

    Erev Rav: God, this dessert is awful, there is ABSOLUTELY NOOOOOO food worth eating

    Moses ben Amram: Wondering, yet again, why I ever took this job…..

    God “the one and only”: You are such a kvetch. Meet up in 30. Bring 70 of your closest with you.

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    The world of online social networks is complex and persuasive. The fluid nature of the medium makes it both compelling and problematic. Even as governments struggle with how to navigate the open platforms that allow national secrets to be shared world wide, the traditional challenges of adolescence and identity formation are amplified in an era that blurs the boundaries between public and private. Things that might have, only a few years back, remained knowledge between a close group of friends, such as a first kiss now become the news of thousands of ‘friends.’ A misspoken remark or bullying in the playground, now gains permanency creating havoc for the victim and the perpetrator. Young people, parents and educators are increasingly concerned about how to help children navigate the complexities of this new social and media reality.

    While it is impossible to inoculate children against all the challenges of modern media consumption, clergy and Jewish educators have an important tool in our box that is often overlooked in the complex discussions about living on-line. The Bible, though clearly very much “old media,” is a great tool for helping young people consider the value and weight of their words.

    Overwhelmed by the sheer volume and content of what they are exposed to in the media, and still developmentally grappling with the concept of consequences, the permanence of the online world can be hard for young people to grasp. The Bible shows us some of the enduring impact of writing down our every action. What is it that we know about Avraham Avinu at this distance? Yes, we know he was chosen by God but we also know that he passed his wife off to the King of Egypt and that he tied his son up and prepared him for sacrifice. When working with young people I ask them if they think that Abraham would be happy with the record we have of his actions. How would he like to be remembered? How would they like to be known in the world?

    While it may seem flip, it is not hard –as I did above -to read much of the narrative element of the Tanakh as a series of facebook or twitter posts. Frequently, the biblical narratives come not in long flowing prose but in short burst – often, dare I say of less than 140 characters a passuk. One of the great joys of the brevity of the biblical narrative is that it leaves much room for commentary. We are left to guess at the motivations at the contexts. And we do.

    David ben Jessie: Just saw the most beautiful woman bathing on her roof

    Commentator one: Seriously man, you’re married.

    David “father of the Messiah” ben Jessie: I’m just looking…

    Commentator two: Go for it Dave, after all you’re the King, whatever you do is cool

    The short pieces we see in the Bible regarding events, such as David’s sighting of Batsheva, make it possible for us to layer meanings onto the text. While that has provided many generations of learned Jews with much to work with, I’m sure that the “reality” of the original events was lost long ago. Today, such commentaries on the short bursts of information that we put out about our daily lives accrue with lightening speed. We don’t wait generations between Rambam’s and Rashi’s thought but seconds between Susan’s and Deryck’s responses. Reality can get lost quite quickly as can our control over the perception of events.

    Gone are the days of the long meaningful missive. Short texts with a series of Roshei Tevot communicate volumes in an economy of space and leave much to the imagination. Going back to biblical commentaries is not going to change the mode of communication but it can be a means by which we help young people unpack their use of modern media.

  • Technology for Yom Kippur

    Posted on December 7th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    During the Aseret Yimai Teshuva, I noticed some thought provoking visuals making their way around the web. Like the secrets project, which encourage people to send in post cards detailing secrets that they keep, these cards revealed things often left unspoken. But instead of being anonymous, these were signed by biblical characters. This edging and engaging presentation was, as I was to find out later, the product of Temple Israel of Ohmaha’s decision to create an alternative service for mincha on Yom Kippur.  Tzeh U’llimad caught up with Rabbi Eric Lindner to talk about the innovations at Temple Israel.  The process, including the planning, the virtual post cards and the service itself are a testament to how technology and creativity can greatly enhance our Jewish experience.

    TU: What made you decide to do an alternative service?
    EL: Temple Israel used to have a specific youth group service in the afternoon of Yom Kippur.  We had children’s service at 9:00 am, the “regular” service at 10:15, the youth group service (OTYG) at 2:30, and then afternoon/yizkor and ne’ilah beginning at 4:30.  Attendance for the OTYG service was usually 75-100, most congregants being family members of the youth group.

    The decision to create an alternative service was also made with the youth group in mind; we wanted the service to have the same gravitas as the main sanctuary service.

    TU: How did you go about planning the service?

    EL: Once the decision was made to do an “alternative” service, I knew I wanted to do something that would make it “alternative” in OTHER ways than changing the music, which seems to be the current measurement as to what makes for an alternative service.  In clergy and staff meetings, we had been strategizing about how to help our congregants achieve a deepened sense of meaning during the High Holidays, rather than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur be “one shot deals.” A colleague, Stefanie Kolin, sent me something she did in Boston, which was a journal that congregants wrote in during the ten days.  I really liked the idea of our congregants doing something (learning) during the course of the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

    TU: Where did the post cards come in?

    EL: In my brainstorming about the service, I had a few things in a file.  Many of those were postcards from  I found them to be inspirational, thought-provoking, and totally cool.  Many of them revolve around themes of the high holidays (forgiveness, regrets, relationships), and I knew I wanted to do something with them.  One of our youth groupers sent me about a dozen or so post-secrets that she found that she thought we could incorporate.

    In talking with her, I had the idea of sending a post-secret a day during the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.  The idea was that the postcards would be “from” our biblical ancestors (Adam, Cain, God, Noah, etc), and that the secrets of our ancestors could help us in our modern struggles.  Each of the secrets included some follow-up questions and thoughts to ponder (they are included in this email as

    TU: How did the post cards fit into the service? Did they just stand on their own?

    EL: Once that idea was in place, the program director and I worked to make that as the framework for our service.  We titled the service: “Ancient Secrets, Modern Freedom.”  We used some of the post-secrets that I had gathered as entry points into specific prayers.  For my d’var torah, I went through the ten biblical secrets that we sent the congregation, in addition to some others.
    TU: How else did you use technology to engage the community?

    EL: In addition to post-secrets, the service included a youtube clip on violence and hatred, videos of two congregants speaking about forgiveness, and other multi-media presentations (such as words to songs projected on the wall).

    We also made the decision to be interactive.  At various points in the service, I showed a post-secret that was related to an upcoming prayer, posed a few thoughts, and then asked for comments from the congregation. Each of these lasted about 5 minutes, and were received very well.

    TU: Do you feel that the effort paid off?

    EL: Interestingly, over 25 high-schoolers participated in the service, with five of them crafting their own writings, and one song-leading.  This is more participation than we ever got at the youth group service.  Over 250 people came to the alternative service.

  • A Hannuka Gift for yourself: Jewish Apps for your

    Posted on December 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    For a while I have been thinking about doing a post on the best Jewish Apps for your handheld devices. As it happens, our conservative colleague Rabbi Jason Miller beat me to creating a list and did such a great job that this week I break from protocol and post his piece -with permission of course. I hope that these Apps bring a little light, or at least a little convenience and productivity to your lives. -Ruth

    The Best Jewish Apps Of 2010

    From tehillim to kosher restaurants, from kaparot to recipes, our tech guru picks the top 33 applications.

    Rabbi Jason Miller

    Special To The Jewish Week

    As more Jewish people acquire the latest in handheld technology – think iPhones, iPads, Android-powered smartphones, BlackBerrys and tablet PCs — there will be more Jewish-themed applications available for download.

    Some of these apps will be utilities for checking the Hebrew date or learning about the weekly Torah portion. Other apps will be novelties like making shofar sounds for Rosh HaShanah and grogger sounds on Purim. With many Jewish developers around the world, you can be certain there will be no dearth of Jewish apps in the coming year.

    What follows is a roundup (in no particular order) of the top Jewish-themed apps from the past year. This is far from an exhaustive list as there are hundreds of other Jewish apps available, including Jewish and Israeli newspaper versions, apps that let you donate to particular charities, a Gematria (Jewish numerology) calculator, and a guide for keeping kosher at Disney World. Check for a comprehensive listing of Jewish apps as they are released.


    POCKET iSIDDUR – Free: This free iPod and iPhone version of the prayerbook comes with every version imaginable, from Sephardic to Ashkenazic. The new version has adjustable font size. iPad version also available. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    SIDDUR – $9.99: RustyBrick’s version of the siddur for Apple’s mobile devices is expensive, but impressive. Comes with real-time zmanim (prayer times) for each day based on your location. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    iPARASHAH – $4.99: Created by JACA Software Solutions, this app gives you the weekly Torah portions in the palm of your hand. Search for any parsha by name or date with this app. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    TANACH FOR ALL – $3.99: Get the whole Jewish Bible on your iPhone, iPod or iPad. Developed by Yaniv Kalsky, the latest version includes Parshat Hashavuah and an onscreen Hebrew keyboard. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    MILA-4-PHONE – Free: Learn basic Hebrew on your iPod thanks to Birthright Israel NEXT, which just released this free Hebrew word flashcard app. Developed by Rusty Brick, this free app makes building up a Hebrew vocabulary quick and easy. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    TEFILAT HADERECH FOR ALL – $0.99: Another app by Yaniv Kalsky. This provides the English and Hebrew version of the traveler’s prayer for travel by air, sea, and long car trips. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    iBLESSING – $0.99: Not sure which blessing goes with which food? This app will remind you which blessing to say. If you’re Hebrew reading isn’t very good, just listen to the app say the blessing in Hebrew or English. Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    iZKOR – $0.99: This app provides the text for the mourning rituals in Judaism that are said in all prayer services as well as at funerals and memorial services. Just input the name of the deceased and it will generate the memorial prayer for the individual.All of the following are available from Apple’s iTunes App Store.

    KOSHER – $4.99: Find the nearest kosher restaurant from the exhaustive database with over 2,000 trusted restaurants to choose from.

    TEHILLIM – $1.99: The entire book of Psalms with linear translation.

    iTALMUD – $24.99: CrownRoad developed this expensive English translation of the Talmud complete with thousands of footnotes, references and insights. You certainly get what you pay for.

    PIRKEI AVOT – Free: The teachings of Pirkei Avot, the ethics of the sages, available in Hebrew and translated into English, Spanish and Portuguese.

    KITZUR SHULCHAN ARUKH – $14.99: The entire Jewish legal code laid out in a beautiful format. Developed by RustyBrick, this app allows for quick keyword searches for specific laws and bookmarks to save texts for later.

    HEBREW/ENGLISH TRANSLATOR – Free: RustyBrick’s dictionary is easy to use and accurate. For a free Hebrew-English dictionary, you can’t do better. Great onscreen keyboard and copy/paste functionality.

    HEBREW CALENDAR – $4.99: Functions just like iCal, but with the luach (Jewish calendar) including all Jewish holidays, z’manim (special times for prayer including sunrise and sunset), event-setting feature, and easy switching between Hebrew and Gregorian calendars. Easy to read fonts on all screens.

    KOSHER COOKBOOK – $2.99: Choose meat, dairy, or parve meals and this app guides you to the perfect recipe. Also develops the shopping list for each recipe and allows you to email the shopping list to others.

    Available from

    JASTROW DICTIONARY – $14.99: The complete Talmud dictionary with over 120,000 entries and bi-directional Hebrew-English and Aramaic-English references.Available from


    Available from Apple’s iTunes App Store:

    iMENORAH – $2.99: Developed by Matthew Parrot, this virtual menorah lets you light candles with the touch of the screen and then watch them burn down on each night of the holiday. Perfect for small children and dorm rooms where lighting candles is not allowed.

    @THE KOTEL – $1.99: This app lets you put a kvittel (note) in the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem. Developed by Yoram Berkowicz, this app allows for note writing in several languages.

    SHABBAT CANDLES – $0.99: Light Shabbat candles virtually every Friday night from anywhere. Great app for the business traveler who might not be able to actually light the Sabbath candles.

    LULAV WIZARD – $0.99: Download this app to virtually shake the lulav and etrog in a realistic 3D motion with the blessings appearing on the screen.

    PARVEOMETER – Free: Press the meat or dairy button after your meal and this app will count down for you. You can set it to your own custom for the dairy countdown after a meat meal so you won’t miss a minute of being able to eat your ice-cream.

    KAPAROT – Free: The folks at PETA would be thrilled to see the custom of waving a chicken above ones head solely done virtually before Yom Kippur, but this app only provides the blessings for the ritual. It should be noted that a sack of money can be used in lieu of the animal.

    GROGGER – $0.99: If you forget to bring your noisemaker to synagogue on Purim, don’t worry and just download this app. Developed by Stuart Rubin, this app makes enough grogger sound effects to impress the whole congregation and drown out the name of the wicked Haman.


    iPRAY JEWISH FOR ANDROID – Free: Siddur developed by Envision Mobile for the Android. Available from

    HEBREW SONGS – $0.99: While this app doesn’t actually play famous Hebrew songs, it is great for learning the lyrics, and figuring out the source for various songs and which holiday they’re associated with. Available from

    DAF YOMI – Free: Learn Talmud on the go with this daily page of the Oral Law for the Android. Available from

    JEWISH RECIPES – $0.99: Developed by Brighthouse Labs, this recipe app contains the most extensive list of Jewish-themed recipes in existence. Available

    JBLESSINGS – $0.99: The Android version to determine which blessings to say before and after various types of food. Available

    HEBREW CALENDAR WIDGET – Free: Full Hebrew calendar including Jewish holidays and z’manim for the Android homepage. Available at

    PRAYER DIRECTION – Free: Find the right direction for your prayer. Jews in North America traditionally face east in prayer. Available from

    ANDDAAVEN – Free: AndDaaven strives to be a siddur application that is easy to use, and leverages the full capabilities of the Android platform.

    LUACH HEBREW CALENDAR FOR ANDROID – $1.99: Most complete Jewish calendar program for the Android powered smartphones. Available at

    Rabbi Jason Miller writes the Jewish Techs blog for The NY Jewish Week. He’s also the founding director of Kosher Michigan, LLC and president of Access Computer Technology, LLC