This interview is part of the Network-Weaver Series. More info & interviews here!
Peter Eckstein is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens. In the past he has served in national leadership roles in CAJE (Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) and is currently involved in other initiatives. He holds a master’s in Jewish education from Hebrew College.
What is the difference between a network and a community?
A network is the connections people have with one another, whether face to face or virtual. A community is qualitatively deeper. It’s a group of people, however they’re connected, sharing information and moving with each other in the same direction. A community is a kehillah – there’s an emotional connection to that. Right now in Jewish education we have a network, a loose network. I want to create a community, a kehillah.
In your post “Occupy Jewish Education,” you talk about raising the voices and profiles of complimentary Jewish educators. How are you doing that?
I started a Ning site, where I’m taking a stab at creating a professional learning network for communities. I’m also teaching a class once a month called “Mondays in the Cloud,” where I’m introducing programs to use in the classroom to a group of congregational and day school teachers. Complimentary Jewish education is by definition part-time. The educators don’t have the time or resources to explore the new tools available, and they also might be afraid to play with these tools. I’m trying to raise consciousness and get this on the agenda.
How will you measure the success of these initiatives?
I taught a class last week where I introduced a comic strip program, and the next day a teacher shared it with the class and they loved it. But I think it’ll be a success when the teachers start helping each other on their own time. That’s when you really create a community.
What is the current state of networks in Jewish education?
There’s a lot of ferment happening in the Jewish community right now, with the Jewish Futures conference and other ways individuals are coming together, sharing their visions, and then going back to their communities and working on their own platforms. There are so many different energy points around the country and around the world.
In the world of Jewish education, CAJE was the closest thing we’ve had to a broad-based movement. It was a community more than a network. You saw people only once a year, but it was an emotional experience. I’ve spoken with people about creating a global Jewish education community, but I’m not sure if we’re ready for that or even know what that means. In the secular world of education, I don’t think there is anything like that either.
I think what emerges will be decentralized. I do work on the national level, through the Conservative movement (JEA-Jewish Educators Assembly) and Reform movement (NATE-National Association of Temple Educators). Tip O’Neill said “All politics is local” – and I actually think that maybe the way to get educators engaged is to work on the local level.
What are some barriers to using technology in the classroom?
The biggest is the resources and funding to get the equipment you need into the schools. Many schools can’t invest in the technology I’d love to see. Also, people are afraid of technology, but less and less – people beginning to realize that it is a way of enhancing what they’re trying to do. There’s a myth of digital natives vs. digital immigrants, grouped based on age. I don’t believe in that. Everyone relates to digital technology differently. It has to do with whether you like to play and experiment. At the same time, I do believe that in the next few years more people will embrace technology as the true digital natives come of age.
How deeply do you think technology will change the classroom? Is it just a matter of the means to learn, or will it also influence the actual content?
As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” The way we communicate can determine what it is we communicate. It shapes the way we look at the world. When I was in college and I had to do research, I pulled out tomes of abstracts. Now, the way we do research has changed, and as a result, what we find has too.
The ISTE Conference talked about revolutions in history that affected how we approach the world. The invention of mass-produced books caused more and more people to learn to read, which changed how people approached knowledge and ultimately changed the world. What is 21st-century literacy? How are we teaching kids collaboration and how to create knowledge – or is knowledge so readily available that that’s already happening?
What is the role of technology in today’s Jewish education?
Right now we’re there with everyone else – not necessarily ahead of the curve. We are trying to figure out the best way of creating a Jewish tomorrow. It’s not longer the cheder or Hebrew School; it’s now something very different. We’re experimenting – with games, b’nai mitzvah tutoring via Skype, and web-based platforms. Whether it’s a virtual school, distant learning, or the prosumerism Jonathan Woocher talks about, we as Jewish educators need to embrace the trends that will take us to the next level, and who knows where we’ll end up.
Peter blogs at The Fifth Child and tweets as @redmenace56.