Well, Australia definitely knows how to put on a show!
The 8th Biennial Educators Conference of the Zionist Federation of Australia, held at Bialik School in Melbourne, brought together Zionist Jewish schools from across Australia for two days of professional development and discussion.
Keynote speaker Rav Benny Lau from Israel started with a strong message encouraging teachers to develop each student’s own personal story, personal history, and personal relationship to Judaism. Talks provided training on a diverse range of topics from differentiated instruction through gaming, to Hannah Senesh, to the Israeli political situation and back to teaching Tanach and Chumash in the classroom. But a unique central aspect that emerged at this conference was the focus on using technology to teach Jewish studies.
A session I presented on using the iPad in the classroom attracted over 50 attendees, one of the biggest of the conference, and there were numerous other iPad or app workshops highlighting the technologies available for teaching Hebrew and Jewish. Rabbi James Kennard, Principal of Mount Scopus, emphasized as a main priority the use of technology in the classroom to enhance Jewish studies, and particularly the possibility of this technology allowing us to reduce school fees and thus keep more Jewish youth in Jewish schools. I saw heads nodding as he talked about the crippling effect of school fees in the Jewish day schools in Australia that are driving students to public schools, and, he noted, to sometimes even have less children!
Certainly the perception seems to be that there is an opportunity at hand, and the interest in the products we are creating at Jewish Interactive was genuine and heartfelt. As I described an app we are producing at JI that will allow students to virtually explore a Sukkah Shuk in Jerusalem and then build their sukkah, all the while learning about the laws and customs of the sukkah in a fun and dynamic way, the unspoken reaction, to my clearly unbiased eyes, was ‘why aren’t we already doing this!?’
The ZFA Educators Conference for me was a lesson in how a community can come to together, work together, and learn together. Many different schools and organizations with vastly different mandates came together and they walked away richer and wiser from the experience, due mainly to the high quality of the programming and the range of sessions on offer.
But it seemed a consensus that regarding the use of technology in the classroom to enhance Jewish studies, it is no longer a question of “if”, but “how”.
Rabbi Tal Segel is the US Manager for Jewish Interactive