ARTICLEIteration After Iteration: How the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco Drives Innovative Jewish Education Forward

These days, the word “technology” is synonymous with education. But at one point, not too long ago, the connection between education—and in particular, Jewish education—and technology wasn’t all that clear.

Think back just a moment, and you can likely conjure up dusty images of classrooms with malfunctioning VCR’s and faintly printed Ditto sheets. Even younger generations—those who probably don’t know what a “Ditto” is—likely didn’t find much intersection between the information superhighway and the Day School classroom when they were students.

That is, until now. Over the last few years, technological innovations that have been implemented in secular classrooms for some time have driven Jewish education forward in a profound way, thanks to visionaries across the country.

“There was a big hole in Jewish education,” says Fraidy Aber, Director of Education and Public Programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco. The CJM is an institution known for its focus on “participatory technology” and exhibits that blend Jewish subjects with new media forms, including robotics and sound and projection technology. “Teachers should have access to the possibilities that using technology in the classroom offers them,” she continues. “And the more we can provide opportunities for training educators in using technology, the more we’ll be able to see technology’s impact when integrated into the teaching of Jewish subjects.”

Aber has already seen this impact first hand, starting with the technology-based curriculum that she and her colleague Dan Schifrin, a former writer in residence at the CJM, developed at the Museum with the support of a Covenant Foundation Ignition grant they received in 2009. That small grant ultimately funded LINK, a Jewish Art and Technology initiative that turned the museum space into a lab where educators could explore practical ways of applying technology toward Jewish education. LINK had a number of components, including a monthly speaker series, a year-long educator fellowship and an original exhibit called Are We There Yet?: 5000 Years of Answering Questions with Questions, which combined classroom, gallery and web-based elements.

According to Aber, the one-year LINK program was just the beginning. “From that experience,” she shares, “we moved forward intentionally toward the goal of merging Jewish education with 21st century learning.” She adds that this was due in no small part to timing. When the CJM received their Ignition grant, the Museum was still a relatively young institution, which meant this small grant had an even greater impact. “We were a budding organization,” she recalls. “And this support helped to truly invigorate our work.”

“Sometimes you need to be able to test an idea with lower stakes,” she continues, and she uses west coast lingo to explain further: “In Silicon Valley they call it a ‘minimal viable product.’ Basically, you need to take small seed funding to try out an idea in the early stages. You don’t want to go out there with a $150k product that you haven’t tested. You need to first determine an approach, test it out, and make connections in the field. Then you can then say, ‘we iterated,’ we set up a prototype.”

Aber adds that when it comes to nonprofit organizations, this is generally a luxury, not a given. “With nonprofits,” she reflects, “you often have to just follow what’s been done before, and it’s much harder to prototype. If no one has the time or money to invent, or if there isn’t someone out there who is interested in the results of a test product or program, then this kind of experimentation doesn’t get on your to-do list in the same way.”

And it wasn’t just the experimentation process that made a small grant so effective, Aber explains. Rather, with the Ignition grant also came the opportunity for CJM to “get to know the Covenant Foundation, and become familiar with their skills and contacts.” Because of those contacts and that network into which the CJM was welcomed, they became embedded much more deeply into the field. “When you’re in the Ignition grant stage,” she attests, “this is particularly helpful.”

As events unfolded at the CJM following the positive results of LINK, museum staff pushed ahead, exploring new ideas and concepts in re-thinking the Jewish education classroom. In 2011, they received a mini grant to work on the development of an interactive iPad game that accompanied a CJM exhibit called Cali-fornia Dreaming.

“It was pretty powerful for us to play that way and work with teachers that way,” Aber recalls.

The development of the iPad game gave Aber and her colleagues another launching point from which to dive deeper into working with different modes of interaction with teachers and students in a non-traditional teaching setting, which, she explains, ultimately informs what could work in a more traditional classroom setting, too.

The CJM story illustrates an ideal trajectory: small grant leads to big changes. But there’s more. In 2012, the Museum was awarded a Covenant Foundation Signature grant to support the development of a Jewish Education and Technology (JET) Institute to take place for a week, over two consecutive summers. JET brought together Jewish day school educators, technology coaches and other visionaries looking to enhance Jewish learning through the use of digital technology. “A project of the size and scope worthy of a Signature grant,” Aber says, “takes a different kind of planning and intentionality, and an understanding of the subject matter that could only have developed so significantly after working on a much smaller scale.”

Aber emphasizes that there aren’t many networks of support for Jewish educators to witness this kind of integration as it happens, and so the collaboration between JET participants and presenters was especially important. “The secular field of this understanding is exploding,” she acknowledges. “Maybe a little bit faster than in Jewish education. And the secular field is a model for sure, but the realm of Jewish education has its own nuances, and there are different needs.”

Now, as the two-year Signature grant for JET comes to a close, the CJM is on to something new. The Creative Classroom series, inspired by the research that Aber and her colleagues undertook during the development of JET, is a public dialogue that invites two innovators into a conversation that explores how the classroom and the museum intersect, and how ideas of curiosity, creativity and engagement can affect learners of all ages.

Aber speaks excitedly about how these days, initiatives are constantly popping up, all across the country, focused on the training and professional development of educators interested in bridging the divide between 21st century innovations and the traditional classrooms of yore. “They’re all new, they’re all good, they’re all focused on that integration,” she says.

And the CJM is right in step with that wave. “That first grant really helped change our practice,” Aber confirms. “When we started, we were just putting new ideas out there in the world. And now, we are helping to drive innovation in the field of Jewish education…and beyond.”

By Adina Kay-Gross, for The Covenant Foundation

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