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We Need Text People, Not Text Messages

Emily WalshFilmed at Wexner Institute

Jewish education is Jewish life.  Kids and families who have rich Jewish experiences with each other will likely infuse a love for Jewish thought and practice into all that they do.  We live in a crazy, busy world where technology and outside pressures demand so much from us.  Judaism can provide a framework through which learners face challenges of today, and can give them the tools to live a meaningful life rooted in faith, tradition and community.

Emily Walsh is a Jewish educator passionate about infusing text, ritual and action into the lives of families.  She’s currently the Assistant Director of Education for Youth and Family at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, where she creates meaningful opportunities for families to learn, pray and do while building relationships with each other.  She holds two masters degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Communal Service from Hebrew Union College.

People matter, they’re the best technology that was ever created.  Whatever other components exist in education, whether it’s curriculum, or materials or smart boards, the most important element are people. They say that a picture has a 1000 words, so I’ll just share a few about this one; it’s from my consecration from when I’m guessing I was 5 years old on Simchat Torah, I’m second from the left on the end, your left and the smile on my face is telling, I loved high holy days. I grew up in a neighbourhood in the Mid-West where there weren’t a lot of Jews and every year on Rosh Hashanah I would put my party dress on and party shoes and get so excited to go to services where I knew I would see my friends and my parents friends and most importantly Rabbi Saul. Now I’m sure Rabbi Saul made everyone feel important but I was his buddy, you see I’ve known him my entire life my Mom worked at my Temple and because I had known him for so long I didn’t see him as a towering six foot man in a white robe that others saw, he was just my mum’s co-worker. Every year he told this story about the importance of little things which reminded us that as little kids we were important but also to take value in everything no matter the size and just to drive the point home he would give us little bags of m&m’s, I looked forward to that every year. I think that this is so memorable, this story, this moment because of the m&m’s but also because it was Rabbi Saul who was the one telling the story, he was somewhere who cared about me, cared about my family and knew my story and so I wanted to listen to him and hear his story. Now as I reflect on how this moment really had an impact on my Jewish identity I know it was important. So that’s my story, now I want you to think about yours. Think about a moment that was pivotal in the development of your Jewish identity, a moment when something shifted or clicked for you and something changed. Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? Big or small, scripted or not, I’m sure that there was something really valuable in that moment and I’m guessing for many of you it was a person who made all the difference. People matter in developing Jewish identity, deep personal relationships can make all the difference in someone’s connection to Judaism and that’s why I think that they are such an important element in Jewish education. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but Text people it is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read: the text that they will never forget.” Rabbi Saul was my text person. Over the course of my career I have expanded Heschel’s definition of text people from role models and teachers to be anybody who has an important moment in someone’s Jewish identity that can be parents or peers. So, that brings me back to the High Holy Days; Caroline who is standing on the end, she’s a text person, she was my best friend at Temple and every year we stood on the truck parked outside of the Temple on Yom Kippur and collected the bags of canned goods  that the families brought for the food drive. One year we were so lucky we got invited to be part of the team that took them to the food pantry, we went with our Moms and we unloaded the bags one by one, filling the floor of the warehouse whose shelves were otherwise empty. I’ll never forget how important that was in my development and I think what was so important and so memorable about that experience was really the hands on but also because I was there with my text person I was there with Caroline. So this is another element of my philosophy in Jewish education and that is experience. John Dewey who is a founder, I think a founder of experiential education, writes that, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Education is life. Dewey thought that the school was everywhere, the playground, the home, the neighbourhood. For me the food pantry was a place of schooling and that experience of unloading the bags on Yom Kippur was an important moment in my Jewish identity. Text people connect to meaningful experiences. Today more than ever I believe that a Jewish education grounded in deep, personal relationships and meaningful experiences is necessary to give our students what they are lacking otherwise in their  education and development. I have been reading a lot about the challenges that advancing technology produces and the technology of texting and social media and computer games.  According to a study that was published by the American paediatrics association 75% of teens own cell phones. Actually wasn’t so surprising I might have thought that the number could be higher. It did report that when asked teens reported that they primarily use their cell phones for; 24% said instant messaging,  25% said social media, 54% said texting. The report did not say how actually used their phones to talk to each other. Do you remember the last time you saw a teenager walking down the street on his or her cell phone? I don’t. I’m worried that we are raising a generation who only knows how to have conversations through texting and on the internet and that intimacy and real conversations are at risk. We don’t fully know the psychological ramifications of all this time spent online, especially when these adolescent minds are still forming, but many do attribute feelings of loneliness and isolation to too much time spent on social media. Look I’m not suggesting that we ignore the values of online and technology, I spend plenty of time liking posts on Facebook, I send plenty of text messages and I talk on G- chat a lot to people like Caroline whose still one of my best friends to this day. But you see, it was the friendship that we built in person with everybody together that really serves as the basis and the foundation for what technology is just a mere vehicle to keep in touch. Text people connect to meaningful experiences and this is necessary to truly sustain and enhance relationships and connections beyond the limits of technology. If our students are truly living Jewish lives then they can’t help than but be a part of a relational community. A Jewish community is one where you need 10 people in order to pray, where we all have a responsibility to come together and hold hands with and visit those who are grieving as well as celebrate and dance with those sharing in life’s most positive life cycle events. That a Jewish community is one that learns together, innovative model of group work that’s found on so many college campuses dates back to the creation of the Beit Midrash, chevrutah or partnered learning, teaches students’ skills like working together, discussion, critical thinking, all skills that can’t be learnt from sitting in front of a computer screen. Living a Jewish life means living in Jewish time that one day a week you can slow down from the crazy, busy life that we live. What a gift for families that go in different directions all week long to sit down for dinner together on Friday night. I mean could you really have Shabbat dinner over text messages? (Laughter) We’ve all been there (pic reference). Living a Jewish life, this is the framework that I want to give our students. I want them to view Judaism, view life through a Jewish lens to give them the tools to live a life rooted in tradition and faith and community, for them to be able to face the challenges of today with a confidence and sense of belief in and a real sense of responsibility towards something bigger than themselves. Jewish education is Jewish life itself. Think back to the experience I asked you to recall earlier in the talk, could it have happened over text message or in 140 characters or less? My guess is that it needed to happen in person in order for it to be the memorable experience that it was. A few years ago I had a crisis of faith you might call it, even though I am surrounded by Rabbis in my career it was Rabbi Saul that I turned to. He lives in Florida now, he’s’ retired and we spent hours on the phone yes I know it’s technology but I needed to hear his voice, we couldn’t have done it over text message. We talked, he coached me, he listened to me, he supported me it was like he was giving me little bags of M&M’s and reminding me of the importance of the little things in life. People matter, as far into the future as anyone can see there will always be some new trendy new way to communicate with each other. I know Jewish education will continue to be innovative and I hope that as we innovate we really remember to make real life experiences with real life people. So, as we send text messages here and there I hope that we will all remember the importance of developing text people. Thank you.


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