Friday, January 05, 2007

"Do-it-Yourself" Jewish Education gaining momentum?

In an earlier post (Who Will Teach the Kids of Hadar?), I suggested that as parents try to find solutions for educating their children outside of day schools and synagogues, Jewish homeschooling and volunteer-led initiatives would be two trends to watch. I also suggested that "the participation of professionals and experts as community organizers and curriculum developers may be critical for the success of this do-it-yourself approach." Finally, I pointed out the need for outside funding to enable such initiatives to work. Three months later, I see signs indicating that I may be right on all counts.

One of the early promoters of a "do-it-yourself" approach is Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism and the promoter of the concept of "open-source Judaism." His "open source haggadah" was an exciting first step from the (now defunct) Open-Source Judaism Project: An internet-based resource for creating your own haggadah using "scripture, translation, commentary, songs/readings, rituals, and/or illustrations" based on public-domain contributions. Sadly, "... at this time, no further development work will take place on OSH itself; however the site is mostly functional."

"... Though we share with our site's innumerable visitors their enthusiasm for the project, technical, licensing and financial limitations have unfortunately prevented us from taking The Open Source Haggadah beyond the state of its initial launch in March of 2003."

A visit to the site demonstrates how quickly a website can fall into disrepair when it isn't receiving regular attention. Nevertheless, Daniel (Mobius) Sieradski, the executive director of Matzat, is poised to take up the gauntlet with his project "Jew-It-Yourself:"

"Jew It Yourself empowers Jewish individuals and communities to act and grow by providing them with innovative online tools and resources that enrich their Jewish experiences: Find the right synagogue, meet other Jews in your neighborhood, start a havurah, create your own siddur, study Torah, learn to bake a challah, discover social justice opportunities, find out about local Jewish events, and more. The first Jew It Yourself software release, Shul Shopper, will debut Q1 2007."

Back in December, in this Jewschool post, Sieradsky explained the philosophy behind "Jew-It-Yourself" - and also made a pitch for funding such initiatives

" solutions are simply untenable in our current “anarchic” paradigm. Rather than promoting any singular form of Jewish identity or expression — be it by supporting a specific denomination or specialized small-scale organizations — Jewish institutions should invest in initiatives that give support to the widest array of individual communities possible. In that respect, rather than funding specific communities or initiatives, Jewish organizations should be spotting trends in various communities and developing resources that can be shared by individuals, communities and initiatives with overlapping interests.

You cannot force individuals to create vibrant Jewish communities to your liking. However, you can facilitate the circumstances in which vibrant communities have the potential to manifest in their own way ... As such, only when individuals and communities are given resources, time and space to grow in accordance with their needs (rather than in accordance with grantor’s objectives) will we have vibrant, joyous, endearing and inspiring Jewish individuals and communities that can gain the respect and adoration of the disaffiliated, and draw them closer to Judaism and the Jewish people."

Another interesting approach to creating shared resources is offered by several new wiki projects, such as the Wikisource Open Mishna Project:

"a multilingual, free content version of the Mishnah. It will include the original Hebrew texts of the Mishnah and its traditional commentaries, as well as new translations and commentaries collaboratively written, in wiki fashion."

The Hebrew-language version already contains over a 100 separate contributions. Similar projects with the more limited aspirations of providing public-domain English translations are underway with the Shulchan Aruch and Mikraot Gedolot, also through WikiSource.

Finally, and most intriguingly, JHEN, the Jewish Home Educational Network was started by Yahoo! Groups "Jewish Home Schoolers" member Melissa who is homeschooling her 1st grader:

"I created this wiki, because at the current time, 4 December 2006, there is no "Jewish Curriculum". There are good Jewish publishers, and there a good secular publishers, but nothing that merges the two together into a full curriculum -- one stop shopping. That is one of the major goals of this website."

A visit to the website shows the potential for homeschoolers to band together to provide resources for themselves - and the challenge of doing so without regular contributions by experts or the funding to support it.

My prediction: 2007 will be a landmark year for "Do-It-Yourself" Judaism, as the Internet continues to provide ever-expanding access for unaffiliated Jews to the resources they need - and the means by which to build communities around common Jewish interests. Stay tuned.