The Beit Midrash in the Age of Snapchat

By Shira Hecht-Koller

Earlier this year, Apple released the iPhone X. When the first iPhone was released in 2007, I was completing my second year of formal teaching, and over the course of these ten years, I, like so many other educators and parents on the frontlines of adolescent education, have watched teenagers grow and develop with this new, powerful, and rapidly evolving device in the palms of their hands. Its presence in our world has shifted the way we teach and learn, and has altered our familial, religious and social landscapes.

The Challenges
Educators face, of course, numerous challenges, some timeless and some specific to our age. I would like to focus on three challenges felt more sharply now than in earlier times, all encapsulated in the ubiquitous smartphone.

First, there is an ethos of individualism. Much of our culture promotes the ideals of personal autonomy and even a personal brand. Teens in particular are subject to social forces that emphasize individualistic expression and development. While self-discovery and actualization are important, there can be no self outside of relationships with other selves, and personal identity can only fully develop when in conversation with others. In order to find themselves, teenagers also have to confront others.

Second, the most obvious benefits of technology for Torah study—the ease with which it allows the learner to collect and translate sources—also present a challenge. Given that ease, how do we impress upon students the importance of the work that can’t easily be done by computer? To sit with a text, noticing patterns, inconsistencies, looking up words, learning language and concepts is difficult work. With the prevalence of so many available translations and online resources, why should our students want to do the hard work of learning?

Third, we live in an age of distraction. We are bombarded constantly with images and short texts, encountering both other humans and ideas in snaps that disappear and thoughts that cannot exceed 140 characters. The important questions, though—the cosmos, the complexity of humanity, the beauty of creation, encountering the hardships, challenges and many nuanced layers of our world—require focus and attentiveness, a way of engaging with texts and people in sustained detail. As they develop in the landscape of the twenty-first century, teenagers need to be given opportunities to focus on one thing, do it exceptionally well, and then let it course through them as they move on. They need to be able to dwell on what is of interest. The skills of pausing and noticing have become rare in our society.

This past summer I directed an immersive Talmud Fellowship program for high school women at Drisha, and over the course of a very intensive five weeks, I came to realize that the traditional Jewish learning culture may be more powerful than ever as a force to combat the pernicious effects of technology, and enhance its benefits. Certain aspects of the “old school” way of learning are uniquely equipped to address the new challenges that confront us and in that way, are themselves revolutionary. I will focus on three aspects of that learning.

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