American Orthodoxy

The Beit Midrash in the Age of Snapchat

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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.

The intensive havruta experience focuses on this type of relationship, and thereby promotes profound individual growth. A productive havruta involves listening carefully, pushing back, sharpening, questioning, suggesting, inviting dialogue and disagreement. It is a mode of both learning and teaching, and the two operate in a feedback loop: the more one learns, the more one can teach, and the more that one teaches, the more one learns. It is a mode of communication and dialogue that is being erased from contemporary discourse.

Besides the educational component to this study, this relationship is one that cultivates deep empathy. A learner cannot simply read and move on, but must ask: Does my havrutaunderstand? Does she understand it as I do? Should I be troubled, too, or push her along? Can we arrive at a joint understanding? Am I giving her enough time and space to speak? Am I being fully heard? Fully understood?

This mode of interpersonal dialogue stands in stark contrast to how our teens communicate in contemporary society. Teens often engage in multiple conversations at the same time, with Snapchat, Whatsapp, and Instagram open simultaneously, and multiple conversations occurring on each. Such conversations tend to take place in time-lapse, with interruptions and other conversations in between, and (perhaps as a result), such conversations are often light, casual, and cursory. How could one debate the meaning of freedom on Snapchat?

There are many positives in these media which are important for adolescent development, but they should complement and not replace face-to-face, in-depth conversations. Educators and parents can foster such development, actively creating opportunities and spaces for meaningful, focused dialogue to take place in real time. Dedicating large blocks of time to serious havruta study is a way to enable students to be present while listening, challenging, and engaging. Our experience certainly tracks with the research on havrutastudy: it can truly be a transformative mode of learning and can revolutionize contemporary discourse.

Sacred Spaces: Kedushat Makom, Technology Integration and Divestment
Schools and educational institutions spend a lot of time and money strategically thinking about how to best integrate technology into classrooms and learning environments. Theonline Torah resources, apps, and open source materials at our disposal to influence and animate the way we learn and teach are incredible. The proliferation of resources has shaped and continues to re-shape the fundamental nature of our classrooms, and needs to be embraced. I am actually participating in Sefaria’s Partnership Initiative this year, because the transformative potential is undeniable.

Alongside the focus on technology integration, however, it seems to me critically important for educators and parents to also focus on technology divestment and to create tech-free zones for their students and children. Without adults imposing this from on high, it becomes very hard for kids to learn how to disconnect and self-monitor. Some research suggests that as a result they have become more lonely and isolated, and possibly even more depressed. For them to be fully present in experiences with others, they need the adults in their lives to impose limitations and create a culture of self-discipline.

For those who are shomrei Shabbat, the concept of kedushat zeman, sacred time, is already one that creates limitations on technology. Utilizing the idea of kedushat makom, tech-free zones can be created to nurture a culture of moderation and self-discipline.

How that will manifest itself will likely differ in individualized environments and contexts. It may mean a fully technology-free beit midrash, or a tech-free hour in the library, or particular days that a classroom does not allow laptop or iPad use, or areas of a home where technology is off limits. At Drisha this summer, the beit midrash was a tech-free zone, and students reported a real enjoyment of that freedom. This will not work in all contexts, but we must continue to explore the basic concept of maintaining certain spaces as “sacred.”

Focus and balance: La-asok be-Divrei Torah
A key feature of the Drisha Summer high school program is the focused, holistic, and immersive nature of the experience. Students come to spend five weeks learning in New York City, in a rigorous and intensive program characterized by concentrated text study. While there, instead of sealing them off from the world, they are asked to view communities and societies, culture and art, leisure and literature through the lens of the Torah that they study.

The average high school student lives a fragmented life, moving at a frenetic pace, balancing a dual curriculum with ten classes a day, each a 40 minute chunk, involvement in co-curricular activities, sports teams, and community service projects, all while maintaining active social and familial lives. They are exposed to a wealth of ideas alongside rich and diverse opportunities, but it comes at a tremendous cost: they live in an environment of distraction.

This mode is one that can falsely allow students to feel as though they are super-productive: after all, they say, “we are excellent multi-taskers,” but studies have shown, time and again, that people can’t actually multitask nearly as well as they think they can, and that trying to do so adversely affects academic performance. People produce their best work when given the space and freedom to focus on one task at a time.

During the Drisha program, the students did much more than study texts. A signature part of the program is the holistic experience: They lived together, cooked together, traveled together, rode the subways together, and explored the streets of New York City together. Their cohort is formed and relationships are built as they walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, bike Governor’s Island, explore modern art at the Guggenheim, and listen to concerts in the park. But the core of their time is spent in the beit midrash where the intensity and focus on learning is enhanced and developed.

The holistic nature of the experience allows the ideas that are explored with rigor in the texts studied to transcend the walls of the beit midrash and permeate all aspects of their lives. In many ways this is what it means to be la-asok be-divrei Torah. The core experience connects to and influences all else.

There has been a fair amount of discussion of the effects that modern technology is having on the human ability to concentrate. Quite a few researchers have argued that whether or not attention spans are diminishing, people are getting better at extracting more information more quickly. Nevertheless, a mind that can extract information more quickly still needs guidance on how to prioritize and rank what can and should be at the core of their lives. Educators and parents have the opportunity and responsibility to step in, and help frame the way our teenagers receive, process, and integrate the information they encounter and help them determine what should be situated at the core.

In many ways, the layout of webpages, Facebook pages, and newsfeeds, are reminiscent of the classic Vilna Shas. The core text is in the center, but there is so much going on around it. These can come together in beautiful harmony, but it takes training and practice to not simply be distracted. Our lives—real and digital—are structured in a similar fashion.

There are core texts, images and stimuli in the center with so much going on around us all at once, stirring our emotions, eliciting our ideas, and uncovering our dreams. What is at the center impacts what is on the periphery, and what is on the margins, speaks deeply to the core. They overlap and interconnect in deep and penetrating ways.

Navigating the complexity of this interconnectedness is what our teenagers are confronted with on a moment to moment basis; when they study in the beit midrash and when they explore the urban jungle. To help them in this rapidly evolving and shifting world, the tools and values that are core parts of our traditional frameworks can be enormously powerful. In the age of distraction, the art of havruta, sacred spaces, and holistic learning environments teach them to stop, listen, notice, prioritize, think, and imagine, so they can live fully integrated lives.

Shira Hecht-Koller is an educator, attorney, and writer. She is currently Director of Education for 929 English, a platform for the daily global study of Tanakh and a faculty member at Drisha, where she teaches and directs the Dr. Beth Samuels High School fellowship program. She brings with her a decade of experience teaching Jewish and interdisciplinary studies in high schools. Prior to embarking on a career in education, she practiced corporate intellectual property law at Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP. Shira was a Paradigm Fellow at the Paideia Institute of Jewish Studies in Stockholm, where she is currently Educational Ambassador, and holds a certificate in experiential education from M2. She is a past board member of Uri L’Ttzedek, and sits on the advisory board of Shazur/Interwoven, an organization designed to rebuild the relationship between Israeli and American Jewry. She holds a JD from Cardozo School of Law. Her photography was featured in The Jewish Journey Haggadah (authored by Adena Berkowitz).