Peter Eckstein

Peter EcksteinOne of the hottest properties in the Jewish world doesn’t exist on earth. It’s in the cloud, located in that haven of triviality and marketing called Facebook. It’s a community of over 1700 Jewish educators, technologists, lay leaders, thinkers, futurists and parents who share a concern for the Jewish future. This connected kehilla is called JEDLAB, and has become a focus for exploration into the potentialities of Jewish innovation.

JEDLAB was formed by a group of Jewish educators and social media gurus in the spring of 2013. A crowd-sourced founding document (which can be accessed in its entirety here) contains the following mission statement: JEDLAB provides a network, process and forum to cultivate conversations, collaborative designed experimentation and purposeful learning around the critical issues facing Jewish education.” So, what, in its half year of existence, has JEDLAB talked about and more importantly, done?

The first thing you should remember is that old joke about 2 Jews and 3 opinions. With 1700+ group members, you can be sure that discussions are free flowing and wide ranging. At times the pace of the conversations can be overwhelming, with so many participants and even more views. So, the second thing you need to remember is: Don’t expect to keep up with all the conversations on JEDLAB. Pick and choose what interests you and, if the spirit moves you…contribute. The third thing to remember is that JEDLAB is based on brainstorming rules–here are no right answers– folks are exploring possibilities.

The conversations are joyfully chaotic. There is no agenda or preordained topic of the day. Someone posts an article that she may have seen in the New York Times, or on and the fireworks begin. For instance, a piece entitled “My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me” that originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly started an intense conversation among a large group of JEDLABers about the nature, value and purpose of homework in the Jewish educational context. A recurring high profile theme focuses on the transformation of the American Bar/Bat Mitzvah ethic. In its most recent iteration the following question was asked: “What would happen if we banished the expression ‘preparing for the bar/bat mitzvah’ and substituted ‘preparing for Jewish adulthood (or adolescence)’?” This led to a deep discussion about the nature of rebranding the ritual, thereby transforming it.

JEDLAB is transdenominational and touches upon all aspects of Jewish education: Jewish Day School, Congregational Education, Online Learning and Experiential education. But it isn’t just limited to posting and liking comments in the rarified FB environment. Frequently the conversations are then applied in practice.

One of the guiding pillars of JEDLAB is experimentation – of taking an idea, and making it real to see if it works, and then improving it. There is a constructivist component here in that failure is not seen as a negative, but as a crucial step in success. The book “The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices” by Frank Moss was one of the inspirations behind the creation of JEDLAB. It describes the workings of the MIT media lab and its spirit of experimentation. Recently, a group of JEDLABers met with the author to discuss how this lab ethic described in the book can be applied to Jewish education.

This past summer a JEDLAB inspired conference took place in Teaneck N.J. Called The Summer Sandbox, it was a gathering of a small group of teachers and educators who began to experiment with innovative ways to engage students. The participants are now implementing their ideas, creating new prototypes, building upon their summer creations.

Another group of educators from Israel and North America have begun a web based conversation about the nature of online learning, and how it can be applied in the Jewish educational context. This group is planning on sharing and creating best practices, to be applied in the real (albeit virtual) world.

In the past few months, Ron Wolfson’s “Relational Judaism” was the topic of a virtual book club. Participants (and the author) together explored how the ideas expressed this book can be put into practice. Very shortly, another virtual book club will begin, focusing on Martin Buber’s “I and Thou“. The goal is not just to study this text in the context of Torah l’Shma (though that is part of it), but also to try to take this philosophy and apply it in real world contexts.

So…JEDLAB is not just talk. It’s also doing. or most of the folks who take part (either by commenting or liking or even just lurking), JEDLAB provides value because it is a place where there is a consistent dialogue about Jewish education and engagement, not just theoretically, but also in practice. Discussions are respectful, sometimes humorous and always compelling. It is a collection of the best minds and practitioners in the field of Jewish education. Its members learn from each other, sharing experiences, both successes and failures. It is the best way of keeping up with what’s happening (and not yet happening) in the world of Jewish engagement, short of everyone being together in the same physical room.

To become part of JEDLAB, one merely needs to go to JEDLAB and click on “Join Group”. It is an open group, so all are welcome.