As a pioneer in the Jewish educational technology sphere, ShalomLearning is innovating Jewish supplementary instruction by introducing a fresh approach to Hebrew Congregational school. The Bernstein Family Foundation is proud to support this non-profit organization that is leveraging the power of Edtech Judaism and bringing it into the 21st century of Jewish education. I had the chance to speak with Executive Director, Josh Troderman, who has been at the helm since September 2014.
How did you enter the world of education?
I have been teaching for 16 years now. I began my higher learning journey at Ithaca College, majoring in Cinema Production. After graduation, I spent a year in Israel where I attended The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the first co-ed, non-denominational yeshiva. That year I also did an Ulpan at Kibbutz Yagur. That connection to Israel was very formative for me; it was the summer of 1993 when the Oslo peace negotiations were underway. After Pardes, I went out to San Francisco, worked in fiction film production for 5 years, and ended up coming back to the East Coast to play in an 8- piece ska band called “The Skalutations” on Marthas Vineyard which led to me to Boston to study at The Berklee College of Music.
It was while going to Berklee that I began teaching as a substitute teacher for a fifth grade class at Kehillath Israel. Soon enough, I found myself spending more time preparing lessons for my Hebrew school students than my own studies at music school. Flash-forward to the end of the year, I had my group of kids, produce, and act in a play they wrote on Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai escaping from Israel in a coffin.
This was my ‘aha’ moment where I realized that I was able to combine music, film, creativity into Torah study, and found that I really loved working with children. This new-found passion brought my wife and I to NYC. I entered a really wonderful field study program for future Jewish educators called “Ha’Sha’Ar” at The Drisha Institute, and that led to teaching at The Rashi School. I then pursued Masters in Jewish Education at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Soon after, I moved back to Boston where I became the family education coordinator at Rashi. This time, instead of just fourth and fifth grade, I had kids K—eighth: 300 students and 600 parents making it 900 students in total- thank God I didn’t have to write that many report cards, I would never have survived. One family education program I was proud to have created was a reggae curriculum based on Bob Marley’s album, Exodus, where I combined the Jewish values from Marley’s songs with Exodus, the second Book of Torah, and got the kids to do skits and experiment with it. It was also about the spirit of Judaism, and how we’re never free until everyone is free.
This has really been the kind of journey I’ve been on as a Jewish educator: opening up creativity through Torah study. Our collective spirit not only helps us find a personal meaning, but leads to very special connection to a greater community and higher consciousness. This often leads to an activism that can create lasting change in our lives while lifting up people that are oppressed and downtrodden. Of course, we’re not the only ones to do it, but I love the Jewish way of going about it. I think it’s really beautiful to navigate the world in a Jewish light, particularly with a pluralistic view and an open-minded way to teach it with an interfaith respect for all religions- more than 50% are intermarried now. We either accept this evolution and find a way to do Jewish that’s welcoming, or we shut the doors and lose the possibility of growth.
There’s an interesting tension in the Jewish world with the old school traditions and rituals versus more progressive and pluralistic ones. So how do you merge the two? Not so easy to define but that’s pretty much become my life’s work.
What goal is ShalomLearning trying to achieve?
We tripled our enrollment last year to over 900 students at 24 synagogues, and are aiming to enroll 10,000 students by 2019. In three years, we will have 200 trained teachers in our network and have blended program partners in 100 synagogues. We are deep in the process of scaling up and want to be the best at that intersection of Jewish education and technology.
We’re not coders and we don’t build software. We look for the best of what’s out there, whether it is a learning management system or a virtual classroom, and the idea is to marry Edtech with Jewish education. We are also focused on building a field of third through eighth grade in the afternoon supplementary-Congregational schools. A big piece of that is family education to keep the parents together as we’ve evolved to help the Jewish communities on the ground. We have blended education and teacher training so Jewish education can become more relevant, engaging and affordable. The attrition rates in synagogues are huge now, and many of these institutions and movements are very unsure what their next moves are. Personally, I think that the biggest choke point in this “industry” is the teachers and the lack of support they have, so our three big initiatives are curriculum, professional development, and technology.
The time to be using Edtech to help with accessibility issues and flexibility is now. Families are stressed out and over-scheduled more than ever- Hebrew school seems like this “extra” thing. You have other things going on: sports, clubs, school activities, etc. who has time for Hebrew school nowadays? If the parents don’t really do any Jewish stuff in their life, it doesn’t seem very relevant. But I believe people are hungry for substance overall, and they are ready to have a more meaningful life. Religion is just one path, but it’s a great one.
Can you tell me more about ShalomLearning’s content?
There are two tracks of curriculum we offer: one is blended for synagogues and developing partnerships, and the other is for purely-online students. We have kids in the Philippines on military bases as well as in Bahrain, Nepal, and Peru. They find us online.
Our main content offering is a pluralistic, Jewish values, curriculum that our team designed with technology in mind. It’s composed of 28 lessons, threading four lessons per unit around seven core Jewish values. For example the first value is “Teshuvah,” which is often translated as repentance. The beginning of the Jewish New Year is September, and that time of year is called ‘The Days of Judgment’ or the days of awe. It is a very reflective time to atone for our sins on Yom Kippur, but at ShalomLeaning, we try to do it in a fun and engaging way. We begin the year with Teshuvah because that’s what’s happening in the Jewish calendar. The holidays, rituals and life cycles are incorporated. Pace and delivery are two very important elements of a powerful curriculum. Ask any comedian, they’ll tell you, “timing is everything.”
We’ve been adding a lot of social justice consciousness in our curriculum since I joined, so the timing was perfect to merge with JChoice. We also have the potential to do a lot with special needs, and there’s a whole initiative we’re talking about designing. Many kids with special needs can benefit greatly from online technology. Some kids have anxiety around other people and thrive in an online environment, and other times, they might have a condition or something that they need special education for.
We’re constantly working to make it better; we’re being strategic, thoughtful, and mindful.
Has it been a challenge getting synagogues on board?
Sarah Sicherman, Director of Digital Marketing: We’re starting the conversation with synagogues where we’re able to say, ‘We want to be your partner so that we can work together to figure out what’s going to work best in your community’. Of our 24 partners, most of them are doing ShalomLearning in a different way because it’s such a flexible program and they can figure out what works best for them. One synagogue is doing one day in the classroom, and one day online. Some are doing it all in the classroom, and some are doing it all online. Letting them do what is best for them has helped us bridge traditional and contemporary. By being innovative we can work together and make a difference in their communities.
How are you investing in your teachers?
One of our major, exciting developments is that we are designing a certificate in Jewish education technology with The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The JTS. It will be an 18-credit online course with two retreats. We’ll be asking students to cover a small portion of the tuition and the rest will be paid for. We’re going to launch the program this summer and the application process at the beginning of March. This first year we’re opening it to fifteen teachers. Getting this certificate at a reputable institution will be a big boost in their careers as Jewish educators. We want to engage these teachers and have them do something exciting, and ultimately, understand our technology and use our tools. Our commitment to our teachers is something that makes us truly unique.
What’s on the horizon for 2016?
Our goal this year is to have 1,300 students, and we’re well underway. I’m projecting we’ll hit 10,000 students in three years. But this year, we’re going to have 35 synagogue partners and 75 teachers trained. We’re also going to have to inaugural launch of the certificate program in Jewish Edtech with our partnership with The Davidson School and JTS, which is very exciting. And last but not least is the assessment of our programs. We partnered last year with the Cohen Center for Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. They will be working with us for at least the next three years, and the big goal this year is to establish our theory of change and our baseline for measurement. Eventually Brandeis will be publishing a study of their findings with ShalomLearning and I hope we will not only be able to constantly improve through this process, but that others can learn from our mistakes and successes, thus expanding the entire field of Jewish Ed Tech.