Game-Changer in Jewish Learning

It can be a shock to the system when you meet someone with a bold vision and the chutzpah to realize it.

A couple of years ago, soon after he had been ordained, my classmate Rabbi Owen Gottlieb sat down with me to share his vision for Jewish education. In it, Hebrew School and other avenues of Jewish study could become places for joyful experiential learning. Young Jews around the world could engage their tradition through digital, paper-based, and self-created games. After all, what kids don’t delight in playing games or making up a cool game?

I was optimistic about his vision but did not realize how quickly he would move to implement it. Just a couple of weeks ago, Gottlieb called to let me know that he would be releasing a new game, funded by the Covenant Foundation, that uses smartphones with GPS to teach Jewish-American history.

He had quietly assembled a team of over twenty professionals, including a professor of American Jewish History, a team of archival researchers, a co-game designer, illustrators, scripters, and more – and spent the last year and a half designing, building, and testing the game.

Students from the East End Temple were early testers and players, followed by those from other schools.

Just a few weeks ago, meeting at Washington Square Park in New York City, students from the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue’s Hebrew School were invited to take out their mobile devices and engage in the latest version of what the Jewish Week termed a “21st-century twist on the scavenger hunt.”

More technically, it is what Gottlieb calls a “situated documentary” and “interactive story.” Moving to different locations around and near the park, which their smartphones could track on GPS, the game triggers historical characters and events, photos, historical documents, and other clues that would help students progress. All of these clues appear instantaneously on their digital devices.

Living up to its name, Jewish Time Jump: New York transported young people back to the journey of Jewish immigrants trying to find their way in America. New technology connected students to the past. Games programmed for other cities around the country seem like a natural next step.

Gottlieb does not see these games as existing in isolation from other Jewish education, but in symbiosis. He suggested that they may be “an entry point or acceleration point for Jewish studies.” Deeply engaging and more kinesthetic (as learners run around), games are also social in nature (as learners can play in teams) and can stoke the excitement of students as they continue learning in more formal settings.

Gottlieb became inspired to bring this and other gaming techniques to the Jewish world after attending the 2010 Games for Change conference. Meeting visionaries like Kurt Squire, and later Jim Mathews and David Gagnon, he sought to bridge worlds of Games for Learning, pedagogy, and Jewish Studies. In doing so, he might achieve an unusually ambitious goal: creating “long-term interest through a short-term intervention” in Jewish learning. Through short, high-impact learning opportunities with games, Gottlieb hopes to ignite the kind of excitement that he personally feels for both Jewish Studies and gaming.

Gottlieb’s next steps in game design are very much under wraps, and his partners at CLAL, where his organization ConverJent resides, are equally discrete.  But based on the initial launch of Jewish Time Jump, they are likely to be ambitious.

While three years ago Gottlieb went to the Games for Change festival as a listener, this year he is a potential award-winner. Jewish Time Jump was just nominated as the “Most Innovative” game of the year. Games this filled with potential to transform Jewish education are no child’s play. And yet they are.

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.