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near the park, which their smartphones could track on GPS, the game triggers historical characters and events, photos, historical documents, and other clues that would help students progress.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
Rabbi Joshua Stanton is Spiritual co-Leader of East End Temple in Manhattan. He previously served as an Assistant Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College. He was a Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Interreligious Studies and one of six finalists globally for the $100,000 Coexist Prize. His articles only represent his own personal views.