In these days when American Jewish teens are unable to visit Israel, and the image of Israel is ever-challenging through their eyes, perhaps the time is ripe for imagining a future relationship that entails gaming at its core.
Yoni and Brian have recently graduated from high-school. They are 18 years old and are about to embark on the next chapters in their respective lives. From Tel Aviv, Yoni is about to be drafted to Golani next week, one of Israel’s more prominent infantry units. Brian, a Los Angeles native, is one week away from his first semester at UCLA. What is so special here? Why am I telling you this? The unique thing here is that I could easily ask each of them to share with you, right now, for an hour, even two, what is going on in each other’s life. Yes, Yoni could easily give you a full lecture on Brian’s experience in recent months, and Brian could easily do the same about Yoni’s life in Tel Aviv.
How is this possible? Like most American Jews and Israelis at their ages, they do not meet each other regularly, nor do they spend most of their days thinking about their brothers and sisters across the Atlantic. How do two Jewish teenagers who live 7,500 miles apart can know so much on one another? Yoni and Brian know each other for five years now. They met at the age of 13 while playing the online Jewish platform – Our Story.
Our Story is an innovative digital project created by creative Israeli and American educators and gaming experts, who decided to use the trend of online gaming to shape their children’s future. How is it that you never heard of Our Story before, you probably ask? Well, I’ll be honest with you, it does not exist yet – but the point is that it could be.
The two characters mentioned before, Yoni and Brian, are based on real people. Brian and I met in 2003 through the P2G (Partnership Together) program of the Jewish Agency for Israel, in which we spent four months living together. Naturally, extensive programs like P2G are difficult and costly to scale. I will argue that you do not necessarily need four actual months of meetings, and thousands of dollars to make an Israeli teenager and an American teenager feel like they are brothers – what you do need is a grand vision.
The grand vision of Our Story is as follows. The platform will be introduced to children from both sides in the third grade. This digital platform will allow them to create primary relationships with the players on the other side (while compensating for the time differences). Since language is a barrier at that age, the relationship-building process, through the elementary years of the users, will be based mostly on music, colors, and images – the fundamentals of human communication.
The proposed goals of Our Story are – (1) Be the infrastructure for meaningful and long-lasting relationships between young Israeli and American Jews. (2) Improve the Hebrew and English skills of both sides in a method inspired by the gaming world – competition, prizes, challenges, and heroes. (3) Improve the image of Jewish and Israel education by turning the process of acquiring knowledge, in these fields, to a fun and exciting game.
The prime process of “Our Story” will take place in the symbolic age of 12 and 13, reaching Bat and Bar Mitzvahs when teens from both sides will choose themself a ‘buddy,’ who plays the same game and ideally has other commonalities. This ‘buddy’ will be their partner for the next 6 to 7 years as they progress through the level of the platform all the way to high-school graduation. Drawing on their shared gaming experience, they will learn, explore, chat, and collaborate to unlock prizes and climb up the scoreboard. They will also be encouraged to physically meet each other when and if possible.
With the right funding, partners and support from the Israeli Ministry of Education on one side, and organizations like JFNA from the American side, Our Story could be an online platform that grows together with the student and adapts to his knowledge base and progress. But perhaps another essential support for this initiative should come from a less obvious direction – the private sector. It is reasonable to assume that the public and the non-profit sectors could not entirely provide the necessary funds for such an ambitious project. Therefore, we should also start forming the array of interests that could lure and attract key business figures to invest in such a project. Maybe such an investment could lean on the immense potential that a platform like this has to offer to other social groups worldwide seeking to build more bridges between them.
I’m not solely calling for such a gaming initiative because I support the idea of Jewish Peoplehood. I also think of the personal benefit such an endeavor could provide for the end-users. Having the ability to create and maintain high-quality international relationships with another person, over time, and in a different language – could give them a unique edge as they grow into an ever-competitive labor market filled with uncertainty. Let us harness the benefits of gaming to the needs of the Jewish world in this technological and digital era we are now living in.
*It was easier for me to focus this piece on the relationship between Israeli and American Jews since I’m very familiar with it. However, such a project should include many more types of global Jewish relationships.