I was completely geeking out!! There’s not much better for this rabbi than seeing young Jews who are passionate about their Judaism as well as technology. Getting to Beta Test the new Mishkan T’filah for Youth enhanced eBook with campers at the URJ Sci-Tech camp was more than I could have hoped for!
It was the peanut butter of Jewish life, and the chocolate of technology, coming together to create a most delicious experience.
And the verdict? They loved it!! (And they even found a few things that we need to work on.) They had so many great questions and suggestions that the hour-long session flew by.
One of the main foci of the conversation was around apps vs. ebooks. Each has pros and cons, and we must evaluate our goals and options when making a decision. Here’s a great example:
One camper had the idea that when you open the digital siddur, it should automatically know what service you want based on the date and time. This is definitely possible, and would be very cool, I explained, but to be able to have this feature it would have to be an app, rather than an eBook. The challenge with custom apps, I continued, is that every feature we want to add, requires more resources and time. So, naturally we have to make choices based on priorities. Would we rather auto-select the service (when we can easily select it ourselves) or have bookmarking & note-taking? Conversely, if it’s an ebook, there are basic features of eReaders (like bookmarks & note-taking) that Apple, Kindle & Google already develop for their apps.
We also discussed that there are two basic ways of using the Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook (or app):
- In community services, along side the print version (aka “pBook”) and/or the Visual T’filah
- For personal study and/or private prayer.
Features like hearing the prayer read or sung while words are highlighted are clearly meant for someone on their own. On the other hand, could a non-musical service leader use the audio to help lead the singing? Would we feel comfortable singing along with the beautiful audio recordings on an iPad, rather than a live human?
Also, there are things like page numbers in an eBook or app, which are a bit anachronistic, but are important for “syncing” with others using the pBooks, and/or Visual T’filah. It helps everyone be on the same “page” even if it’s a digital page or screen.
We discussed whether or not there should there be games in the siddur. Would it be okay during services for a kid to play a game which involved the words, meaning, and/or themes of that prayer?
One camper (surprisingly?) pointed out that sometimes technology can distract us from a moment or pull us away from the community. While anyone can daydream in services without an iPad, it might be a bit more tempting and distracting with an iPad in front of you. As if on cue, at that moment, I looked over and noticed that one of the campers had stopped looking through the siddur and started surfing around online…
Another camper noted that it’s possible on the iPad to lock it to only one app. And I said that it’s a really helpful feature, and that these kids would probably be the ones to figure out how to hack it.
Our conversation also attempted to look into the future and how we might use technology to enhance Jewish life and prayer. I asked if they could imagine a future where members of a family all joined together for Shabbat dinner at home, and then went off and participated in their own services via virtual reality goggles. The mother could participate in a yoga and meditation service in a pristine white room, while the father could join a traditional minyan at the Western wall. One child could meet up virtually with his friends for a camp service, while the other could see cartoon avatars leading the songs and prayers in their kids service. Who knows?!
In the meantime, we need to focus on those things that are possible, like finishing up the beta testing for the Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook, so we can offer it for sale in the big eBookstores: Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and Google Play Books. Stay tuned!
At the end of our great session together, I concluded: “Your generation will really be the ones that shape Jewish life in the future and how we utilize the benefits of technology. No pressure. (But pressure.) It is our job now to try to get our sacred texts into a format that is most accessible and flexible for your needs, and to pass on our passion for Jewish learning, life, and community. And you will take these tools and fashion a bright future for all of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Publishing Technology Manager at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.