Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Technology

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: Why Make an App from a Book?

These days, books go far beyond print volumes—they can be converted into many digital formats. Perhaps the most straightforward digital form of a book is an ebook; CCAR Press has over a decade of experience creating a variety of ebooks, from basic reflowable text to enhanced, interactive, multimedia versions. However, there are often compelling reasons to put in the extra time and resources to transform a book into a standalone app.

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press in 2019, was a perfect candidate for this transformation. Rabbi Debra Robbins’s book guides readers through a meaningful practice that she created, introducing daily meditation and reflection into their lives.

With our busy lives, a meditative practice is always a challenging new routine—we often need a bit more help to begin and maintain such a practice. Our new app, Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart, includes a variety of features designed to help in this process. When you first open the app, you are presented clearly with the basic steps and flow of the process, with a user interface that strives to emulate the meditative tone of the practice. Rather than asking the reader to figure out which is the current daily Reflection for Focus, the app knows the date, performs some calculations based on when Shabbat occurs, and automatically delivers the intended reading for the day.

There are also other features of the app that simply could not be a part of a print book. One of the most enriching is the inclusion of a variety of beautiful musical settings to verses in Psalm 27, some of which are original to this project. One can listen to the same music for a week, diving deeply into the complex layers of each piece, or listen to a new song each day. Similarly, each new day reveals a meditative image, often photos taken by the author or her students, in vibrant color. The app also includes a mediation timer, with the option to choose visual and audio cues, as well as a daily reminder to engage in the practice, both of which are extremely helpful features that could never have been a part of a print work.

This is perhaps the most beautiful app that CCAR Press has created to date. While many of our previous apps are nicely designed and function well, they focus on delivering a large amount of content in an easy-to-access way. The Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app was designed specifically to convey an emotion, a sense of peace and calm, commensurate with the intentions behind the practice. It is our hope that the content of this incredible work, along with the carefully crafted experience of using the app—with all of its helpful features—will allow individuals and groups to enter this High Holy Day season with an open heart and a more meaningful experience.

Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart can be downloaded from the Apple and Google app stores. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is available as a print book and ebook, with a free companion study guide.


Rabbi Dan Medwin is Director of Digital Media at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
Technology

Circular Rainbows, Fractals, and Spiritual Technology

“Renew the old and sanctify the new.”  – Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

The thoughtful use of technology can enhance Jewish spiritual practice and engagement. This summer, I was privileged to witness and facilitate a few exceptional examples of this while serving as faculty at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.  At this overnight summer camp, currently celebrating its 4th year, campers and staff utilize science and technology as tools to strengthen Jewish identities, develop Jewish community, and enrich Jewish practice.

One Shabbat afternoon during an all-camp picnic, electrified chatter began to spread through the community. Campers and staff excitedly pointed to the sky.  I ran out from under one of the large oak trees shading the main lawn to witness a sun halo, or circular rainbow surrounding the sun.  Many exclaimed they had never seen such a marvel, let alone known that something like this was possible.  After capturing a quick photo (which will be published in PopSci), I ran over to the mic.

Fortunately, I have the CCAR Daily Blessings app on my phone, which contains, among others, the blessing recited upon seeing a rainbow.  After giving a short explanation of the importance of rainbows in Jewish tradition, I was able to lead everyone in the blessing.  This unexpected experience was enhanced and transformed into a Jewish teachable moment by technology, which allows us to access innumerable resources at a moment’s notice.

Even the more traditionally routine moments of Jewish practice at camp are enhanced by the spiritual use of technology.  Each Friday night, we pray together using a Visual T’filah that contains videos of campers sharing their thoughts on the week’s scientifically-focused Jewish value. (This week was kesher, connection.)  Campers who might otherwise be too shy or nervous to get up on stage are able to share their thoughts, and to marvel at their larger-than-life participation in Shabbat services.  Because the camp utilizes a Visual T’filah Template, the director of Jewish life (a self-declared novice at PowerPoint) is able to easily refresh and expand the Visual T’filah each Shabbat, even when I’m not there.  Visual T’filah, like the other spiritual technologies I help develop at the CCAR, offers new opportunities for engagement and meaning in Jewish practice.

Perhaps my most impactful contribution to camp this summer, however, was the short teaching I gave during Boker Big Bang (the morning ceremony during which a blessing from Nissim b’chol yom is studied, and, using chemistry, something is blown up).  Our blessing for the day was “she-asahni b’tzelem Elohim,” who has made me in the image of God.  I explained to the campers that I especially enjoy using scientific metaphors to help myself and others understand God.  This is, in part, because when I was their age, as a scientifically-minded youth, I had trouble believing in a god for which there was no tangible proof.  It was my awareness that someday I might believe in God that kept me involved in Jewish life long enough to recognize that even the early rabbis needed metaphors to try to understand God.  God as a king or ruler, one of our most popular metaphors, may have worked for them back then, but did little to aid my understanding of God in modern times.

 

One of my favorite metaphors for God imagines God as wifi. It surrounds us and with the right tools we can connect to it, each other, and the rest of the world.  Another metaphor I love is God as computer programmer.  In the same way that computer code can be used to create entire universes through 1s and 0s, I imagine God creating the world with 1s, 0s, and -1s (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons).  Finding a scientific metaphor to understand the notion of b’tzelem Elohim (humans being created in the image of God), however, was always out of reach.  Last year, a rabbinic colleague, who is also my wife, gave me the metaphor for which I had been searching.  After waiting more than half the year, I was finally able to share this metaphor with the campers at the URJ 6 Points Sci-tech summer camp.

The metaphor, which perfectly expresses how we were made in the image of God, how we are a part of God but separate, and how we are all connected to each other through God, is: Fractals!  In these complex images, elements are repeated on such a scale, that zooming in reveals that each smaller section looks equivalent to its larger counterpart, and each part is unique but still connected to and a part of the whole. This metaphor clearly had an impact because later that day, a camper in a coding workshop decided to write his own program that would draw a fractal. Another camper expressed that during my talk she felt as though I was speaking directly to her.

While these campers and counselors might be more naturally drawn to scientific metaphors and technological tools, they represent an important path of the future of the Jewish people and the trajectory of contemporary society.  And while some of us may find technological tools only applicable in work settings, or to be a distraction from certain aspects of life, intentionally integrating these tools into our spiritual practice can breathe new life into Judaism and usher in a new age where religion and technology are not seen as at odds with one another but, rather, as mutually beneficial.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the creator of Visual T’filah and the Daily Blessing app as the Manager of Digital Media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also serves as a founding member of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Camp Council.

Categories
Books Technology

High-Tech & High-Touch Visual T’filah at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy

A camp that blends Reform Jewish values with science and technology is practically a dream-come-true for me.  It only makes sense that as the Digital Media Manager of the CCAR, I should spend a week there on faculty.  I can confidently say that both the camp and I grew from the experience. I had conversations about apps & ebooks, Minecraft & Star Wars, and even gave a drash on how God is like wifi. But perhaps the most exciting part of my visit was spending time working with campers and staff to create the Visual T’filah for Shabbat services.dan 2

At the end of services, the camp director, Greg Kellner, climbed the steps to the bimah to address the community. I could see that he had been moved to tears.  When he asked all of the campers who played a role in creating the Visual T’filah to rise, we were all taken aback when roughly half the camp stood.  “I can’t believe so many of you helped create this Visual T’filah,” he exclaimed. “And I can’t believe how beautiful it is!”  Whether they explored camp taking pictures in the “Spiritual Photography” chug (elective) or we recorded a video of them explaining their own Jewish evolution, these campers were meaningfully engaged in crafting the payer service for all of camp.  And they were proud!

While Visual T’filah has already become a regular part of the Sci-Tech camp experience, I was fortunate to be able to bring my decade of experience creating Visual T’filah to raise the production and design to new levels.  The hardworking camp educator, HUC-JIR rabbinic student Rachel Heaps, has dodan 1ne amazing work so far. However, the finite amount of time she is able to dedicate to creating the Visual T’filah each week, given her other responsibilities around camp, meant that her scope was limited.  Now with the introduction of the CCAR Visual T’filah Template (which includes the text of Mishkan T’filah prepared and formatted for the big screen) as well as a few other stylistic and design upgrades, her task will be much easier each week.

I was also blessed to be able to utilize some of the special camp resources to explore some new techniques.  Campers were filmed in front of one of the camp’s green screens, allowing the campers to appear to be standing in front of the beautiful images taken by the campers in “Spiritual Photography.”  Campers faded in and out in succession to tell how their relationship to Judaism has been enhanced by rabbis, by camp, and by other people and events. Then as the last camper in each video group faded out, the prayers themselves appeared floating over the images selected to convey the meaning and spirit of the prayers.  The result was a seamless prayer experience, greater than the sum of its parts.

It is my great pleasure to experience and demonstrate how the use of Visual T’filah can increase engagement and participation, and play an important role in crafting a meaningful prayer experience.  To be able to offer my time and expertise to enhance a community’s prayer life is really a gift.  I look forward to seeing how the continued use of Visual T’filah at Sci-Tech engages and inspires the campers, and how Visual T’filah can continue to transform prayer in other communities as well.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Digital Media Manager at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  Check out his blog from last year’s camp as well

Categories
Books Technology

Beta Testing Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook with Sci-Tech Campers

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, MTY-ebook-screenshot-2I 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):

  1. In community services, along side the print version (aka “pBook”) and/or the Visual T’filah
  2. For personal study and/or private prayer.

MTY-ebook-beta-testers2Features 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.

Categories
High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

It Is Up to Us: An Alternative Aleinu in Mishkan HaNefesh

There I was, standing next to the Palestinian man when I said “Thank God I’m not like you.”  But it felt wrong and degrading.  While it was a part of the traditional Aleinu I had been saying for years, I had spent all day with this man and others, along with my fellow HUC students (back in 2004), trying to build bridges of understanding between our two peoples.  After a day of discussing and debating, and most importantly, just hanging out, we invited this group of interested but reserved Palestinians to join us in maariv (our evening prayer service).  The fact that many of them understood Hebrew gave me a new perspective when going through our prayers, especially when we got to Aleinu.

I’ve always had trouble with the traditional words of Aleinu.  And a look at Mishkan Tfilah, with the 3 other alternatives, suggests I’m not the only one.  It was written in a time when one of the few ways Jews could fight back against persecution and discrimination was liturgically.  It helped us to feel better about our lot by thanking God for not making us like them.  But times are different now.  We are one of the most successful minorities on the planet.  And while there are still trouble spots and incidents, the perspective and tone of the traditional Aleinu, even before it was acutely raised in my consciousness during services following our mock “peace talks”, troubled me.

After all, there are a number of examples of Reform liturgists crafting or re-writing prayers to maintain their basic structure and context, but to reshape their phrasing.  For example, in nissim bchol yom, we no longer say “Thank you for not making me a slave” but “Thank you for making me free.”  We no longer say “Thank you for not making me a woman” but “Thank you for making me a man/woman.”  They are positive reframing of negative statements. Certainly the Aleinu could take this same approach: thank God for who we are as Jews, rather than for not being like everyone else.

The trouble with the existing alternative Aleinus was they were fairly awkward to say.  We instinctively wanted to use the traditional chanted melody (i.e. Sulzer), but the words didn’t quite fit.  Plus, there were times when the community was saying the traditional version, and I wanted to say an alternative, and the auditory dissonance was too much for me.  So, I set about writing a new alternative, which both fit to the traditional melody and proclaimed my thanks for our unique role in the world.

Medwin-Alternative-Aleinu-MhNAs I see it, two of the most important roles Jews play are: (1) as stewards and guardians of the Earth, as seen in the Garden of Eden and the midrash which has God giving Adam a tour of the whole world and ends with “take care of the Earth, for if it is destroyed, there is no one after you to repair it.”  And (2) as messengers of the teachings and morals of Torah to the world.  Additionally, while we are a unique people, the reality is that our destiny is intertwined with the other peoples of the world.  For example, global climate change doesn’t just effect some people; it effects all of us.  We live scattered around the world, our lives intertwined with others.

And so, when the editors of the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, wanted to include my alternative Aleinu, paired with a new translation by Rabbi Shelly Marder, I was both honored and humbled. Symbolically it is very powerful, since Aleinu as a prayer began in High Holy Day liturgy, and from there made its way into the daily service.  To have my Aleinu be a part of something so powerful and reflective of the current state of Jewish life, is such a blessing.  In this new machzor there is truly something for everyone, and I pray that my alternative Aleinu can be that something for many Jews, for years to come.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Publishing Technology Manager at CCAR. 

Categories
Books Passover Pesach Prayer Technology

Passover Blog: Using Visual T’filah at Your Seder

Mah Nishtana halaila hazeh?  What makes this seder different from all others? 

For many families and synagogues this year, it will be seeing the haggadah in a new light.  This year, the CCAR Press is excited to offer a Visual Tfilah companion to Sharing the Journey: The  Hagaddah for the Contemporary Family

Dan1Visual Tfilah, grounded in historical Jewish practices and built on modern technologies, mingles text and images on the large screen for all to enjoy. The images help give deeper meaning and connection to the ancient words, and the words up on the screen allow us to lift our eyes, our voices, and our hands. Visual Tfilah has become a popular way to enhance prayer services, and now it can enhance our Pesach seders, as well.

One of my favorite things on Pesach is to open the (printed) haggadah and see wine stains and crumbs from seders past.  It reminds me that in this ever-changing world, some things stay comfortably the same.  Its the same story we retell year after year.  The same rituals.  And yet, Im always excited to see what new materials, readings, and activities the seder leader will bring to the table.  While the story of redemption and freedom never changes, we are always changing, and finding new ways of reconnecting to the same story is essential to keeping the messages relevant and engaging.  The haggadah, after all, at its core, is meant to inspire us to ask questions.

Dan2A few years ago, a number of colleagues and friends participated in Tweet the Exodus.  Not only was it amazing to see the story told in 140 character segments, but some of the tweets contained links to exciting multi-media resources to tell the story.  A particular favorite of mine was a Youtube video of a family caught in their car surrounded by a massive locust swarm. (http://youtu.be/wxHOxCmbs-8). It was terrifying and awe-inspiring, and helped me understand better than anything else what it might have been like to witness this plague.  Can you imagine being able to share some of the other plagues this way? Or what about showing a short clip discussing what scientists have said most recently about the splitting of the Red Sea? You could even show a map tracking the 40 year journey of the Israelites stop by stop. Unfortunately, you cant embed Youtube videos in a printed haggadah.  But you can put them up on a screen.

Dan3And thats what I love about using Visual Tfilah at a seder: you can add new readings, videos, and more to enhance the experience and enrich the story (without creating a handout and adding yet another item to juggle on the table).  You could insert a PollEverywhere (polleverywhere.com) into the Visual Tfilah to ask your participants to vote on their favorite plague or even to pick the closing song.  You could ask participants to record a short skit ahead of time to be shown during the seder.  As long as you have the screen set up, you might even want to Skype in Bubbie who couldnt join you at the seder this year.  In fact, the screen becomes a blank slate for including almost anything you can think of, and the Sharing the Journey Visual Tfilah gives you the framework from which to unleash your creativity.

The nice thing about VT is that it doesnt negate the use of your printed haggadot.  No matter your inclination or comfort level, everyone can be included. Many folks are accustomed to using print haggadot and will be resistant to giving them up.  And anyway, who can deny the fun of being able to flip ahead to count how many pages are left, or even the benefit of being able to linger on a reading or an idea on your own?

Sharing the Journey VT is designed for both large communal seders, as well as smaller in-home seders.  If you dont have your own large built-in screens and projectors, smaller portable ones or even flat screen TVs will work perfectly.  In fact, an iPad and an AppleTV can be the perfect way for the seder leader to lead from her seat.

Sharing the Journey is also available as an ebook for iPads. (ccar.co/journey). One can follow along with the seder, just as in the book, but also find interactive features and embedded audio.  (Please note: we discourage disDan4playing the ebook on a large screen.  It is not designed for this and will be too difficult for seder participants to read.  Conversely, the VT is specifically designed to be projected and read from a distance.)

So while youd never want to spill wine on your iPad, nor get crumbs up on the screen, we hope Visual Tfilah becomes another tradition at your seder table, and a way to help all of us actually return to the table to finish the seder after the meal is served.  Chag sameach!

 
Rabbi Dan Medwin is the
Publishing Technology Manager, CCAR Press.

p.s.: A Seder Leader’s Guide, complete with two CD’s of music, is also available for Sharing the Journey.  In addition, the music can be downloaded from iTunes 

Categories
CCAR on the Road General CCAR Prayer Rabbis

What Makes for Great Prayer?: Reflections on the NFTY Convention

2013-02-15 20.03.26Last week, I was given a wonderfully challenging task as the CCAR rabbinic staff member at the NFTY Convention:  Take fifty participants from the Youth Engagement Conference and a two-hour prayer lab session, and plan multiple services for about 900 NFTY Convention participants.  While seemingly impossible, I jumped at the opportunity.   After all, we produce Visual T’filah and all the prayer books for the Reform Movement – I could do this!

Working with my colleague Rabbi Noam Katz and Jewish musician Dan Nichols, (and joined by Rabbis Erin Mason and Ana Bonheim) we were tempted to provide a handful of creative service examples (e.g. drumming, yoga, Visual T’filah) and to plan the services as quickly as possible.

But the conference was on youth engagement and simply presenting options and saying “pick one and go plan a service” did not seem to be an appropriate fit – and not consistent with CCAR’s current approach toward engaging people in prayer with many different Visual T’filah options.  It was a lab, after all; we did not want to focus too much on product, but rather the service experience by the NFTYites.

We initiated the YEC prayer lab by asking the participants “what makes for great prayer?”

2013-02-18 09.43.15This conversation was modeled upon a version of Open Space, one of the frameworks for intentional conversations guiding the CCAR convention beginning just a few weeks after NFTY Convention.

YEC participants stood up one at a time and offered to host conversations around a topic of prayer particularly interesting or exciting to them.  Topics included Hebrew in prayer, who is the service leader, using apps & cellphones in services, engaging through multiple intelligences, and more. Rather than utilizing the moment to plan a service, we spent our time talking about great prayer.  The prayer lab participants were fully engaged, far more than if we had simply given them pre-determined service options, and we provided an amazing model for them to bring back to their youth groups.

And it worked! YEC prayer lab participants exclaimed that this was one of the highlights of the conference for them.  One even said, “This is exactly what I needed.”  Even more, the prayer experiences they crafted were some of the best moments of NFTY convention for the participants.  One teenager said in reflection, “This was my first real moment of transcendent prayer.”

As the Youth Engagement professionals gathered at the end of the conference for a debrief and wrap-up, I was asked to summarize our learning and said:  “We often hear that ‘if you build it, they will come.’  If you build a great service or program, the youth with come. But we learned through this prayer experience that ‘if you build it with them, they’ll already be there!”