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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

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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.

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Books General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Fish Forks and Beer Mugs: Choosing the Right Technology for Publishing

The nature of the book has changed dramatically in recent years. From the old standard of signatures of paper, in multiples of 16, 24,or 32, bound between covers and filled with typeset text, we now have ebooks, and PDF’s, and audiobooks, and apps – and that’s just for starters.

There are so many choices about how to produce a book. And yet, the essence of a book in many ways remains unchanged. They remain transmitters of ideas, containers of human experience and expression.

As a publisher, I’m often asked about how we will use technology with any given project. My answer is very simple: In as many ways as possible. For while it’s true that the technology presents us, a publisher using Hebrew text, with real challenges, and while it’s also true that we also have real financial limitations, our goal is always to create as many different versions of a book as we can, taking into account what makes sense for that particular content. For even with all the options we have available today, publishing should not be driven by technology, but rather by content development.

Publishing is no longer focused on the physical manufacturing of objects. But just as has always been true in publishing, content has to be developed carefully, thoughtfully, and creatively. That is our central goal at the CCAR Press. First we need an idea that is right for our core market, an approach that aligns with our mission, and the right team of editors and/or writers. Each project has different specifications and uses, and so allows for different formats. There are technological options we can consider today that weren’t possible last year. Surely that will be the same next year as well, and so on. Some projects, like the Daily Blessing App, are not physical books at all. Some projects, like Mishkan T’filah, exist as a physical book, an App, and in Visual T’filah, and we will continue to develop other versions as technology and finances allow. Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides, is both a physical book and an ebook. And so on.

iT'filahThere’s a lot of talk in the publishing world about how people are choosing to read today. Publishers carefully study stats about how people are reading, and which demographic is doing what in which medium. But I’m not convinced it’s a competition between formats. Rather, it may be that the more formats, the more we can customize our personal reading experiences.

The other day I was listening to a book on Audible and the voice in my ear said, “In this audiobook you will learn…” which I found rather jarring. For me, the experience wasn’t about listening to an audiobook. I had simply chosen to listen to this specific book, rather than read it. I hadn’t shopped for an audiobook, I had shopped for this particular title. The fact that it was an audiobook was insignificant. The audiobook aspect of the experience was a doorway to step through, on the other side of which was the content of the book. What mattered ultimately was the content, not the format.

Growing up I learned that salad is eaten with one kind of fork, and the main course with another. Dessert might be eaten with yet another. Later I learned that fish has its own kind of fork, and even later was introduced to such specialty items as pickle forks and olive forks.  Think too about glasses – this kind for water, this kind for white wine, this kind for red, and a frosted mug for beer. Each was created to best serve the experience of imbibing that particular food or drink, but in the end, the purpose is all the same: to convey the food or the liquid to your mouth.

So too with different book formats in this age of multiple choice. As a reader, I find myself choosing different formats depending on the content and context. I prefer printed books for poetry, for Torah commentaries, and for cookbooks. Yet I read fiction almost entirely on my iPad. I listen to non-fiction business books on my phone. It’s not a competition between the formats, but rather a matter of which one I prefer for the particular content.

The questions about how to best use technology in publishing are challenging and enormous. Publishers of all shapes and sizes are required to constantly keep learning new skills, and consider new options. But the core of publishing is still about content. For publishers, technology is not the goal, it is merely the means.

Rabbi Hara Person is the Publisher of CCAR Press