Friday, February 20, 2015

Is it Allowed: A Virtual Minyan with Video Streaming

By Rabbi Jason Miller

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee, he was examining the acceptability of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, he picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class, namely Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation. - Rabbi Jason Miller

Rabbi Reisner’s project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not “kosher.”

Continue reading "Is it Allowed: A Virtual Minyan with Video Streaming" on the Jewish Techs blog

Rabbi Jason Miller is a tech entrepreneur, blogger and educator in Detroit, Michigan. He is president of Access Computer Technology and Access Social. He blogs at Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Scan B'vakasha! - QR Codes in Jewish (and General) Studies Class

QR (short for “quick response”) Codes are those black and white squiggly squares that have been popping up in recent years on the pages of magazines, edges of brochures, sides of packaging and anywhere else marketers might choose to give consumers access to more product information.  They are similar to supermarket barcodes, but they hold more data, and can be easily scanned without the beam of light with a scanner on your mobile device.  As educators have sought to harness technology to enhance classroom learning, many resources for utilizing QR codes in educational contexts have been disseminated (e.g. see Edutopia or  After attending the ISTE conference last summer (thanks to a grant from AviChai), I learned about some of these techniques firsthand.  As I set about thinking of how QR codes could enhance my classroom, I learned that the 5th grade General Studies teacher was also working to utilize QR codes at school.  We shared some ideas and resources, and by the end of the year, QR codes were taking over the walls …! 

Following are some of the ways we have made use of QR technology at KBA this past year:

·         Fun, games, and anchor activities
o   To kick off the first day of middle school, we created a QR code scavenger hunt.  It helped acclimate students to their new iPads, gave them practice using their scanners, and included clues that were both fun and silly as well as subject-oriented.  Scanning each code took users to a website that I made (for free!) using Weebly.  For more info on how to create such a site for scavenger hunt, check out

o   I used badges on Edmodo this year to “gamify” the learning experience a bit for my 6th graders (I learned that term at ISTE!).  For example, if they completed a Rashi assignment, they might find a “Rashi Decoder” badge the next day on their Edmodo account.  Earn 5 badges, and you move up a level…  To add to the engagement, I would place a QR code at the bottom of a worksheet, which would link to a website with the necessary information for students to complete their badge.  A bit time consuming to prepare, but worth it for the fun factor.
o   QR codes are perfect tools for giving students engaging “anchor activities” if they finish their work early during class.  This photo shows different online learning activities the 5th graders would access with via QR codes on the wall. 

·         Student Presentations: Empowering students to become the teachers for a wider audience
o   After students in sixth grade learned about Mishnah and Torah Sheba’al Peh, they recorded skits introducing the history and content of those texts.  Next, we made QR codes linking to their videos, and posted the codes in the Beit Midrash where the Talmud volumes sit.  Anyone—student, faculty, parent, guest—who now enters the Beit Midrash can scan the codes to learn more about the books they see.  When they scan, the students’ skits pop up onto their device!

o   Fifth graders read a variety of books and then created iMovie reports about their favorite stories and authors.  These video reports were put online and are now accessible by simply scanning the codes on the book poster in the corridor. 

o   To introduce a school-wide Author’s Night program, parents scanned QR codes when they entered the building to see unique “trailers” created by the budding authors in each grade, building excitement for students and parents alike. 

·        Integrating Content
o   In our Humash class, we studied a chapter in B’midbar wherein Moshe becomes depressed as a result carrying the whole nation upon his shoulders.  His despair is so great that he asks God to take his life rather than continue the status quo.  One of the “big ideas” of our unit was that “carrying a burden in isolation can lead to desperation,” a theme that we connected to instances in our own community.  Our classroom learning led to researching a youth hotline in New Jersey for teens who need to someone to turn to.  As part of the final project, students created fliers with advice for people who were feeling depressed, and together we created our own QR codes for the fliers that link to the real youth hotline.  If anyone walking our halls is in need a place to turn, they can privately scan the QR codes for more information. (See pics above and below)  Using the QR codes helped integrate the biblical text with the students’ lives in a powerful way. 

·        So how do you make a QR code?
o   There are many user-friendly QR generators online you can use, such as Kaywa.  Copy and paste the URL for the site you want to link to into the generator on Kaywa.  It does the rest for you in seconds.  You can then print the code, or save it, or paste it, and you can resize it and color it, as well.  IPads also use QR Reader apps, which can both read and make codes.  If you have an Android, try QR Droid for your phone. 

Happy scanning!  

Micah Liben is Rabbi in Residence at Kellman Brown Academy. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Training Bar Mitzvah Kids with New Technology

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Preparation in the 21st Century

By Rabbi Jason Miller

In the Coen Brother’s movie “A Serious Man,” we see young Danny practicing his haftorah for his bar mitzvah by listening to the cantor’s rendition of it on his record player. That scene was undoubtedly sentimental for Jewish men of a certain age who prepared for their bar mitzvah by keying up the phonograph in their parents’ living room.

Ben Stiller Bar Mitzvah

Bar Mitzvah preparation has come a long way since the days of the record album. In the 1980s and early 1990s cantors and bar/bat mitzvah tutors recorded their voices onto audio cassette tapes so their twelve-year-old students could walk around the house listening to the chanting on a Sony Walkman. In fact, I remember many nights falling asleep with my black foamy headphones on while I listened to the late Cantor Larry Vieder of Adat Shalom Synagogue repeating the Torah trope (cantilation notes) and the long haftorah for my bar mitzvah. The mid-1990s saw the transition from the audio tapes to music CDs when bar mitzvah tutors began hooking up microphones to the computer and recording the bar mitzvah portion onto blank CD-Roms.

In recent years we’ve seen bar and bat mitzvah students receiving the audio version of the haftorah and blessings they need to learn via email, a concept that anyone over the age of thirty would find amazing.

The way Jewish teens prepare for their bar or bat mitzvah has changed dramatically thanks to technological innovation. Not only has the audio format changed over the years, but so too has the way in which these young men and women are being tutored.

I was recently at a retreat for Jewish leaders where I met Todd Shotz. Todd launched Hebrew Helpers several years ago as a way to provide in-home, one-on-one personalized bar and bat mitzvah instruction. In addition to coordinating private bar/bat mitzvah services for families that do not belong to a congregation, Todd’s company arranges for tutors to work with children to prepare for their b’nai mitzvah. While many of his students are matched with local tutors in the Los Angeles area he has also found that he can help Jewish teens around the country through Skype and other video conferencing applications.

Shotz isn’t the only one taking advantage of this new technology to help students prepare for their bar or bat mitzvahs. Even local tutors who frequently meet with their students in person are using Skype, Apple’s Facetime or Google’s hangouts to conduct reviews with their students before the big day. Today’s teens have such busy schedules that it’s not always feasible for them to meet with a tutor at the synagogue so late night sessions over the internet are more conducive.

Continue reading...

Rabbi Jason Miller served in several capacities for the Ramah Camping Movement and was the year-round rabbi of Tamarack Camps in Michigan. He is an entrepreneurial rabbi and technologist, who serves as president of Access Computer Technology in Detroit, Michigan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at@RabbiJason.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Reflections from attending iNACOL

Sweetly Mixing Torah Learning with Computer Technology[1]

In his commentary on this weeks’ Torah portion, Toldot, the holy Piaczesno, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, in his book Derekh Hamelekh, talks about the connection between body and soul:

In the upper worlds there is a lot of holiness; the essential glory and kedusha of the soul is also revealed there. But there is a need to reveal this holiness also in this world, in the earthly body. Not simply putting the body and soul together… but rather, that through the connection of the body and the soul there will be revealed a type of holiness that is not present even in the upper worlds: the soul and the body transformed together into a united holiness.
Consider the metaphor of a burning candle. There is, in the fire, oil and wick. However, do we call the fire 'oil and wick?' In the beginning there was 'oil' and 'wick' but now they have transformed to light, one united illumination.

I’d like to extend the Rabbi’s teaching about the importance of truly uniting body and soul – and not just having them be put together, side by side – in order to explore how to combine Torah learning and technology. Indeed, we are encouraged in the morning blessings to engage in Torah in ways that create a sweet mixture - Ve’ha’erav na Hashem Elokeinu et Divrei Toratekha Be’finu, G-d please sweeten/combine the words of Torah [emanating from] our mouths. The word “Ve’ha’erav” from the root e.r.v means both “sweeten” and “combine.” I read this as guidance to create sweet combinations – of tradition with contemporary life, of text and self, of ancient content and contemporary technologies, and of wicks and oil that transform into innovative illumination.

To be sure, some approaches to combining Torah learning and computer technology - are merely doing what the Rabbi has called ‘simply putting them together.’ But I’d like to think there could be more than that.  Much more.  Indeed, what would be the equivalent of “transforming body and soul into a united illumination,” an approach that unites Torah learning and technology to deliver 21st Century learning befitting Jewish day schools?

The term “blended learning” perhaps reflects a hope of combining the best of what the teacher has to bring, with the best of what online learning can offer – a synergistic illumination. For synergy to happen it is important not to lose the real-time nature of learning. Teachers selecting a pre-packaged course - “off the shelf,” so to speak – even if the teacher is in the room interacting with students, still may not be coming close to what’s possible. It is important to allow learning to emanate from the creativity of the teacher. Indeed, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches that there is a real – hiluk – difference between learning from a book and learning from a teacher.[2]

On one hand, learning benefits from having top quality presenters delivering excellent content – and the prospect of bringing world-class presenters into every class is exciting.  On the other hand, quality learning is not only about the presenters, it is also about the students.  Learning is most engaging and dynamic when it resonates with what is happening in students’ lives, with other subjects they are studying, with current events in the community and the world, with students’ interests and challenges. 

Teachers in the room may not be serving as the main presenters, but they need to play an essential and creative role in connecting learning to the uniqueness of students in the room.  Teachers also need to bring in their own presence to enable direct human encounters between students and teacher – and as Martin Buber has described, this encounter also brings in the presence of the transcendent. This may be why Rabbi Nachman stresses the difference of learning from a teacher.

At the iNACOL symposium, my most exciting take-away is something that seems to begin addressing this need, and may lead toward creating a “sweet mixture” of Torah learning computer technology. Here’s what I learned:  Raymond McNulty, the Chief Learning Officer at Pennfoster, told me they have  a large selection of vocational high school stackable modules of content that educators can select from and use to creatively customize learning for their students.

A learning module is a succinct block of on-line content available for teachers to use in building their course or for self-directed learning. An educator could stack learning modules – that is assemble them - for students to experience them sequentially or could allow students to explore a set of modules in an order of their own choosing. The relatively short duration of modules can allow an educator to respond to real-time needs and to appropriately select and assemble modules to meet emergent learning needs. 

Platforms that make it easy for teachers to select and use “stackable modules” can enable them to customize learning to fit each student and the teaching moment.  Done well, it could combine teachers’ own creativity and sense for what will uniquely resonate with students, with top quality pre-packaged content, and foster real-time context-rich learning. 

For example, at The Binah School, middle and high school students are currently engaged in a learning expedition that builds on Torah teaching about areyvut (mutual responsibility) and engages students in creating something in the area of assistive technology that can help people with disabilities. I can imagine using stackable online learning modules to get students up to speed on engineering basics and tools they will be using (such as computer aided design). Getting the new content from a honed online resources and then brining in an expert to work with the students on their projects may exemplify “a sweet mixture.”

My colleague, Nomi Feinberg, pointed me to how the Gates Foundation is creating a resource for such modular units with PowerMyLearning – a free digital learning platform for K-12 students and educators with learning activities selected from across the web. Their educators vet games, videos, and interactive simulations from publishers like PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, Khan Academy, Scholastic, and tag them by subject, grade, Common Core standards, and other criteria.

I believe we have an important opportunity: to develop a user-friendly platform of quality online Jewish content in stackable modules. There are beginnings of this already happening, for example with Aleph Beta and other resources. These will support teachers to blend more quality Torah wisdom, not only into Jewish studies classes, but also into general studies and even into supplementary learning, where time is even more limited. 

I would appreciate learning from you about new resources that are becoming available in this rapidly evolving field. Please share what you know, either as a comment to this blog or send me an email at:

Stackable Torah modules may be one in a set of the tools, that taken together, will enable teachers to play creative roles in connecting learning to the uniqueness of students, and to foster direct encounters between students and teachers. Part of the work will always include the teacher's inner-journey. Parker Palmer puts it this way: "The transformation of teaching must begin in the transformed heart of the teacher." Indeed, Torah teaching benefits greatly from a teacher's connection with G-d. 

The word in Aramaic for Torah is Oraita, which means light. I'm excited to continue to be in the conversation with remarkable educators on how we can most synergistically use technology to spread the light of Torah. 

Dr. Ronit Ziv-Kreger combines her passion for Jewish learning and life with her MIT training in management science to train and coach educators and to offer school and learning design consulting for The Binah School, other day schools, and for CJP’s initiative to reinvent supplementary education in the Boston area. She is a graduate of the Pardes Educators Program and received her PhD from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. 

[1] I’m grateful to the AVI CHAI foundation, and to Program Officer, Rachel Abrahams, for generously supporting me to attend the iNACOL symposium to represent educators from The Binah School, in Sharon, Massachusetts, together with the school’s director of humanities, Nomi Feinberg.

[2] Likutei Moharan, Torah 20:4

Sunday, October 20, 2013

“Hafoch Bah v’Hafoch Bah” – Flipping the Judaic Studies Classroom

“Hafoch Bah v’Hafoch Bah” – Flipping the Judaic Studies Classroom 
Reflections on my flipped class journey and lessons from ISTE

Over the past few years, “flipped classroom” videos of the Khan Academy variety have become increasingly popular and widespread among educators, particularly with the proliferation of (free) whiteboard apps.  Teacher-generated video lessons can be valuable tools for differentiating instruction and enabling students to work at their own pace. They shift the focus away from lecture-style presentations onto teacher-guided work or activities, wherein students apply the lessons learned from the video.  They may serve as anchor activities for students who have moved ahead in class.  And of course, videos enable busy students to pause, rewind and re-watch their teachers whenever and however often they want.  The flipped class methodology—which generally entails units built around short videos which students watch at home, followed by “homework” done in the classroom where the teacher is available to clarify and guide the learning—has been shown to make assignments more effective, and to increase student engagement as well as achievement. 

In the Jewish educational context, I had certainly seen (and created) YouTube videos of the how-to variety (“how to have an aliyah”) or the talking head variety (“weekly d’var Torah”), some of which were quite engaging and some which were as dull as any classroom lecture.  But I had never encountered instructional videos that were integrated in a systematic way into a class setting.  Wondering if flipped videos could be applied to a day school Jewish Studies classroom, and excited and intrigued with the possibilities, last year I set about experimenting with flipped videos for my middle school Tanach and Mishnah classes.

My initial thinking has been to create video content on relatively broad topics which are not overly curriculum-specific.  That way, they could be utilized by our Judaics faculty across grades, years and curricula, since they could potentially be applicable to a variety of content matter and re-watched in various contexts.  Additionally, they could serve as online resources to other students or educators beyond our walls.  So, for example, I made several videos about broad concepts in Rabbinic/Torah Commentary, such as “Kal Va-Chomer” and “Gematria.” Since we use iPads in our middle school, I initially have worked with Educreations, which the students can easily pull up through the app on their iPads or watch through a link on our website.  Educreations (or the comparable ShowMe app) is also useful for students to create their own instructional videos as class-work, an enrichment activity or a summative assessment. 

Screenshot from "Kal Vachomer" Video made with Educreations app

At the end of last year, I asked for student feedback regarding the videos, and they gave positive reports regarding their level of engagement, desire to watch more videos, and using the videos at their own leisure.  Based on their surveys and their work in general, I felt it was a successful “beta-test” year.  However, I knew there was room for improvement in many areas, including editing capability and interactive questions.   

Screenshot from Educreations video on "Gematria"

Thanks in part to a grant from AVI CHAI, I was fortunate to attend the ISTE ’13 conference, where I was able to explore in greater depth some best practices for integrating technology, including creating flipped classrooms.  There is certainly much to be said about the teacher practices and pedagogy which must accompany flipped videos, to ensure real learning.  But sticking to tools and resources, here is just a small sampling of new info and insights I came away with from ISTE:

·        Web Content Concerns.  There is always anxiety, with good reason, regarding what students will come across when watching online content.  Quietube is a great way to share videos online without the distractions and “crud” that accompany many Youtube videos.  You may choose another video platform like Vimeo, or distribute video files by uploading to an internal class platform like Edmodo, instead of via the internet. 

·        Flubaroo.  This is a mechanism for managing online assignments with a Google Form, for students fill in after watching.  With this tool, teachers can include quick formative assessments with the video to check for understanding.  This increases the interactive element, and gives teachers a sense of where students’ understanding is and how to tailor instruction for group-work in class.  A follow-up also can be created to engage parents.
·        Aaron Sams’ Video Rules. The flipped class guru, whose book I got at ISTE, preaches several rules for flipped videos.  Some—like animating your voice and adding humor—can be done regardless of what software or video tools you use.  Others—like adding zooming, callouts and annotations—are much more difficult with the free products (you get what you pay for).  Over the year I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation in Cherry Hill for Camtasia screen capture software.  Camtasia is the industry standard – superlative editing tools, but not as simple or user-friendly (or free).   

·        Captions and Subtitles.  A teacher may choose to use a script to read off of to narrate the video.  If a script is used, then it can be synced with the video once uploaded to Youtube.  (Instead of Educreations, which uses its own site, try Screencast-O-Matic or Aww – A Web Whiteboard, for this.)  Save your script as a plain text (txt) file. Then, in the Edit menu on your Youtube video, choose Captions and upload your file; your words will now appear on screen, enhancing the level of engagement and interaction.

·        Whose videos?  The consensus is that making your own videos is the best course of action when possible, because it creates a more personal connection with your students.  Ultimately, good teaching is based upon relationships, and flipping the classroom can help foster this.  But teachers should also make use of the myriad videos that are already out there, and not feel it’s necessary to reinvent the wheel for every topic.  Sites like Blendspace (Edcanvas) list video content by subject, and can be shared to Edmodo for students to watch and discuss.  My hope is to see more Jewish Studies videos out there in the near future to share and collaborate with!

The Mishnah teaches, “hafoch bah v’hafoch bah d’kula vah – turn it [Torah] around and around to find everything inside.”  Likewise I hope that flipping the classroom around will be one more tool to help students reach deeper levels of knowledge, insight and understanding. 

Micah Liben is the Rabbi in Residence at Kellman Brown Academy.