Updated: Jul 2, 2021
A few years ago I completed a Certificate in Jewish Educational Technology (JEDTECH) from the Jewish Theological Seminary. One of the areas we studied was how the use of technology changes the nature of the very task we are trying to accomplish. A key component of this analysis is the SAMR Model developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura:
Substitution: Technology acts as a substitute, no functional change
Augmentation: Technology acts as a substitute, with functional improvement
Modification: Technology allows for significant task redesign
Redefinition: Technology allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable.
We also studied the works of Prof. Mark Prensky, who coined the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant.” Almost all of you reading this are “digital immigrants”; you grew up in a world before people had computers in their homes and before the Internet existed. Like an immigrant, you had to learn the new language of “digital.” Even if as many of us are, you are quite fluent, it is still a learned skill and not always completely comfortable. The kids in our religious school and teen programs, on the other hand, are digital natives. They cannot imagine a world where someone was unreachable if they weren’t at home or at their office, and where the whole world stopped on Monday night, Feb. 28, 1983 to watch the finale of M*A*S*H -- and where the water pressure in New York City dropped immediately after the end of the show as over a million New Yorkers flushed their toilets at roughly the same time. Prensky also calls himself a “digital apostate” -- he warns that at times we fetishize technology and tend to use it because it’s available, not because it actually serves any useful purpose.
There is also a tendency to think that “higher” on the SAMR scale is better but the experience of the past months shows that this is not always true. For the most part we have used technology as a substitute because we could not meet in person. Occasionally the use of technology has augmented what we have done, more so in meetings and classes than for services -- for example, in my last “Modern Jewish Controversies” class I showed a video with English subtitles of a speech delivered in Hebrew by Israeli author David Grossman, something I could not have done without the use of technology. But other congregations have used technology in ways that are actually redefinitions of the task -- creating expensive videos with high production values that congregants are supposed to all watch at the time that services would normally be held. To my mind this kind of redefinition misses the boat entirely. If entertainment is the goal of services then we will always fail because there will always be something more entertaining somewhere else. There is no community in passively watching a pre-recorded video, even though the sound and video quality are better than our relatively low-tech Zoom services.
As we transition from the Zoom-only era to the hybrid era there are new challenges to face. It was relatively easy for us to continue to be a community while meeting on Zoom exclusively, since we are a relatively small congregation and most of us already know each other. While last year I was apprehensive as to how Zoom High Holiday Services would be received, the feedback was quite positive. Many congregants reported that online services were paradoxically more intimate because they were able to see me, Hazzan Komrad, and other participants more closely on Zoom than they could sitting in the back of the synagogue.
The multi-access services we are now doing on Shabbat morning present a different challenge. Those of us who are physically present in the shul are one community and those on Zoom are another community. This has been compounded by certain tech challenges we have faced, but these should soon be resolved thanks to congregant Rob Bichefsky’s donation of a new 70 inch UHD flatscreen TV in memory of his mother Sandra Bichefsky, which is now awaiting installation.
Resolving the tech challenges is one issue but it’s not the only one. At a service with everybody in person or everybody on Zoom, we can all see and hear and interact with each other. In a hybrid service, those on Zoom can really only see those who are actively leading at that time or someone who randomly gets picked up by the camera as they are walking to or from their seat. And though I try to pay as much attention to the “Zoomers” as to the “Roomers”, it isn’t easy.
We understand that there are those of our congregants who are legitimately reluctant or unable to return to in-person services at this time. For now we are doing all services but Shabbat morning exclusively on Zoom, and the transition to other in-person services will be gradual and cautious. Our Shabbat morning services will continue to be available remotely even as we experiment with different ways to make the experience optimal for those in person as well as those on Zoom. I invite you to help me think this through as we figure this out as one community.
As always, if you need to talk or I can do anything for you, please contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office as I continue to work mostly from home, although having been vaccinated I am available for in-person meetings in my synagogue office by request.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian