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Ready for their bimah close-up [VIDEO]

Mix of high-tech and human helps students learn Torah [VIDEO]

by Ryan Torok

December 14, 2010 | 11:54 pm

Indeed, bar or bat mitzvah training today has become increasingly reliant on technology to complement learning — from YouTube videos of kids chanting and online lessons with a cantor or tutor to on-the-go studies with an iPod. 

Experts say new technologies can make b’nai mitzvah study and planning easier for students and families with hectic schedules. But at a time when some students prepare for their simcha with a tutor via Skype — oftentimes in lieu of the family joining a synagogue — others worry that an over-reliance on technology removes critical human elements from training intended to prepare youth for a communal faith that favors public prayer. 

At congregations such as Stephen S. Wise Temple, Sinai Temple and Temple Judea, students access b’nai mitzvah prep materials online, like blessings, prayers and Torah portions.

Jennifer Smith, b’nai mitzvah and social justice coordinator at Stephen S. Wise Temple, says online technology works better with the lifestyles of today’s students than old technologies do.

“Kids are always coming in with their iPods and phones … something they always have with them,” she said. “Oftentimes they’ll forget their books or say their CD player is broken.”

Today’s high-tech b’nai mitzvah tools not only provide students with convenience, but also offer parents peace of mind.

“We used to have parents ask us, ‘How is my child going to study on winter break?’ ” Smith said.

Mitzvah Tools is one online-based resource that some synagogues and tutors are using to help coordinate learning. The Web-based app enables students to download or upload materials from any computer and monitor their own progress.

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Mitzvah Tools Demo

Developed by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea, Mitzvah Tools offers all the materials a bar or bat mitzvah-in-training could ever need — a section of downloadable MP3 recordings of blessings, prayers and the student’s Torah portion; a Web-based calendar to track the student’s in-person meetings; an assignments page, where tutors give feedback regarding a student’s progress; and a space for a student to share audio or video recordings of his or her chanting, which a tutor can watch or listen to from anywhere.

The app also allows rabbis, cantors, tutors and parents to track the progress of the student, write notes, schedule appointments and note attendance (including when the student was late or absent).

“It’s all online, wherever they are,” Moskovitz said. “It’s a wonderful way to amalgamate all that information together.”

Another high-tech tool that’s available to aid b’nai mitzvah students is the Magic Yad, a Livescribe Pulse smartpen app named for the ritual pointer used during the Torah reading.

The app’s creator, Alan Greenfield, got the idea for the product when a bar mitzvah student he was helping was frustrated with listening to cassettes in the car.

“I started working with the kid, and I could see how frustrating it was for him,” Greenfield said. “It was very hard for [him] to listen and repeat the one phrase on the audio. With the Magic Yad, you can just touch one phrase and you just touch it again as many times as you like. It facilitates repetitive learning of small units.”

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“In my day, they had a record,” said Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple, describing the changing role of technology in b’nai mitzvah training. “It moved from records, to cassettes, to CD, to downloading MP3s off your computer.”
Magic Yad

About the size of a small ballpoint pen, the Livescribe smartpen comes equipped with an embedded computer, digital audio recorder and infrared camera. The Hebrew text is printed on special paper that consists of numerous small black dots in patterns that are essentially invisible to the human eye but can be detected by the pen’s camera.

When the student opens the folder and touches the smartpen to a mark at the beginning of any trope, Magic Yad knows to play a prerecorded version of how the phrase should be chanted.

The student can also record a phrase, compare his or her own version to that of the prerecorded version, and slow down the playback to work on pronunciation and cantillation.

Alan Warshaw, West Coast head of sales for Magic Yad, says technology makes studying a less daunting task for students.

“The problem is that with kids who are 12 years old, there are a lot of things that they would rather do” than study for their bar or bat mitzvah, he said. “So you have to get their attention. … The better the experience they have learning, the better they will feel about the Jewish milestone.”

Although the Magic Yad boasts a unique “cool factor” for tech-oriented kids, app creator Greenfield believes technology shouldn’t become a substitute for students meeting in person with tutors or teachers.

“It’s very hard to replace a human — [but] some people actually see it that way, even use [the Magic Yad] that way,” said Greenfield, who recommends families use the product with a tutor or teacher, rather than as a substitute. “We say, in conjunction with the tutor you can do extremely well. It makes the tutor’s job a lot easier.”

While Stephen S. Wise Temple’s Smith praises technology when it comes to teaching b’nai mitzvah students, she says it fell flat when it came to coordinating with parents.

“We found that over the phone and face-to-face check-in was much more effective than leaving messages for parents online,” she said. “I don’t know if our parents were ready for it.”

Lam similarly praises the role of technology in making learning easier, but he also stresses the importance of human interaction.

“The most important thing is the mentor who teaches the child,” he said. “[That] is more important than the technology.

“It’s not just, ‘Are they learning the rote material?’ ” he continued. “The question is the overall goal of the bar mitzvah training, for bar and bat mitzvah kids to feel a connection to Jewish peoplehood, to Israel, [to] a spiritual side to God, to make them Jewish learners.”

To illustrate his point, Lam recalled his own experience as a child studying for his bar mitzvah.

“I can tell you, I had the greatest teacher,” he said. “My cantor inspired so many of us to become cantors and rabbis. You can have all the technology in the world, but you cannot replace [my teacher’s] passion and talent and the level of which he thought. That model — you can’t replace that with technology.”

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