Every year, a new trend emerges in Jewish ventures to engage youth populations. One year, it’s a new YouTube video about the Jewish holidays, and another year, it’s a new social networking tool aimed at bringing more young professionals back into the fold of Judaism. Recently, it’s been Jewish apps for mobile devices. From the Anne Frank Amsterdam tour to the multitude of Jewish learning apps for children and beyond, it seems as though these trends are here to stay. But are these apps any more effective in sparking interest in Judaism among young people?
When I was young, there was a book on Purim that I would beg my mother every week to check out from the Jewish Community Center library. The book, simply written with whimsical, artistic sketches of the main characters was my absolute favorite — Esther, with a delicate crown seated upon her pillow-like hair; Mordechai, looking staunch and stern; Haman, looking like the very essence of evil with furrowed brows and a malevolent smile. While I loved the drawings in the book, the reason I kept begging my mother to check it out was because when we read it together, my mom would use intonations in her voice, along with silly faces and tickle-fests, to bring the story to life. I’d ask her to read it to me again and again, and every year, at Purim, I’d check out the book and ask my mom to sew me a costume like the dresses Queen Esther wore in the book. It was the way my mother delivered the message, and not the book itself, that got me excited for Purim.
Rugrats is a TV show about precocious, adventurous babies on Nickelodeon that premiered when I was around seven or eight years old. One year, the show premiered its Hannukah and Passover specials. After getting over the initial excitement of a beloved national TV show, my brother and I counted down the days to see the episodes. We giggled at seeing the main character, a small baby named Tommy, become Judah the Maccabee and Moses on each episode. My father laughed along with us — he loved watching the show with us, and particularly enjoyed the adult characters of Boris and Minka, who would wax poetically about the “old country.” After the show, we’d discuss how the episode might have been different than the Haggadah we read during the seder, and why that might be.
Judaism places great importance on community. With community, our values are reinforced, and we use each other for strength. My memories of Jewish activities that inspired me all involve someone else — from my parents at home or colleagues on summer camp, I was never alone when I was inspired by Judaism.
Giving a child or teen an iPhone with a new app on Judaism is equivalent to plopping your child in front of the television and telling them, “learn.” The only way to make Judaism relevant is to bring it into individuals’ daily lives.
Applications, games, TV shows, books, and movies are only one tool in the vast array available to young people today. Without the proper person to teach them how to use the tools and build a house, they’re stuck hammering nails onto a piece of wood.
So while this latest trend of investing in major Jewish apps and online videos might seem like “keeping up with the times,” it will not have a great effect on Jewish youths if they are left alone to explore them. Very few children and young adults I know will, when left with their iPhone, actually use it to read about Jewish holidays, when they could be using it to chat with their friends online.
However, if their parents sit with them and engage with them on the subjects discussed in a given app or game, it will encourage them to actually engage with the material being presented. It’s time to utilize ourselves, rather than creating more apps and more initiatives that simply don’t work on their own.
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
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