Torah technology goes app-ropos for Diaspora Jews
A slew of new smartphone apps is putting Jewish learning in your pocket, making Talmud study or your next trip to the mikvah as easy as pushing a button.
BOSTON – The beep of an incoming text message sounds with a reminder. “Tomorrow night Thursday 23 August 2012 is your mikvah night. Remember to make an appointment.”
The message and its accompanying website is the brainchild of Rivkah Bloom, a young rebbetzin (rabbi's wife) with a computer science degree from MIT. She decided to harness technology to demystify the ancient calculations used by observant Jewish women to determine when it’s time for their monthly visit to the mikvah.
Available at mikvahcalendar.com, the app is one of dozens of new Jewish world applications – or "apps" – developed for mobile devices that range from finding the closest Kosher restaurant to teaching preschoolers how to write their Aleph Bet.
“The fact is that we have the technology,” says Bloom. “This is the most positive way to use it, to help people connect to their roots and traditions.”
Mikvahcalendar.com calibrates for geographic location, leap years and daylight savings times in addition to the most central factor, a woman’s monthly menstrual cycle. According to Jewish law, married women are to visit a mikvah, a ritual bath, one week after they finish menstruating. But the formula for knowing exactly when can be complicated.
Many of the apps that have been developed, like MikvahCalendar, are for the Orthodox or more observant community. They include a host of Kashrut-related ones.
The Jewish Kosher app developed by RustyBrick, which produces many Jewish related apps, can determine the closest kosher restaurant based on your current location and offers a special database to decode the various Kashrut symbols so that users can know which rabbis and organizations endorse them.
There’s even something called The ParveOMeter, which helps count down the time allotted between eating meat and dairy meals with the touch of a button at the end of a meal.
And then there is iBlessing, which helps people find the right prayers for the foods they are eating.
In its promotion on the iTunes site, iBlessing promises, “No more fumbling for the prayer book or messy cards! Press a button and “Say a Blessing!”’
There are apps to find local minyans and synagogues. A few synagogues have released their own apps featuring their schedules and rabbi’s sermons. Camp Ramah, the Conservative-movement affiliated network of summer camps and Israel programs, recently released Ramah365, keepings its campers and alumni in touch with each other and the latest Ramah news.
Charlie Schwartz, a rabbi and director of Digital Engagement and Learning for the Jewish Theological Seminary, is most interested in the world of educational apps.
As founding director of Not-a-Box Media Lab, he and his partner are developing Jewish educational apps like PocketTorah, a free application that that helps users learn the weekly Torah and Haftarah portions. They also have a new product called the Aleph Bet App, aimed pre-schoolers in Israel and abroad, which uses games to teach Hebrew words and letters. That app is set to be released in mid-September ahead of Rosh Hashanah.
“The educational app world is exploding in general,” he says. “We are on the cusp of something that until now has been people marketing towards the Orthodox community, but we are almost at a tipping point where we can see a proliferation of organization-sponsored mobile apps,” he says.
PocketTorah is one of several apps out there that make Jewish sacred texts more accessible.
The newly released Talmud App, for example, has put the popular Schottenstein English Talmud from the publisher Artscroll in digital format for users of the Apple iPad (the only device with enough technology to handle its features). Talmud App, its creators say, is changing the way both new and seasoned students study the Talmud, utilizing revolutionary features that include floating translation, place-tracking and hyperlinks connecting the text and commentaries. Future plans for the App include features that would allow users to take notes and share their observations with each other.
Even in the virtual world, though, Jewish study has lead to some arguments.
PocketTorah features a trope feature, in which a female cantor can be heard singing, leading to negative reviews for the app on the App Store's site.
“This app makes fun of Jewish custom," one reviewer wrote. "The Jewish Code of Law which every major rabbi accepts (some maybe only when it suits their rhetoric) says that a woman singing in public is likened to as if she were undressed. This app is unusable by millions of Jews and therefore segregates and divides the Jewish people.”
In the Jewish world, even the humble high-tech app can be a flashpoint. Perhaps a Jewish argument app will be next in the pipeline.