School Supplement: Jewish educators work to connect students to future technology

When Steven Friedman's students ask a question about the Holocaust, they may get an unusual response: "Go to Washington, D.C."

Friedman, a Jewish studies teacher, is not cruel or rich. He's just wired.

The teacher at the Marin County campus of Brandeis Hillel Day School is one of a small but growing number of Bay Area Jewish educators leading their students onto the global computer network known as the Internet.

"There's just a tremendous amount of information we have access to," he says.

For instance, "If I give an assignment on the Holocaust, [students] can go on the Internet and get information directly from the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C."

Friedman and other Bay Area educators are riding a new wave of Jewish on-line offerings and multimedia programs that put a modern spin on some very old lessons. Trouble is, the online world of Judaism is growing so fast that some teachers can't keep up.

That's where Brad Lakritz comes in. Lakritz, technology coordinator at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, has become a guide for many teachers in 31 day schools and synagogue schools affiliated with the bureau in San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties.

His next two seminars on technology in the classroom are included in A Taste of Honey — a half-day program Aug. 27 of bureau workshops for educators. Organizers said they expect 100 to 150 teachers, possibly more.

A Taste of Honey (the name comes from a custom of giving honey to children on their first day of school) consists mostly of traditional subjects like parent-teacher communication and how to teach siddur (prayerbooks).

Few would debate the need for such traditional subjects. But the high-tech offerings stand out. Educators like Friedman at Brandeis-Hillel said that in the past two or three years, Bay Area Jewish schools have begun to follow their better-financed private and public counterparts into the realm of high-tech learning.

Some uses of computers are gimmicks. Lakritz, for example, said he can log onto the World Wide Web and find a kosher restaurant in South Africa. But there are many useful offerings as well. Teachers who were using fourth-generation photocopies of biblical stories in Hebrew can now locate a crystal clear copy in seconds with the click of a mouse, using a certain CD- ROM program, Lakritz said.

"When kids are working with things that look better, they feel better about it and it's more interesting for them," he said, "and they learn better."

Before anyone gets too excited, however, there is some cold reality. Many schools struggle with basic expenses and can't afford high-tech luxuries. Friedman said that even a well-established school like Brandeis Hillel could use more computer hardware and software.

And teachers like Hal Plotkin at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills would like to do more with computers. However, Plotkin has to rely on whatever instruments his students have at home.

"In some respects, our Sunday schools and religious schools mirror the sad state of affairs of our public schools," Plotkin said. "It's discouraging."

Still, Lakritz is working to plug Jews into the 21st century. The BJE has sponsored such media and technology workshops as "Wandering Jews on the Internet," exploring Jewish Internet resources.

Meanwhile, the BJE has created a group of teachers called "Technology-Using Jewish Educators" that aims to create an entire Jewish community on-line.