Recently, Southern Sunday School students did a program on Jewish heroes. The students were having a great time, collaborating, playing games—all while hundreds of miles apart.
For the Global Day of Jewish Learning, we gathered students and teachers in Pinehurst, North Carolina, for this program on Jewish heroes. More students than you’d usually find in the Pinehurst classroom showed up—because half of our participants weren’t in Pinehurst. They weren’t even in North Carolina. They were actually in Greenville, South Carolina, three and a half hours away!
Stop the presses. Has the ISJL figured out how to split Education Fellows like me into two pieces, so that we can be in two different cities at once? Have we discovered the secret to Hermione Granger’s famous time-turner from the Harry Potter books?
Unfortunately, we are still working on the time-turner. But what we have mastered is an important 21st century skill – the art of effective, engaging interactive video calling.
We use video calling technology almost every day from our office in Jackson, Mississippi. Whether communicating with staff members working in other cities or with Bar/Bat Mitzvah students located around our region, doing important Jewish work via Skype or Google Hangout is a regular part of day-to-day work at the ISJL. So, when Sandhills Jewish Congregation in Pinehurst and Congregation Beth Israel in Greenville expressed interest in setting up a program, where their students could meet (virtually), I was eager to make it happen.
Our program was entitled the “Jewish Olympics” and it was very similar to a Maccabiah experience that might occur at Jewish camp. There were a variety of games that we played with and against one another, from Jewpardy (Jewish-themed Jeopardy) to a Play-doh sculpture contest. The ruach (spirit) of all the teams, across both cities and through our screens, was quite impressive.
One of the highlights of the program was our Jewish Heroes scavenger hunt. For this scavenger hunt, there were images of 20 Jewish Heroes hidden in the two congregations, with short biographies of their achievements included so that the kids could learn a bit about them. Half of the images were hidden in Beth Israel (Greenville) and half were at SJC (Pinehurst). The blue team in Greenville, for example, had to find all ten of their heroes, while their teammates in Pinehurst, had to find all ten of theirs. On the back of each clue was a letter, and upon finding all the clues, in both cities the teams had to work with their teammates in the other city via Skype to put the letters together and decode a secret message.
The message? “We made new Jewish friends.”
We wrapped up with “Closing Ceremonies” and with students in Greenville performing “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish” for the students in Pinehurst.
In years to come, I think it is safe to say that technology will help us innovate entirely new ways of educating Jewish students. But we should not assume that such innovating can only occur in the future. We are already living in a time when it is possible to program across virtually any geographical boundary using applications available for free . What this means for the future of Jewish education is still an open-ended question. But with some imagination and experimentation, we just might find answers to that question that fundamentally re-shape and re-create our Jewish future.
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In this final match-up, the game really came down to something simple: straight-up skills. So who was the ultimate player – underdog Devorah? Or long-time champ Moses? Let’s see how they measured up on the proverbial court:
Basket (ball): Moses has the one locked up. He started his life in a basket, y’all. That’s commitment. This one’s a slam dunk for Big M.
Flair: You have to bring some flair to the game, as any Harlem Globetrotter or Biblical Baller will tell you. In a battle of musical prowess, setting the tunes against each other, Devorah is particularly well-known for her victory song, sung after the Israelites defeated the Canaanites. This song is famously beautiful and is acknowledged as one of the oldest and most original sections of Tanakh. Although, Song of the Sea does put up a good fight… still, this one goes to Devorah!
Drive: Having skills takes you only so far. Taking your game to the next level requires massive confidence, the belief in yourself that you can go out on the floor and dominate, each and every game.The name Devorah is Hebrew for Bee. That’s probably why Devorah’s tenacity is similar to a swarm of attacking bees. As she summoned Barak to battle against an army of invaders, she is also putting a stinger into the idea that women do not deserve places of significance in Jewish liturgy. Score one more for Dark Horse– er, Bee– Devorah!
Posting Up: During half time, Moses was thirsty and struck his water bottle, and Devorah immediately got 15 points. Devorah stands out as one of the strongest female characters in the books of Judges. She was one of the many judges chosen by God, and led the nation of Israel at a time when they were struggling to conquer the land. Additionally, they were experiencing great spiritual uncertainty. She’s one of the only biblical females spoken about on her own merits. For example, Sarah is always referred to as Abraham’s wife or Miriam is qualified as Moses’s sister. She was patient in how she would sit beneath the palm tree where the Israelites could come and seek her advice. But Moses always comes back after adversity, so this one’s a draw.
Spontaneity: Lots of players over-think the game. Moses is quick to act in many ways. When he finds his people struggling beneath the oppression of Egyptian task masters, he is horrified. Witnessing one beating an Israelite slave, Moses strikes back and kills the Egyptian. When Moses sees that there was no one else to address the challenges of his generation, he rises to the occasion and does what is necessary, realizing that it would have far reaching implications for his life.
Final Scoring: Mensch means “a person of honor” and for us, the winner has got to be Moses, the ultimate team captain. As it says in Deuteronomy 34:10 – “Since that time no prophet has supported Israel like Moses, who Adonai knew face to face.” Devorah played well, came far, and her jersey will surely be retired, but in the end, there can be only one winner of Mensch Madness.
MAZEL TOV… MOSES, THE MENSCH MADNESS CHAMPION!
Thank you for playing along! How did your bracket match up with ours?
As Mensch Madness continues, our next match-up is between the one… the only… the Father of Monotheism… Abraham! And his opponent? The ever patient… ever kind… ever knowledgeable-sage… Hillel the Elder. Who will win?!
BZZZZ! With a bit of divine intervention, Abraham gets the jump ball. He heads down the court, dribbling the shining ball of monotheism. Watch out, everyone – this guy is on a divine mission! He almost sacrificed his only son, for heaven’s sake! He’s so divinely inspired he might sacrifice literally anything to get that ball in the basket.
But wait, here comes wise Hillel the Elder, and he’s ready to play, too. Whoa! He just pulled out the Golden Rule, and blocked Abraham’s shot like he would have someone else block his own – to him that’s all of basketball, everything else is simply commentary! 
Hillel’s got the ball now, getting into position for a three point jumper, but wait! What’s this?! He just gave the ball to Abraham! I guess that’s just part of his game-play – he’s so humble that he gives his opponents a chance to shoot first even before his own shot, just like how Beit Hillel would recite the halachic opinions of Shammai before they would recite their own. What a mensch!
After a little bit of arguing with G-d, just like he argued with G-d over Sodom and Gemorrah, Abraham makes a seemingly impossible shot. It appears he won the argument this time, as a heavenly hand just came down and dropped the ball into the basket! This guy has got friends in high places! (Please ignore the brawl that just happened between some of those rowdy Esau fans and Isaac fans. They both support Abraham… just in different ways).
Hillel’s got the ball now, and he’s rolling. He goes in for an individual slam-dunk, because of course he’s all about the idea, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” But he then kindly hands the ball to Abraham, because Hillel is also into the idea of “If I am only for myself, what am I?” But old Abraham takes a bit too long getting down the court, because Hillel steals it and goes in for the lay-up, shouting “If not now, WHEN??!!!”
The crowd is going wild. Abraham’s side is quite empty, as some have been hesitant to support the team out of fear of a certain Jewish ritual he started for 8-day old boys. But, there are some divine angels there that Abraham welcomed into his tent a while back. The desert just isn’t the best place to establish a huge fan base.
Hillel’s fans, meanwhile are bursting with energy, because Hillel is all about welcoming everyone into Judaism, even the most difficult folks. Even in difficult games, he’s very concerned for what game plan is best for the individual fans.
Winner: Hillel the Elder! With a combination of kindness, patience, and a love of peace, Hillel the Elder manages a wild three-point shot at the buzzer, for the win, all while standing on one foot! Despite Abraham’s direct connection to the Almighty, and his many, many descendants, and his being the first monotheist, he’s no match for Hillel. Hillel triumphs with the modern touch of kindness and compassion in Jewish life which we always need, especially in our world today.
What a game! See you as we head toward the SEMI-FINALS!
 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a
 Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 13b
 Pirkei Avot 1:14