Jewish Time Travel Gets Real

So it is in Washington Square Park and on surrounding blocks in Greenwich Village, where Jewish activism gave rise to some of the greatest social movements of the 20th century.

Enter Jewish Time Jump: New York, a location-based, mobile game for iPhone and iPad simulating this immensely rich history. It provides a multi-dimensional, virtual, and participatory experience for students of American- Jewish immigration.

The mobile game is attracting the attention of Jewish educators as a cutting edge teaching tool, marrying deep content with the sort of engaging and intuitive digital interface that is second nature to – and expected by – the young generation of learners for whom it is designed.

“If students are taking their devices everywhere they go, and are constantly engrossed in them, then we should see that as a opportunity,” said Rabbi Valerie Lieber, Director of Education at Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn and one of numerous Jewish educators introduced to and trained on the game this summer.

“A tool like this allows very important chapters of 20th century Jewish life to become very real to students, and not to live as just some old, crusty history out of a textbook.”

And make it real it does. The game positions students as journalists for the fictional Jewish Time Jump Gazette, assigned by an editor to a time travel journey back to the early 20th century.

In something like a GPS-guided scavenger hunt through the park and adjacent streets where such historical icons as the former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building still stand, they discover details about the mass wave of immigration to the city, living, and working conditions, forces that gave birth to the modern women’s and labor movements, and the prominent and ordinary people of the time.

Jewish Time Jump is the brainchild of Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, Founder and Director of ConverJent, an organization dedicated to developing analog and digital games for Jewish learning. Covenant Foundation grants supported development of the game and an accompanying curriculum, along with trainings for educators.

“This is a piece of the future of Jewish education,” said Gottlieb, who is also Assistant Professor of Interactive Games and Media at Rochester Institute of Technology. “It is creating an experience in Jewish education that we haven’t had before because it melds augmented reality and GPS technology with Jewish history from more than a century ago.

“It’s allowing us to deliver sound pedagogy through new design, technology and tools and to reach today’s learners where they live – in the digital age.”

So unique is the game’s niche – especially within Jewish education – that it has been profiled in The Atlantic, The Village Voice, The Jewish Week, and other publications. It was nominated for “Most Innovative Game” at the Games for Change Festival, now part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Melissa Cohavi, Educational Director at Temple Sinai in Stamford, CT, joined Lieber and other Jewish educators from across the New York metro area who descended on Washington Square Park in July to use Jewish Time Jump and discuss ways to maximize its impact in the field and in the classroom.

“The value is obvious,” she said. “In a supplementary educational setting such as ours, I try as much as possible to get out of the classroom and to seek out experiences that are relevant, immersive and exciting for our students. Jewish Time Jump makes Jewish history real.”

Cohavi is a pioneer in utilizing the game, having organized about a dozen families from her synagogue in a trip to the city to play Jewish Time Jump late last year. The game is designed specifically for students in grades 5 to 7, and their families as well.

So engaged were participants that she is repeating the family education day in October. Rabbi Lieber, of Kane Street Synagogue, is planning the same in November for students in her American Jewish history class and their families.

While Jewish Time Jump can typically be played in about one-and-a-half hours in the park, it may be viewed as but one slice of a larger continuum of study of this period in American Jewish history.

ConverJent partnered with Jewish Women’s Archive to build a four-module curriculum and a parent-teacher guide to be used in schools and other educational settings to frame the history, personalities, and issues highlighted by the game, and to spur in-depth conversation and activities before and after game day. The curriculum will be completed in the fall.

One module connects Jewish involvement in the Labor Movement to Jewish texts. Another makes 20th century history contemporary by linking to stories, articles, and discussions about current labor rights issues such as the 2012 clothing factory fire in Bangladesh that killed an estimated 117 workers and parallels in some ways the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, when 146 garment workers perished.

The partnership was a logical one for the two organizations. Jewish Women’s Archive was the originator of the popular Living the Legacy curriculum – also supported by The Covenant Foundation – 24 lessons using primary sources, personal stories, and narratives to teach about the role of American Jews in the Civil Rights and Labor Movements.

“Educators who are using Jewish Time Jump are early adopters,” said Etta King, Education Program Manager at Jewish Women’s Archive. “Until now, museums and museum-type organizations were the only models we’ve had for place-based learning. This offers a new approach to connecting learning to a specific place.

“Using iPhone games for learning about history is certainly not the norm in Jewish education but it holds great promise because it capitalizes on technology that most people have and know how to use. It’s an exciting way to access and deliver information and diverse points of view. The game also invites students into conversation with historical figures and with each other in inquiry-based learning.”

Many of the educators introduced to Jewish Time Jump this summer said they consider the accompanying curriculum to be immensely important. It brings knowledge absorbed during the outing into the classroom.

Gottlieb views the game as a catalyst for the next generation of Jewish change makers.

“My dream is that Jewish Time Jump and games like it will spur the kind of thinking and reflection that will help advance the Jewish social justice movement,” he said. “We are among an exciting community of educators, artists, engineers, designers, activists, learning scientists, policy makers, and visionary foundations all passionate about the engrossing nature of games and the potential they hold for both learning and positive change.”

By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Covenant Foundation

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