BY KERRY POLITZER
For many years, Congregation Beth Israel has operated a rich, multi-faceted Jewish education program for school-age children and recently added a pre-K classroom. Education Director Ben Sandler says the focus is on “joyful Jewish learning.”
“We really want kids to feel excited about being Jewish and also give them the skills to feel knowledgeable wherever they go to have that connection,” he says.
Before the pandemic, children had the opportunity to travel – learning about Jewish history in Israel, performing mitzvot in Los Angeles or visiting Washington to enhance political awareness. The current situation has made all of these activities impossible, but virtual learning expert Alex Mansfield is making Jewish education more exciting than ever at CBI. Alex is the development team leader at Adir Learning, a Jewish education resource company.
“I was thinking about our high school electives and how to keep kids engaged, knowing that we weren’t going to travel or be together, and I reached out to him,” says Ben.
Alex uses the popular Minecraft platform to engage children of all ages. High schoolers use the game’s Creative Mode to build replicas of the ancient Masada fortress and reenact Jewish history, while younger children do live-action role play in Survival Mode.
“We actually made two different courses; the one where we do more of the role-playing of Jewish history is the elementary and middle school course,” says Alex. “We start at Creation all the way up to modernity. This (past) week we did an entire class about leaving our base to go find a boss battle… we related this to the idea of the Diaspora, where we basically have to leave a place that we’re comfortable with. And there are potential dangers, but there’s a whole wide world to explore.”
Older children use third-party programs to create maps and topographical models.
“The idea is that we do a deep dive into whatever our location is, whatever the history of the location or the event is,” says Alex. “We can use a program that’s a lot like Microsoft Paint to actually hand-create a map or a world. So, I’ve taught the high schoolers how to use this, and we actually used it to create the topography around the fortress of Masada.”
While the weekly synchronous lessons run for about an hour, students can log onto the Minecraft server at their convenience. They can also communicate through the class Discord (invite-only class space for specific topics).
Student response has exceeded the educators’ wildest expectations.
“When I pitched this to Ben, I had in my mind, oh, at maximum there’s going to be 10 kids for each group,” says Alex. “I was thinking, oh, not many people are going to be into it. And then within I think 15 minutes (of my presentation), I was told that we had 24 registrations.”
Ben adds, “You know, normally you don’t have a chat box blowing up in a Jewish education Zoom call with kids typing WHEN DO WE START?”
Looking beyond the pandemic, Ben anticipates a deepened understanding for Jewish children when they can eventually travel to places they modeled in Minecraft.
“Pedagogically, thinking about a student who has built Masada, and then having the opportunity to physically go there… to have that connection in terms of project-based learning is really unique,” says Ben. “It’s not just studying – it’s interacting.”
To learn more about Alex’s innovative Jewish learning methods, visit www.adirlearning.com