Ella Metuki watched eagerly as a Jewish educator searched for teaching materials on the Jewish Educators Portal. One of several user interviews, she would show Metuki, online educational content manager for The Jewish Education Project, which runs the portal, whether the $300,000 platform was worth the investment.
The educator “found a bunch of resources on JTeach.org… She said, ‘Oh, they’re really good, and I’ve never heard of this organization,'” Metuki told eJewishPhilanthropy. For Metuki, the educator’s reaction was a victory. The portal “exposed her to something she wouldn’t have otherwise heard of through her. [denominational] movement or by his synagogue.
It’s an experience many more educators are likely to have now that the portal has been updated with better search algorithms and the ability for users to upload their own content – technical changes that may seem small to you. first glance, but which represent a larger evolution of both Jewish education and Jewish community efforts to create digital spaces for professionals.
The Jewish Educators Portal is part of a new wave of platforms building on the failures – and sometimes hubris – of past Jewish initiatives online. The site aims to be a centralized library of Jewish educational content where educators can find resources for free, connect with each other in facilitated networks, and access professional development webinars. It is also a constant stream of data about the wants and needs of Jewish educators as they deal with mental health issues and have to explain global troubles to children.
The May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas was when the portal “saw one of our biggest spikes in usage and user account creation,” said Jonathan Fass, director general of the educational technology and strategy for the Jewish Education Project. “We might think that Israel is off the radar for North American Jewry…we certainly haven’t seen that on the portal.”
Launched in August 2020 with funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Maimonides Fund through the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF), and with support from GS Humane Corp, the site is built by Israeli developers for an annual cost of around $50. -100,000. Initially with 100 educational resources and 200 registered users with an account, the site has grown steadily: It now has 1,500 educational resources; 5,000 registered users; and 9,000 visitors per month.
The platform’s longevity depends on its ability to meet the needs of educators and its collaboration with other organizations in the field of Jewish education, Fass said. Sefaria, the Anti-Defamation League and JTeach are among the 24 official resource partners who publish their content on the portal.
At the heart of the Jewish Educators Portal is its search engine for finding educational materials, which was initially built around users searching for specific terms such as “Rosh Hashanah” or “Middot.” But that approach didn’t match the way people are used to searching online: typing in fuller phrases like “how to teach teenagers about Rosh Hashanah.” Some Jewish topics may also be spelled multiple different ways with English letters, further complicating the resource finding effort.
The new search engine solves these problems by operating with more flexibility than Google. “We use a search algorithm that partly explains the craziness of the number of different ways to spell Hanukkah,” Fass said, “so people can type in one way, but find everything they need. ” Portal content is also labeled with the age group and level it is appropriate for – something explicitly requested by educators.
The revamped search also means educators can more easily find resources that aren’t directly related to classroom learning, but have become essential for teachers going through a pandemic and political unrest. Since the portal’s launch, users have “searched for material on how to help children deal with crises, trauma and anxiety,” Fass said.
A collection of resources on the response to the January 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol has been viewed 468 times and saved 141 times. Another collection, for the treatment of the 2020 election and civil unrest, was viewed 488 times and registered by 100 people.
Drawing on data from educators’ research, Fass and Metuki put more resources on social-emotional learning and anxiety management in the portal for users to access, with the portal partnering also at the Blue Dove Foundation, a Jewish organization educating about mental illness and substance abuse.
But not all of the classroom-adjacent resources that educators find relate to the catastrophe and gloom of current events. Metuki marked Pride Month in June when many portal users referenced a pronoun guide from Keshet, the Jewish LGBTQ advocacy group. “Maybe they take it and adapt it and use it in the classroom,” Metuki said. “But it’s for us”, more than for the students. The pronoun guide has been viewed nearly 900 times.
As an online platform, the portal also tackles the difficult, and sometimes controversial, territory of curating material, an increased challenge now that educators can upload their own work to the site. Every piece of portal content, whether from partner organizations or individuals, is filtered before being uploaded, Metuki said. Individuals must have a registered account and provide identifiable information about themselves before they can attempt to post their own material.
“We make sure everything makes sense, all the links work, everything looks and feels the way we think it should be. [so] that it will be better presented to our educators,” Metuki said. “The same goes for the items that educators upload: we don’t edit their content…but we make sure it follows our community guidelines.”
The portal’s approach to other digital pitfalls is one of caution: the Jewish Education Project has no plans to sell user data collected by the site to the data brokerage industry. of $232 billion. And while it can be difficult to verify age online, the portal is designed to be an 18+ platform only to avoid any child-hosting issues. Part of verifying users is also to avoid nefarious actors, such as neo-Nazis, who might try to wreak havoc on the portal.
“We wouldn’t approve [children’s] accounts, we want to make sure it’s an adult community of adults talking to adults, so we’re very, very careful about that,” Fass said. “There are teenagers who create excellent materials for Jewish education. Unfortunately, we are not going to collect them.
Securing private and safe communication between educators is also a priority, Metuki said. User emails are not displayed on the site. Instead, the portal has a contact form that will deliver a message to the recipient user’s email. Only if there is a reply will the sender be able to see the other person’s email address.
But caution doesn’t prevent the portal from serving its purpose as a one-stop-shop for educational materials, Metuki said. In particular, she’s excited to be able to reach “educators, not on the coasts, not in New York, who don’t have as much access to resources, to professional development, to educators like them,” she said. .
She referred to a Jewish educator she knows in Nebraska who practices law in her daily work. “Our future is to reach more and more educators who do not have this access [to educational material] integrated into the work that they do, who could really benefit from it in a really robust way,” Metuki said.