The Internet has changed how people shop, communicate, date and play. Rabbi Miriam Ancis is hoping it can change how students learn.
Ancis is the creator of Toldot, a Web site (www.toldot.org) that bills itself as “The Jewish Museum of the Next Generation.” She designed the site to enrich the typical Jewish education and to create a way for Jewish students from around the world to identify with one another.
After several years in conceptual development, Toldot opened its virtual doors to the public this spring.
Ancis, who is based in New York, said she did not want to replace the traditional bricks-and-mortar museum, but rather to “augment the experience” that such a building can provide. As opposed to a traditional museum, Toldot is entirely interactive and relies on multimedia “exhibits.”
The site’s first major exhibit, “Tell Toldot,” is a forum for young Jews to express themselves through videos, pictures and words. “Tell Toldot” is an effective demonstration of the universality of the Jewish experience. Although every student profiled calls a different country home, similarities abound; for instance, friends, culture and religion play a prominent role in each kid’s life, whether in Germany, Ukraine, Israel or America.
The site, to borrow a phrase from Hillary Clinton, is primarily about “living history.” The kids post what Ancis calls “artifacts” — although in this case, artifacts refer to Celine Dion records and New York Mets tickets rather than remnants of ancient civilizations. That said, there is a genuine effort to seek out the roots of each student. Every personal profile is accompanied by a detailed essay unearthing the history of Jews in the area.
Other exhibits — aimed at teenagers and younger children — will examine stereotypes and gender in Jewish culture and display self-expressive artwork.
At a time in which the Jewish community is under attack from the outside and divided from within in many countries, Toldot is conspicuously apolitical. There is nary a reference to the current crisis in Israel, nor a peep about the growing rift between secular and religious Jews. The focus is solely on the students.
The site is already being utilized in coordinated educational efforts with schools in Belgium and New York.
Beatrice Godlewicz, the principal of a Jewish kindergarten and elementary school in Brussels, began to integrate Toldot into the curriculum soon after it was made available online. In an e-mail to the Forward, she commended the site’s efforts thus far and expressed high hopes for the future. “Toldot will give the opportunity to teenagers and children to see that they are not so different, that they are part of a big community all over the world,” she wrote.
Toldot is financed by the United Jewish Appeal, Bikkurim, the Jewish Educational Services of North America and United Jewish Communities, as well as private donors. Ancis said the site manages to operate on “an amazing shoestring budget.” She has utilized the work of several interns from New York University and an educational consultant, Audrey Korelstein.
Korelstein said that Toldot “is very informed by current educational philosophies, like Multiple Intelligence and Whole Child,” which focus on giving students diverse ways to acquire and demonstrate knowledge.
For a lover of both Judaism and the arts like Ancis, creating Toldot was a logical extension of her talents. She trained as a Reform rabbi at Hebrew Union College and received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Parsons School of Design.
Now that she has gotten her pet project off the ground, Ancis looks forward to expanding its reach in the coming school year. “For next year, we plan to have 10 pilot day schools and 10 supplemental synagogue schools,” Ancis said.
The museum’s inclusiveness makes it an ideal opportunity for Jews from around the world to connect and find satisfaction in the commonalities of their lives, she said. “I want kids to know that however they practice, whatever they believe in, there is a very diverse Jewish world out there for them.”