This post is by Matt Williams, a second year student in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies.
I want to place a bet.
I would be totally unsurprised to discover that Isaac Meyer Wise, Solomon Schechter, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Nechama Leibowitz, Joseph Soloveitchik, the Tanya, Maimonides, the Talmud, and even the Torah itself are all second when it comes to the most consulted sources on Jewishness and Judaism today. And distant seconds at that.
If I had to bet on the most consulted source about Jewishness, I’d put my money on wikipedia. Actually, I’d bet some of you just wikipedia-ed some of those names.
Thinking holistically about the entire ecosystem of Jewish education as it exists in North America today, from Jewish Day Schools to Summer Camps, from Chabad House to Moishe House, from March of the Living to Birthright Israel, I’d wager more Jews learn more Jewish things on wikipedia any day of the week than in any combination of those programs.
I’m fairly confident in this bet because, if it weren’t the case, Jews would be a complete aberration, a giant statistical anomaly. Everybody uses wikipedia. Google the word “Jews” and the first two sites returned belong to wikipedia. High school students and college students use wikipedia for course-related research in tremendous numbers (often spending more time on wikipedia than reading their textbooks). Even graduate students are getting in on the act: nursing students, in particular, are now being encouraged to use wikipedia and integrate it into their very training. Wikipedia has more hits on a daily basis than there are Jews in the world. By a factor of 20.
Which means either that Jews are extraordinary users of wikipedia, or that lots of people — both Jewish and not — are using wikipedia to learn about all of the dimensions of Jewish life.
What are the implications of this? What happens when more people, both Jewish and not, are finding out more about Jews and Judaism through wikipedia? Not Hebrew School. Not sacred texts. Not rabbinical or scholarly writings. Instead, information about Jews has been “crowdsourced,” and, as a result, it has changed the dimensions of the Jewish educational world in some radical ways. To ignore this in the 2013, to cast it out of the classroom, is tantamount to undermining what might be the most popular vehicle of “Jewish” literacy today. But, of course, how can we expect students to know how to understand and use wikipedia when most of us don’t?
We, researchers, educators, and students all, can study summer camps and survey synagogues, but we’re missing the real story here: We need to start paying more attention to wikipedia if we want to take seriously how people learn what “Jewish” means in the 21st century.