One of this year’s plenary speakers at the third-annual e-Formation Conference is Sarah Lefton, an award-winning Jewish educator and creator of G-dcast. The website offers videos, apps, teacher’s guides, and other tools that harness new media for religious education.
Lefton recently spoke with the CMT about her media background and her work with G-dcast.
Center for the Ministry of Teaching: The official tagline for G-dcast is “Meaningful Jewish Screentime,” but the site has also been called “Schoolhouse Rock for Jews.” Were there particular TV shows, books, or other “old media” that influenced your new media approach to religious education?
Sarah Lefton: I have always been a really big fan of media that helps people learn on their own. So when I was a kid, I was a huge fan of those “learn to draw” correspondence classes, of watching Bob Ross paint “happy little trees” on TV, and of course, cooking shows!
The other thing that’s been so influential to me were early video games, especially the Infocom games (Adventure, Zork, Hitchhiker’s). It was through playing those games and telling my friends about them that I learned how to explain technology to people.
CMT: You’re very aware that many of the learners you serve “feel awkward about their Jewish knowledge.” We resonate with that experience in the Christian education world, and we know it can be a barrier to learning. How do you help G-dcast users overcome it?
SL: Mainly through humor. Through using simple, easy to understand language that occasionally surprises you with jokes or songs. We also use humor in the art, of course.
But it’s important to say that we’re not dumbing anything down; we’re just acknowledging that the Bible is occasionally hard to understand and religious concepts are tough to grasp when they’re new (and old!) and that it’s fine! It’s worth digging in and we try to make it pay off pretty quickly by offering insights that are relevant today.
CMT: You’re an alum of the “infamous Interactive Telecommunications Program” at NYU, and you were there at what must have been a very exciting time. What was the culture like in that program? Do you feel like you were in on the ground floor of the internet revolution?
SL: ITP is a very exciting place where artists and technologists and crazy thinkers all come together and throw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
I happened to be there during the birth of the web era. All around us the first dot com boom was starting to take root and go crazy and I just remember being in the program and thinking, who wants to work on websites? That’s so boring. I want to build robots and audio mazes and unexpected instruments that show you pictures when you play them!
It’s funny that you asked about it being the “ground floor,” because ITP is on the fourth floor of a building on lower Broadway and it’s definitely a floor of magic. Everyone calls it “the floor”— and it’s really the magic place that Red Burns built with her passion for experimentation, art, storytelling, and creativity.
I’m so grateful for her mentorship and vision. So many of us who have worked in New York for the last forty years have so much to thank her and ITP for.
CMT: It sounds like your time as marketing director for Camp Tawonga, Northern California’s independent Jewish summer camp, was was very formative for your career. What did that setting teach you about religious education?
SL: I loved Jewish summer camp as a child. In so many ways, it changed my life, and I know that so many children have similar stories.
Camp is a place for informal education—and working behind the scenes shows you how to make that kind of programming happen. I learned how to think about goals versus tactics and how to reach out differently to different types of campers (and parents).
CMT: You say in your Twitter bio that you’re “[o]ddly preoccupied with the Book of Leviticus.” That particular book seems like a strange entry point for people who don’t know much about Torah. Can you describe the challenge of making law, as a biblical genre, accessible to learners?
SL: You know, in some circles, Leviticus is the first book that children learn, because it’s the most straightforward. When you think about it, teaching Genesis to children is almost absurd. The intra-family disputes, murders, the mess of the Flood—wow, sometimes I think it’s really crazy that we teach it to children at all.
Leviticus, by contrast, just lays it all out pretty simply. Rules. Holiness. Punishments. Blessings. To me, it was obvious that we needed to make a game about it, because that’s what games are, great rule sets. If you do this well, you get this great reward. If you screw this up, this terrible thing will happen to you.
Making a game about the book makes it fun to learn and easy to almost accidentally learn all of the rules, and it takes away the distance between modern life and the priesthood. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have priests exactly today, these rules take on different glosses for a modern person. Teaching them this way makes it more fun.
CMT: One of our first experiences with your mobile apps was a Friday afternoon playing ArkEscape, in which the learner helps Noah deal with the boat’s rising poop problem. You and your team created that app in one day with families at Adas Israel Congregation here in Washington. Is it fair to say you’re as interested in media education as religious education?
SL: 100%. Through teaching media skills, we are covertly delivering literacy skills. The kids are having so much fun designing a video game about poop, they don’t realize they’ve absorbed a dozen rabbinic stories.
CMT: You obviously have the pulse of the secular arts and education worlds. What’s a non-faith media project out there that has you excited right now?
SL: I have two little kids, and I could not be more excited about showing them Peg + Cat. It’s a great new show on PBS from the Fred Rogers Center that is doing early math literacy through very fun, musical storytelling. We all love it. And when I’m being a grown up, the new season of Louie!
CMT: Sarah, thanks so much! We’re looking forward to your presentation at the conference.
The Center for the Ministry of Teaching (@VTS_CMT) curates faith formation resources for dioceses, congregations, and schools in the Episcopal Church and beyond. It hosts the annual e-Formation Conference at Virginia Theological Seminary.