Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Next Phase in Rabbinic Training: SimCity, SimPlant, SimChildren, SimShuls

[Note: This week’s Haveil Havailim is here.]

First came SimCity, a computer game in which players could experiment with zoning and urban planning and monitor their results. Later editions like SimEarth and SimLife were variations on the same theme, with larger ecosystems.

Then came The Sims, and players managed the lives of characters in a household.

This past May I heard about SimPlants, in which people experiment with care of a potted plant.

In all of these SimSystems, players receive feedback and scores letting them know how they are doing. As a parent, I would love to use SimChildren, to experiment with virtual children before making a real-life decision:

- It’s Friday morning and the two-year-old has a low fever. Motrin seems to handle it, and he isn’t complaining about his throat, but what if it is strep? Shouldn’t we get him checked so that he won’t have to go through Shabbos with strep (and infect every other child in shul)? But that would mean losing a couple of hours sitting in the doctor’s office, and it’s probably just a 24-hour virus….

- The pre-school teacher thinks your child needs occupational therapy for fine motor control. You think your child is just a little immature. Do you follow her recommendation and sign up for twelve weeks of OT/PT? Or do you wing it?

And those are just the small stuff; what happens when you get to choice of high schools, driving lessons and a car, teenage friends and dating…?

SimChildren, coded by experienced parents with no fewer than eight children of their own, would remove much of the mystery, allowing accelerated responses to these difficult decisions.

But professionally, as a shul rabbi, I would really love to see SimShul, in which a rabbi or president could experiment with a virtual congregation. For all the work underway to improve rabbinic training - and there’s a lot of good work out there, from Young Israel’s rabbinic training program to the RIETS training programs to the Legacy Heritage Foundation/Center for the Jewish Future’s rabbinic mentorships to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s pastoral preparation - the best tool would definitely be SimShul.

With SimShul, you can try whatever you like, and see the results before taking the risk: Raise the mechitzah, cut down on kiddush spending, add ויתן לך on Saturday night, increase the number of allowable הוספות (extra aliyot) in the Torah reading, lengthen the Shabbos morning derashah, dump that guy from the board, eliminate the Shabbos morning derashah, start a building campaign, you name it.

We would need different versions, I think, for different religious stripes, different demographics, different cities with different personalities. Just within the Orthodox community there’s Yeshivish, Modern Orthodox/Centrist, Shteibel, Carlebach, Historic Institution, Startup, Breakaway, Chabad, New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Chicago, Small Town, Young, Older…

Yes, this would be a little complex, but think of the benefits... I would pay good money for this.

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  1. It exists, for the most part, in the form of an ou program called JLIC - the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. The Rabbis places on campus serve as the rav of the community. Believe me (I was the JLI Rabbi at the University of Maryland), almost any issue that can come up in a community, does (the exception being hilchot niddah questions, although there are plenty of chatan and kallah classes being taught).
    At the same time, the community is transient enough and the $$ concerns are not as strong (since the balabatim aren't signing the paychecks). the same goes for campus lay leadership; the students who are skilled at coordinating and running the campus community will often make excellent shul officers down the road (and in this sense, "secular" campuses can and does provide much more fertile ground for training lay leadership than YU can and does).
    The training that the campus rabbinate provides for aspiring community rabbis has been overlooked, for the most part. The standard career path is still from glorified secretary under the rabbi of a big, rich shul in the tri-state area, to the small town, and slowly working the way up to being the rabbi of the big, rich shul in the tri-state area where you can have your own glorified secretaries.

  2. An interesting idea, Adderabbi, and I certainly see merit, but I'm not sure it would really translate concretely beyond campus. Each type of community (and even each type of campus!) is different.

    My own experience was that I started in a small Rhode Island shul and then came to Allentown, which is about three times the size. Very different experiences, and campus work wouldn't have really translated directly. (And I have no desire to end up tri-state!)

  3. I understand that not every rabbi has the same aspirations. I was referring stereotyping. I even know where you are, and I'm not very far away, at the moment.
    I agree that every community is different. But that's the point. So many of the tools that a successful community rav must have at his disposal - we can go down a list, if you'd like - can be developed in the context of a campus community. granted, some can't. you might be surprised, however, how much can be developed on campus.

  4. Loved this post. The only hitch is that no parent of eight has the excess time or hubris to contribute to such a project.

  5. AddeRabbi-
    I think you were taking my post more seriously than I was. I wholly agree that the skills needed for the shul rabbinate may be acquired in other settings, and that a campus position (as well as certain internships) can be good for that. In my hypothetical SimShul, though, you could run simulations on a pseudo-shul population and receive feedback. It was really just a joke... But please stop in if you're in the area!

    Juggling Frogs-
    Thanks for commenting; missed you around here!