Frisch Junior Wins Microgrant for Virtual Reality Tanach Project

December 21, 2017

Yeshivat Frisch junior and game developer Judah Mantell has won a “Student-Driven Solutions: Applying Technology to Jewish Studies” microgrant from The Jewish Education Project to develop a project titled “Don’t just read the Tanach, experience it!” This project is supported by The Jewish Education Project, with generous funding from the AVI CHAI Foundation.

The project, conceptualized by Mantell under the mentorship of Frisch Director of Educational Technology and Tanach teacher Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, will virtually transport students to the world of Tanach through Virtual Reality (VR) technology, in an immersive visual experience. (Think of your old-school viewfinders, but way more interactive and high-tech.) The VR world will allow students to visualize specific places and objects mentioned in different parts of Tanach, which may be difficult to imagine from only reading the text.

The project will be Mantell’s first foray into VR development, which he described as “one of the least mainstream mediums.” He is already an experienced PC game developer and creator of virtual environments, having produced three original video games to date and founded his own company, MidnightCoffee, inc. while still a sophomore. In June, he delivered a presentation to over 1000 people, about the launch of his first game, Roswell, and the development of his gaming studio, at the largest edtech conference in North America, the International Society for Technology in Education Conference (ISTE). (Frisch was the only yeshiva high school to lead four sessions at the conference.)

“Being both an avid game enthusiast and game developer, I am always looking for ways to incorporate new tech into what I do,” said Mantell. “VR is one of those things that is not fully understood by many people (descriptions don’t do the experience justice), so I think that being able to give people the opportunity to experience high-end VR (not smartphone based) in a Tanach classroom environment is very special. I truly cannot state enough how excited I am and how amazing it is for me—both as a developer and as a student—to see and be able to [virtually] walk around the places we read about every day in Tanach class.”

However, Mantell firmly believes that the project will work alongside traditional classroom learning, not replace it. “Though I do plan on having the actual text [of Tanach] pop up in the VR world, nothing beats having an actual teacher guiding the student,” he said. “What the student sees in the [VR] headset will be mirrored on a screen for the class and the teacher to see.”

Pittinsky, who will be mentoring Mantell during the term of the microgrant, explained that he and Mantell will be learning sefer Yirmiyahu—a book that Pittinsky described as “highly visual,” particularly the earlier chapters. Pittinsky believes that VR could also be well-applied to books within the Nevi’im Achronim that contain prophetic visions (think Zechariah), as well as the geographical sections of Tanach.

“When there are areas of Tanach that are focused on geography, they are usually skipped in class,” said Pittinsky, listing the chapters about the apportioning of the Land of Israel in the second half of sefer Yehoshua and the descriptions of the different gates of Jerusalem in the book of Nehemiah as examples. “But I don’t think we should be skipping them; there is a reason they are included in the Navi. We may not be able to physically go on a field trip to the walls of Yerushalayim, or to Eretz Yisrael when Yehoshua is dividing the land according to the shevatim, but we can go virtually.”

Pittinsky also believes that VR projects have immense educational potential as a tool for alternative, project-based assessments outside of traditional testing environments. “This could be used by students after they learn, and it could give them further insight into a chapter of Tanach,” said Pittinsky. “The tool to create virtual environments is not necessarily difficult to learn, and there is a certain subset of students who would engage much more with the text if they could visualize it. It has the potential to give kids who are highly visual an opportunity to show their learning—and by showing their learning they are also learning. VR has the potential to give people an immersive educational experience, but it may be even more meaningful for the people creating it.”

Mantell noted his appreciation for the support Frisch has provided while he has pursued his passion in the world of tech development. “I am very lucky to have such supportive teachers in this school,” he said. “While many people might dismiss game development as childish, everyone here has really understood the artistry behind what I do and pushed me more than ever to always follow my passion. And, with Rabbi Pittinsky being the head of educational technology at Frisch, he is very open to adopting new tech to use in the classroom.”