Identity, Religion

Post-Geographic Judaism

Anyone who has a message relevant to any segment of the general populace in America, be they corporate or non-profit, will eventually have to develop and maintain some sort of presence on social networks if they want their message to be heard.  Period.  We already know that the majority of young adults (75% of Americans aged 18-24, according to Pew) are on social networks, but 3.2 million seniors have also joined Facebook in the past year. Social networking is bigger than email. Social media has far beyond proven itself as being an integral part of any marketing or publicity strategy.

But on a sociological level, social networking has also irreversibly altered the definition of the interpersonal relationship. A "friend" is what one gains with a click of a button, itemized on a "list"; what one "likes" is their content.  We make new "friends" when we find other network members with similar interests.  Ours is an age of feeds and connections, of following and stumbling, of seamlessly interacting with our favorite brands, celebrities and highschool classmates in a growing sea of content.  Those who interact with the same type or source of content — be they programmers updating the same piece of open-source software, a social network’s user base, or a group of armchair videographers documenting their lives on YouTube — invariably eventually form a "community."

Essentially, the affiliated Jewish community could be similarly defined:  a group of people who choose to interact with the same type of content — granted, much more sublime (Divine?) content than YouTube’s — united by a bond infinitely stronger than a mass group invitation.   Today’s "community" is a group of people whose connection is not determined by geography, but by their affinity for the content which unites them.  It is the affinity for publicly available code that unites the open source community; similarly, it is the affinity for Jewish values, texts and concepts that unites the Jewish community. 

Affinity and geography may not always intersect.  It holds true for web 2.0 and exponentially more true for Jewish life.  There is no shortage of testimonies of people who are bogged down by the geographically-defined Jewish communities in which they live. 

It has become counter-productive, then, to define Jewish community in terms of geographic location: both to the Jews in and outside of said community.

It is time for post-geographic Judaism.

Our Jewish neighborhoods — especially Orthodox ones (especially in New York) —  are rife with Jewish kids (and adults) who are finding themselves in the wrong place, all the time.  When one is dissatisfied with one’s immediate surroundings — the shul, the JCC, the neighborhood — one tends to withdraw, a withdrawal which can equal dropping out entirely in smaller communities. Yet the social networks are still there — perhaps even more so.

We must begin to at least partially divest the offline relationship from the idea of affiliation. If there is anything we have learned from Facebook, it is how easy it is to, with enough tenacity, scour the globe and find "one million people" who agree with a given assertion or cause.  Jewish causes are no exception.  These people are effectively no less connected than their offline counterparts in a community center.  While there may be less of us going to shul and joining Jewish organizations, more of us are joining — and becoming active participants in — Facebook, YouTube,  and Twitter. 

A decline in synagogue attendance and offline affiliation does not necessarily mean the death-knell for Jewish observance when organic, intentional online communities are seen as equally relevant and salient as their offline counterparts.  When we see our online relationships not as "less than" our offline ones, but as differently-structured equally strong connections, our sense of "community" is redefined.  In the online realm, a user goes from "unaffiliated" to "connected" in an instant.  Every connection is intentional, yet effortless.  This is a phenomenon which can save Judaism.  

Social networking has not superseded "organized religion", in fact, it has re-organized it.  

Barriers to affiliation can cease to exist if the chat room is seen as equal to the pew.  A "join" button is far less daunting than an unfamiliar synagogue, and its connections no less real.  A rabbi accessible via text message is now privy to his congregation’s thoughts when they are secure behind their cell phones.  A webcasted Hillel event now has twice as many attendees.  And perhaps most importantly, the previously cold or unfamiliar minyan is now a tweetup, comprised of members who follow each other — because they like each others’ content.   Top-down hierarchical rabbinic communication is being eschewed in favor of the Hillary-esque "conversation"– and as we learned from the Lipa Shmelczer incident, even the most ideologically conservative communities no longer stomach being talked "at". 

Building offline religious/cultural affiliation can only be done in the framework of the new sociology.  The offline relationship is no longer the "goal" of the online interaction — social media must be appreciated as equally valid and viable alternative modes of communication.  Until the Facebook group member, Twitter follower, and MySpace friend all feel as connected to our organizations as the person in the adjacent chair, that chair will always be in danger of remaining empty.

25 thoughts on “Post-Geographic Judaism

  1. Fascinating article – I definitely hear what you’re saying. It’s certainly more safe and comfortable to be Jewishly involved online, and the internet is definitely making the Jewish world both a smaller, and infinitely larger, place. However, I’d like to pose a question: until what point do Jews limit their Jewish experiences to the computer screen? Don’t you think there’s something to be said for physical, interpersonal experiences? I think people enjoy using the internet and social media as a tool, but is it ultimately satisfying to limit your identity expression and exploration to a computer screen? And how do you account for the growing popularity of nondenominational (offline) programs like Limmud, or the exponential growth of nondenominational minyanim in NYC?

  2. I think the real power of the internet is enabling people to move relationships back and forth between cyberspace and meatspace. Limiting your Jewish experience to just cyberspace is like only having basic cable (or, for you older folks out there, only ever watching VHS channels without ever switching to UHF). You’ll get a certain amount out of it, and you might not know what you’re missing, but once the full spectrum of what’s available opens up to you, it’s hard to go back to one mode of interaction. I would argue that the same formula can apply to those who only ever interact with their local, in-person community and never explore the world beyond their synagogue (online or otherwise).
    I can tell you that this year I’m going to the National Havurah Committee Summer Institute largely on the strength of recommendations from friends and “friends” whom I know primarily online. Many of them I’ll be meeting face-to-face for the first this summer, and yet those pre-existing online relationships helped motivate me to go.
    I hear from my high school students that they’re using facebook and other groups to “meet” their future college classmates (or Israel tripmates, or whathaveyou) far in advance of actual meetings… and that after they’ve known each other in real life, they often find their “best friends” from the online world aren’t the people they most enjoy interacting with in person. That’s okay too.
    I think the computerized interactions work best when you think of these relationships in three parts… before, during, and after. Before, we can break the ice and start to get comfortable with the group. “During” ideally happens in person, and that’s where relationships are deepened and strengthened. After, the internet becomes a tool to maintain relationships and continue conversations until (ideally) the next time people can get together in person.

  3. Yes, both of you are right however, what I was trying to stress is that the person who is connected via the online platform is still connected, as much as his or her offline counterpart. I’m not discounting the need for offline relationships, far from it — but we need to stop discounting the online ones as well.
    If we discount that first step — the step of clicking “join” or “accept invitation” — as not being a “real connection”, then we run the risk of extinguishing a nascent flame or belittling someone’s first steps towards affiliation (and perhaps, G-d forbid, even belittling them).

  4. Y-Love – I agree, to a point. But if a connection is totally devoid of content, then the question remains how to fan that flame.

  5. Have you people actually organized anything using social networking? Clicking “join” or “accept invitation” means nothing.
    Experience 1: We had around 400 people signed up on our Jewish activities Facebook group at our University, and every time I would do a mass email to invite people for Shabbat I would get messages back from people outraged at how much spam they get from me (one facebook email a week!) and threatening to contact facebook to get me banned. In fact, facebook did suspend my account until I explained that I was the Admin for the group, sending messages to group members (who joined voluntarily!) about group activities.
    I should note, we had 1200 people (75% non-Jews) signed up to our pro-Israel group, with a highly comparable experience.
    Lesson 1: Most people sign up to online groups not to belong, but to show others that they belong. In other words, they’re not trying to include themselves, but to not exclude themselves.
    Experience 2: For every 10 people that click “accept invitation”, only 2-4 will come.
    Lesson 2: Commitment does not exist on Facebook/MySpace, etc. The only recourse is to supplement online activity with follow up phone calls and personal interaction. If you want commitment, you need to make it personal. Social guilt works in place of other motivation.
    Experience 3: Of those 400 people who were signed up, despite dozens of events, programs, activities, and every other synonym you will find, there was a core group of 30, an extended group of 30 more, and the rest never showed up, never responded to an email, etc. Similar percentages with pro-Israel group.
    Lesson 3: Individuals who are highly motivated can use online tools to enrich their connections and experience. Individuals who lack motivation will not gain motivation from an online experience.

  6. Experience 2 is not uncommon — I use 50% as a general rule when it comes to Facebook invitations. Of your given 10, I would have expected 4-5. And your outlook, as reflected from the tone of this comment, is what I’m talking about: it seems that you feel disappointed that people didn’t come for Shabbat (offline relationship). Did they leave the group? If not, the online relationship is still there.
    What I’m talking about is leveraging the online intentional, effortless relationship. How about a shiur or party webcasted, a blogtalkradio show, etc — which makes their next intentional step voluntarily asking when Shabbat is? You’re going to stay disappointed as long as the offline relationship is viewed as “the goal” that you’re “pushing for”. Spam emails never work. The point isn’t bringing the message to the people’s inboxes, the point is getting people to opt-in.

  7. It’s also worth noting that there’s a similar RSVP-to-actual-participant rates at programs that exist entirely online. Hell, when I worked at a synagogue, I had congregants who wouldn’t even take my phone calls when all I was offering was to send care packages to their kids in college!

  8. You’re going to stay disappointed as long as the offline relationship is viewed as “the goal” that you’re “pushing for”. Spam emails never work. The point isn’t bringing the message to the people’s inboxes, the point is getting people to opt-in.
    Firouz’ mistake I think is that he’s missing the point. Online isn’t another way for the rabbi/organizer to push the standard call-and-respond boredom that led people away to begin with. It’s a way for people to affiliate however much they feel comfortable with — and if it’s just one group in their list of groups, then that’s all they want from you, so leave off.
    The real proof of the pudding is the Jewish life that happens online off YOUR group list. Maybe it happens when a group member (or friend of a group member!) sees your event and thinks (at the very least), “Screw that” and who go off to do their own Jewish thing elsewhere.
    Also — ask your peeps what they want first, then program. Maybe your Shabs events don’t meet their needs.
    Chicken, meet egg.

  9. it seems that you feel disappointed that people didn’t come for Shabbat (offline relationship)
    It’s not about me. I was referring to the focus some have placed on the “online relationship”, and the reality of how that relationship translates into action. Those who come to the online relationship with motivation will translate that into physical action, and those who don’t will not likely be persuaded by online engagement.
    I am not in the least convinced that the online experience, by itself, is of any consequence, and for the precisely the point many of you make. The online experience limits an individual to what they are comfortable with, and because they control the experience, they will continue to stay in their comfort zone. The goal, as I see it, is to bring Jews out of their comfort zone, to give them a chance to perform a transformational act that makes them uncomfortable, that challenges and inspires their sense of identity and Yiddishkeit.
    Maybe your Shabs events don’t meet their needs.
    Of partying, drinking and hooking up? Probably not, but that’s the problem of tailoring programs to young adults who don’t have a foundation in Yiddishkeit. In my experience, they come because they lack something outside their comfort zone, and they want to find it. They can go clubbing later.
    Then again, I understand most of you are programming on the coasts, where levels of Jewish affiliation, participation and education are higher than here in the non-Chicago MidWest. We dragged people to Shabbat dinners who thought they were second generation Catholics until we asked about their mother’s mother and put a lulav in their hand.
    To agree with KFJ (gasp!), I’ll say this… If you want to see impact in the short term, you’re about to be devastated. It’s been two and a half years since I organized the last Shabbat dinner, Torah study, etc. I meet people now who came to Jewish events as kids (17, 18), and it never works out the way you intended or the way you think it will, but they create their own unique connections to Yiddishkeit.
    It’s not within our ability to control anyone’s development. All you can do is engage people as best you are able, give them the truth – Torah, mitzvos – and leave the rest to them and Hashem. That’s the only reason to do this – to give Jews what is theirs – an inheritance some don’t know they have – and let them decide what to do with it.
    and if it’s just one group in their list of groups, then that’s all they want from you, so leave off
    I don’t have the patience to do this, and I don’t see what it accomplishes. I would much rather pass a Jew on the street, offer them to wrap tefillin and stand there as they start huffing and puffing in the hot sun to undo their sleeve and roll it up, meanwhile balancing a backpack and two books in the other hand. That will make an impact. Holding back invitations to a Shabbat dinner because you’re afraid of how many people will quit the group at your “spamming” will not make an impact.
    Our perspectives stem from different approaches. I believe a mitzvah is a unique connection between a Jew and G-d, and it is proper to encourage such connections, in yourself as well 😉

  10. Firouz, we’re in a lovefest:
    The goal, as I see it, is to bring Jews out of their comfort zone, to give them a chance to perform a transformational act that makes them uncomfortable, that challenges and inspires their sense of identity and Yiddishkeit.
    Agreed.
    That’s the only reason to do this – to give Jews what is theirs – an inheritance some don’t know they have – and let them decide what to do with it.
    Agreed.
    Our perspectives stem from different approaches.
    Agreed!
    I believe a mitzvah is a unique connection between a Jew and G-d, and it is proper to encourage such connections, in yourself as well.
    Oh my, I can’t stop agreeing!
    We dragged people to Shabbat dinners who thought they were second generation Catholics until we asked about their mother’s mother and put a lulav in their hand.
    Aw shit, you lost me here. You lost me at “dragged” and “mother’s mother.” (And again at “thought they were second gen Catholics” but I’ve already discussed my thoughts on multiple cultural identities elsewhere.)
    I think part of the problem of people wanting to control their own interactions is because of too many people like yourself telling them there’s only one way to do Jewish — in your case, that’s orthodoxy. I know you do it with good intentions, but I really do think this is caused by a large backlash against being “reached”.

  11. I think part of the problem of people wanting to control their own interactions is because of too many people like yourself telling them there’s only one way to do Jewish — in your case, that’s orthodoxy. I know you do it with good intentions, but I really do think this is caused by a large backlash against being “reached”.
    I couldn’t have said it better, but replace “orthodoxy” with “cultural/bagels and loks/fiddler on the roof/make Torah adapt to me Judaism”.
    I still love you, thought.

  12. Firouz writes:
    The goal, as I see it, is to bring Jews out of their comfort zone, to give them a chance to perform a transformational act that makes them uncomfortable, that challenges and inspires their sense of identity and Yiddishkeit.
    Except for you? Or is that what you’re doing here?

  13. Of course including me. It is precisely organizing Jewish activity that caused me to think deeply about my own Yiddishkeit, and to take practical steps to take practical action in my own life.

  14. “We dragged people to Shabbat dinners who thought they were second generation Catholics until we asked about their mother’s mother and put a lulav in their hand.”
    Please, kill me now.

  15. Oh please, it was a turn of phrase. I suppose if I had said “at gunpoint” you’d take that literally too. I suppose you guys wouldn’t look too kindly at our Extreme Mitzvah Campaign either, huh? 🙂
    And yes, I don’t know what your experiences are, but on my campus we encountered all kinds of Jews – Catholic Jews, Bahai Jews (from Iran), Muslim Jews (from Saudi!), Budhist Jews, Knights of Templar Jews, Russian Jews, Iranian Jews, Argentinian Jews, secular “bagels and loks” Jews, even (gasp!) “atheist” Jews. It was quite a smorgasbord of Yidden.
    And yes, we made sure that each one knew they were a Jew, with a Jewish soul and a Jewish inheritance, and that each one had every opportunity to connect with their Yiddishkeit.

  16. Templar Jews?!? Didn’t even know they were still extant.
    I’m not sure I know what you’re referring to. This particular Jew was a Knight Templar. He grew up Reform – thanks guys! You should have heard the ridiculousness coming out of his mouth when I first met him. He thought the kippa was a condensed witches hat, and that Jews recite incantations to cause all sorts of mischief. No joke. He actually told me quite a bit about the Knights. Apparently, a lot of their religious ritual stuff is taken from parts of the Zohar, which the Knights brought back after the Crusades. Which shows, once again, how dangerous Jewish mysticism is in the wrong hands.
    So is Firouz a kiruvnik or not?
    Kiruv is more an Aish thing, no?
    And yes, I do like some Arabic music, although I will readily admit the scantily clad women won me over before the music did. I have performed Nancy Ajram’s Oul tany keda (no youtube link because we’re counting Omer) for a select group of friends, but that’s a secret. Shhh!!!

  17. “in your case, that’s orthodoxy.”
    Hmm. Orthodoxy’s a big branch. This dragging around of “people who thought they were second generation Catholic” stuff doesn’t sound that stam Orthodox – but it does sound quite a bit like Chabad. Firouz, any chance that you’ve been hanging out at Chabad House someplace?

  18. I know what the Knights Templar are – I just thought they were wiped out in the 14th century. Da Vinci Code and all that. Fnord.

  19. BBN, you’d be right in thinking that. According to the wikipedia link that Firouz provided:
    “There is no clear historical link between the Knights Templar, which were dismantled in the 1300s, and any of these other organizations, of which the earliest emerged in the 1700s. However, there is often public confusion and many overlook the 400-year gap.”

  20. Phenonmenally insightful article…I see the day when Jews (and others for that matter) will find spiritual ‘communities’ in an online environment.

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