Digital Judaism is fundamental to the Jewish future and not merely an add-on to enhance in-person interaction.
“It’s great to meet you, Lex! Where do you work?”
This question, asked of me almost every time I meet someone new, couldn’t be more straightforward. At least, in theory.
“Where do you work” seems like it should yield, obviously, the name of an institution for which one is employed in one form or another. To the extent that I have ever heard any pushback on the question (and I have, occasionally), it has been due to two key assumptions. First, when asked as a universal kind of “first question,” it implies that everyone of a certain stage of life “works” as their primary activity, erasing those who are students or those who do not “work” in a traditional sense. Second, when prioritized over other questions, the question can suggest that “work” is the centerpiece of life and more important than where one learns, prays or protests.
For me, this question is really hard. While those two aforementioned issues are important, neither is the primary reason why I struggle to answer. “Where do you work?” is tricky for me because I literally don’t know what the answer is!
I’ll explain a bit more. I do have a job—a traditional one, where I work from approximately 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. The organization I work for is a nonprofit called the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and the projects I work on for it are collectively entitled Judaism Unbound. Those two things are certain. But the problem is … I literally don’t know where my own organization is located.
Because when you work for a digital organization, “where” becomes a funny, complex and incredibly challenging word.
Let’s Dive In
This essay is a prolonged, hopefully articulate attempt at self-care. While I won’t be carrying around copies of it to deploy at awkward cocktail-party conversations (though I’ve had worse ideas), I do hope that writing it helps me confront the next “where” question I face more effectively.
But it’s also much more than that. I take Evolve’s “Groundbreaking Jewish Conversations” tagline seriously because our Jewish world needs more broken ground. Beyond serving my own selfish need to have better small talk, I fundamentally believe that we are in need of a total overhaul in how we conceptualize digital Judaism.
In short, I wish to challenge the following three prevalent ideas:
1) That the internet, and its role in the Jewish world, should be understood primarily through the language of “resources” or “tools”
2) That digital modalities are valuable only to the extent that they provide leverage for projects that are “on-the-ground”
3) That “in-person” interactions are, as a general rule, more tangible, and meaningful, than online relationships, and “in-person” forms of programming inherently deeper than “virtual” gatherings (think of the phrase “real-life” and its linguistic usage as equivalent to “not-digital”)
I will assert, in response to them, my own set of three ideas:
1) That the internet should be understood not only through the language of “resources” or “tools,” to harness for Judaism, but also through the language of “location” or “place” – as a site (pun intended!) where Judaism dwells and experiences reconstruction
2) That digital Judaism is not only instrumentally valuable, as leverage for Jewish projects located offline, but inherently valuable as an end in and of itself
3) That we must approach both offline and online forms of Jewish life, equally, as potentially transformational along spiritual, intellectual, and communal axes – that Jewish belonging, behavior, and belief can develop no less inspirationally at addresses ending in .Com and .Org than they do at those whose suffix is Avenue or Street.
There is an incredible spike occurring in the quantity of digital Jewish material and communities—a spike that may continue to crescendo—but a marked paucity of analysis and framing of that spike. The forum created by Evolve to explore the intersections of technology and Judaism is therefore of the utmost importance, as one of the only places ready to take on that task.
As it (“we” from here on out since I’m becoming part of Evolve through this essay) does so, we must think very carefully about the language we use. In short, our society writ large and Jews in particular have engaged with the idea of the Internet as a “tool” to be used and “resources” to be utilized since it began. However, I think that in 2018, that is only one part of the story of what the digital world is and does.
While it is without a doubt the case that the Internet can be, is and should be an instrument mobilized for all sorts of productive purposes, we must also recognize that it is a place. When I speak about the digital “world”—and digital Jewish “world” in particular—I don’t mean it figuratively. The landscape of digital Judaism is a kind of universe. Websites (note the connotations of the word “site”) are, in a non-trivial sense, locales that people “visit.” Our email addresses (indeed, they are “addresses”) serve as a home base for many of us in a way just as legitimate as our “snail-mail” addresses.
OK…the Internet is a place, but so what?
The ramifications in this shift of digital consciousness are broad for our Jewish communities. First and foremost, the recognition of the Internet as a place means that its Jewish addresses exist side-by-side with offline institutions as locations of Jewish practice. It means that we could understand the proliferation of Jewish Facebook groups (the landscape of such groups is often referred to as “Jewbook”), for example, as comparable to a construction project, in which hundreds of Jewish spaces were built in just a few years. Millions of Jews and billions of human beings have been offered the chance to experience elements of Judaism, no matter their geographic location.
This rapid change means that when somebody asks me “How many Jewish institutions are there in Providence, Rhode Island” (where I live “on the ground,” in addition to my digital addresses), the correct answer is not “three synagogues, a Jewish Federation and a half-dozen or so other spaces,” but “a few thousand online institutions, of a variety of sizes, and 10 or so offline.”
Think about that for a second. We live in an unbelievably exciting moment! Imagine, 40 years ago, that it’s a Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. You’re having trouble falling asleep. You randomly think to yourself, “I have a nagging thought or question about Judaism.” What would your options be?
Even in a large Jewish community, synagogues and other Jewish institutions are closed at that time, and the best you could do would be to head to your bookshelf (if you have one) and page through some Jewish books (if you have them) to find an answer—a time-intensive activity since hard copies don’t provide the option of “Ctrl F”!
Today, that 10:30 pm experience is a regular, rhythmic part of thousands of Jewish lives. They have a moment of Jewish curiosity, and there are hundreds of related pseudo-institutions—websites, conversational groups, applications, videos—that in effect are “open for business.”
More than merely “accepting” the reality of digital Jewish life today, we need to jump into it excitedly and wholeheartedly because the potential it possesses for transcendent experiences of Jewish meaning and community is hard to overstate.
It’s Not a Competition
Let’s confront an elephant in the room. When I advocate for an embrace of digital Judaism in conversation with institutional leaders, I almost always hear a particular response that should not be dismissed. These leaders express nervousness—anxiety even—that digital modalities of Judaism will cause people to dismiss offline opportunities as unnecessary. They argue, not unreasonably, that digital resources and spaces may contribute to a culture in which Jews and others prioritize forms of individual identity over collective experiences.
This point is crucial, and I need to be crystal-clear that it is not trivial. We cannot (yet) hug one another via video chat. There are elements of offline interaction that simply aren’t replicable (yet) in digital spaces. I actively wish to combat forces that would eliminate any opportunities for interaction in a shared physical space.
The way I wish to do that, strangely enough, is precisely by building our infrastructure of digital Judaism. Because, much as some try to frame digital Jewish life as an alternative to “in-person” Judaism (I will come back to “in-person” as a phrase later), I have seen and lived how it actively catalyzes and even creates from scratch offline relationships and communities.
One common example of this phenomenon comes from the world of Jewish Facebook (affectionately: “Jewbook”). A wide variety of groups have arisen, specifically looking to serve as a home for leftist Jews (often LGBTQ and/or anti-Zionist), a population that often experiences marginalization in institutional Jewish spaces located offline. Spread all around the United States and the world, people seeking Jewish spaces where their political views aren’t merely “tolerated,” but centralized, have been empowered by their existence and popularity (one particularly active and notable group, Cool Jews, has 2,600 members as of November 2018, though there are dozens of others).
These groups are full of Jewish conversation, and they often lead to on-the-ground forms of interpersonal connection. Individuals have realized that they live in the same city as many of their fellow group members (whom they may never have met without this digital space), and they start local groups, often built around Shabbat observances, holiday gatherings, and/or shared political activism through a Jewish lens.
A recent post in Cool Jews featured a picture of five group members in Central Florida (by no means a Jewish metropolis) who connected for an evening of Shabbat singing and dinner after meeting each other and then bonding through shared membership in this Facebook space.
The digital is and can be a channel toward the proximal, and vice versa. It’s time for us to collectively transcend the mindset that offline and online manifestations of Judaism are competing against one another, and channel the unique benefits of each into the development of the other.
Time to Contradict Myself
It is a profound and ancient Jewish tradition to pose two largely conflicting points and then argue that each of them, simultaneously, can be true. I will now seek to model this.
I just asserted that a huge benefit of digital Judaism is that it can, and often does, lead to holy experiences in a shared physical space.
We collectively and I individually should make this point less frequently.
I have built dozens of relationships online that have led to shared meals, deep conversations, harmonious communal singing and more. I cherish that fact and actively seek ways to supplement the meaningful, but incomplete “face-to-face” of video chat with the meaningful and sometimes more complete “face-to-face” that comes around a table in a coffee shop or bar.
But I need to say this as well: I, and so many others, have dozens of genuine, deep relationships with people that have only manifested through digital mechanisms and/or via phone. I refuse to write off these connections as insignificant, superficial or less than other experiences. They are absolutely and fundamentally a vibrant component of my web of social relationships, and I cherish them just as I cherish my relationships with those who I interact with exclusively offline in shared physical space.
We all need to actively work against forces that suggest to us that relationships created and fostered online are inconsequential—that they are artificial until we have “finally met in person.”
I recently made a vow to myself that I would avoid that phrase when I do have the pleasure of connecting someone for the first time offline. Why? Because it implies the relationship was incomplete beforehand. While a great deal can be (and usually is) added to a relationship when connecting on the ground, we need to celebrate the reality of digital connection as well.
Why? For a wide variety of people, especially those who are starving to find people whose identities or worldviews resemble their own, the digital world is a godsend (I don’t use God language very much; I mean this in every transcendent sense).
In small towns, in particular, but sometimes even in cities with a large Jewish population, there are far too many Jews (and human beings) who have been sidelined by our society. Along the axis of identity, we can name Jews of color, LGBTQ Jews, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews, among others. In addition to theme, Jews with physical disabilities are worth lifting up here because Jewish institutions are often inaccessible to them. The ability to enter a digital Jewish space from one’s home can absolutely be life-changing (just as taking steps to ensure the accessibility of on-the-ground Jewish spaces can be life-changing).
All of these aforementioned groups are well-represented in digital Jewish spaces—often more so than in “on the ground” institutions—precisely because what they find in their physical communities often disempowers and marginalizes them, causing them to look to the digital realm for belonging.
Along issues of belief, many who identify with Reconstructionism, Jewish Renewal or Humanistic Judaism may be located in areas that lack a synagogue that aligns with their worldview. If they do have one, it might be very small. For non-Zionists—a large and growing segment of the American-Jewish population—the absence of similarly minded people nearby can likewise be frustrating and alienating. The existence of digital spaces where all of the above affiliations are “normal” is therefore crucial. The fact that hundreds of people who hold these identities and worldviews can learn, grow, joke and act together through a Jewish lens can be immensely liberating. We should be doing everything in our power to ensure that that holy work can reach anyone and everyone who feels sidelined in Jewish institutional life.
Where Do We Go From Here?
I believe, with complete faith, that the storehouse of Jewish practices and beliefs and teachings and texts is a gift. It is a gift that we received from our ancestors, which we have the privilege of molding and which we will re-gift to our descendants. They will shape it in their image, celebrating and amplifying some elements of what we did with it, and rejecting others.
Our molding work, in this 21st-century moment, needs to prioritize as one of its most central projects the formation, amplification and sustenance of a digital Jewish universe.
Because here’s what I realized about that question people always ask me: “Where do you work?”
The answer isn’t what I would say at first—that “I work from home.” It’s not “I work in Providence, Rhode Island” either. It’s not even that I work “wherever it is that people listen to our podcast.”
I’m a wandering digital Jew, who spends his workdays traveling between offices that end in .com or .org, all from a desk and computer that could be located anywhere.
My work address, loosely, is JudaismUnbound.com. My school can be found at Zoom.us, where many of my rabbinical school classes take place. The address for much of my Jewish activism is IfNotNowMovement.org, though you will frequently find me in the streets of Providence and Boston as well.
I am part of a few dozen extracurricular clubs devoted to Jewish history and culture, and they gather, 24 hours a day, seven days a week (sometimes six, Shabbat Shalom!) in a tiny blue square on my phone called “Facebook.” My weekly dodgeball league isn’t located online just yet, which is good, because my computer screen is grateful that it avoids repeated contact with flying foam objects.
None of these facts make me less excited to be a synagogue member (shout-out to Agudas Achim in Attleboro, Mass.), set up dozens of Jewishly rich coffee dates in my city or host holiday celebrations at my home. None of these facts, much as I hate to say it, make me particularly interesting or different in a dynamic Jewish world where Jewish growth happens for thousands of people, online and off, every day.
That normalcy is itself precisely what energizes me. We can take for granted as a mundane fact the ability of all human beings to access and reconstruct Judaism from any location on the planet with Wi-Fi or LTE!
What that means for Jews or the world isn’t entirely clear to me just yet. But I’m excited to find out.
That the Internet and its role in the Jewish world should be understood primarily through the language of “resources” or “tools.”
That digital modalities are valuable only to the extent that they provide leverage for projects that are “on-the-ground.”
That “in-person” interactions are, as a general rule, more tangible and meaningful than online relationships, and that “in-person” forms of programming are inherently deeper than “virtual” gatherings (think of the phrase “real-life” and its linguistic usage as equivalent to “not-digital”).
That the Internet should be understood not only through the language of “resources” or “tools” to harness for Judaism, but also through the language of “location” or “place”—as a site (pun intended!) where Judaism dwells and experiences reconstruction.
That digital Judaism is not only instrumentally valuable as leverage for Jewish projects located offline, but inherently valuable as an end in and of itself.
That we must approach both offline and online forms of Jewish life equally as potentially transformational along spiritual, intellectual and communal axes—that Jewish belonging, behavior and belief can develop no less inspirationally at addresses ending in .com and .org than they do at those whose suffix is Avenue or Street.