by Jonathan Woocher
For millennia, community has been at the heart of Jewish life. It is by seeking to be a model community guided by principles of justice and compassion – not just a collection of moral individuals – that Jews have taken on the mission of helping to repair the world. Over many centuries the forms of Jewish community have changed, but the commitment to create and sustain institutions through which Jews can celebrate and learn together, feed the hungry, tend to the elderly, and undertake the myriad of other activities that define Jewish living has never waned. In North America in the 20th century Jews built a set of vigorous voluntary institutions that has been the envy of other ethnic and religious communities.
Now, in the 21st century, the landscape of Jewish life is shifting. Loyalty to institutions in the form of membership, affiliation, and financial support appears to be declining. At the same time, new ways of forming and sustaining relationships and new modalities of social action are proliferating thanks to technology-driven platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and a host of others. We live much of our lives now “in the cloud,” a fluid space where we have access to people and ideas that transcends geographical and other boundaries. For a growing number of people, especially younger people, purposeful collaboration and forging intimate relationships no longer depend on joining or supporting institutions.
Jewish learning and learning generally have been affected as well by this new reality. We no longer need to go to schools or libraries to see and listen to great teachers, to find slews of information, or to interact with fellow learners. Here too, the cloud beckons, offering freedom and flexibility.
So, the question arises: Does “Jewish community” have a future? Does the combination of the individualism that dominates contemporary culture, the fluidity of identity in the modern world, and the new vehicles for communicating, connecting, and organizing that social media make available render Jewish community as we have known it obsolete?
Perhaps, the challenge to Jewish community today is less about substance than about form. One can argue that the impulses that have driven Jews to seek out others for the multiple purposes – from security to celebration – for which humans come together have not abated. It is how this coming together will take place and with whom that is now very much up for grabs. Yet, even if it is not “community” per se that is threatened, two things are clear: First, the Jewish community cannot expect to operate as it has in the past; and second, we do not yet have a clear image of what a new framework of community looks like.
These realities form the backdrop for the upcoming 3rd Jewish Futures Conference, to be held in New York on June 4. The conference will explore the evolving nature of community and whether and how we can achieve a synthesis of new and time-honored forms of acting and learning together as Jews. How can institutions remain vibrant and vital in an era of cyber-connections? How can we infuse what happens in the cloud with the core values that have animated Jewish collective life over the centuries? Can we forge a “blended” community where the stability of institutions, the immediacy of face-to-face relationships, and the speed and global reach of social media combine to create a powerful source of physical, spiritual, and ethical energy to sustain Jewish life and renew the world?
These are questions without easy answers. But, with an investment of thousands of years and billions of dollars at stake, they are questions we need to be asking.