Anybody’s Judaism

Whose-Opinion-Counts1-400x250Anybody’s Judaism:
If new media offer a platform to anyone with an opinion, whose opinion counts?

By Maayan Jaffe

For generations it has been clear who sets the Jewish agenda and trends: A group of older men in a boardroom backed by major funders and philanthropists. This packaged Judaism wasn’t unique to the Jewish people. Trends – be they in the automobile or clothing industry – were for generations set by major retail establishments that had the funding necessary to access advertising venues and reach the masses. Similarly, the news we read was that which appeared on the front page of the New York Times.

The world has changed.

The model of the all-knowing leader and the passive constituent has come to an end and in its stead is a “me model,” a model of the empowered consumer who demands to be heard by the ranks. And those who don’t have ready access to leadership, do have the tools at their fingertips to share their opinions – on the Web, through blogs, social media or other electronic means. This leads to an information glut, a fusion of data-driven, fact-rooted opinions combined with endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth, which we all have to navigate.

Who decides the Jewish present? Who will decide the Jewish future? When you have “the voice of the individual in dialogue with the voice of mainstream organizations,” as well-known educator and author Dr. Erica Brown puts it, who wins?

She says decisions are made by those who can fund them (or get the funding for them). Well-established philanthropic organizations or funders will likely always determine the Jewish agenda “because of the dollars they put behind particular issues,” she reasons. The issues, however, could shift.

Alan Edelman, a Jewish communal professional and philanthropist for more than three decades, takes this idea a step further. In his role as associate executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, he says he sees an increase in Jewish philanthropic giving. However, those dollars are not being funneled toward traditional Jewish objectives or streams.

“In the past, the only way to give to Israel was through Israel Bonds, Jewish National Fund or the Federation. Now, they are so many NGOs in Israel that relate to people’s interests: religious pluralism, Women of the Wall, those concerned about the condition of democracy in Israel, about settlers in the West Bank. The same way Jews are choosing to express Judaism in new ways that are meaningful to them – and not always the traditional way – it’s the same thing when it comes to philanthropy,” he says.

“Less trustful of institutions and more keen on making a direct impact, this generation of funders tends to tailor its giving to particular areas of interest and expects an active role in molding the projects it funds,” writes philanthropist Jay Ruderman in a blog post published earlier this year.

Edelman says legacy organizations, such as the Federation, will have to broaden the programs they provide and support to meet the changing needs of their constituents and funders – “I don’t think our institutions can keep doing the same old programs,” he says.

But how should these organizations and philanthropists determine investments in programs and services presented in this new social marketplace of ideas? As always, says Brown, individuals express their Jewish identity through a variety of means: culture, food, social networks, religious institutions, etc.

“People define Jewish identity and then others gravitate to it,” Brown says, and where the masses are is a place to start. “We can serve people more efficiently when we know what people really want.”

She charges organizations with creating an “open space for a structured Jewish conversation.”

Times of Israel (ToI), believes it has done that.

Blogger as Expert

More than 4,000 people have used ToI as a platform for expressing their Jewish, Jewish-political or religious ideas over the past three years, according to Ops & Blogs Editor Miriam Herschlag.

“That is a critical mass saying how we want to talk with each other and where we want to meet up,” Herschlag says. “Two years ago, we averaged eight blog posts a day. Today, there are around 35 every day and that number is really growing.”

Herschlag describes the blogger acceptance criteria as “extremely open,” something which worries Brown who feels that such a site should have “higher level filters” to help readers differentiate between expert and non-expert voices. Again, a “structured dialogue.”

“If you can print anything on a platform then it lacks credibility,” she says.

Edelman, too, is concerned.

“It has always been two Jews, three opinions. But we are in a world, unfortunately, where people take sides too strongly and have forgotten the grain in the middle. … It has created a negative discourse,” he says. “The Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam [baseless hatred].”

Herschlag acknowledges this tension but says the value outweighs the worry. ToI has successfully allowed the establishment to “make meaningful contact” with its constituents in an “unprecedented,” way. For example, prospective leaders have been able to float to the top much sooner and in a way that has never happened before.

A blog by Bethany Mandel, “Why you won’t see my name on a Freundel-related suit,” published January 20 shortly after Rabbi Barry Freundel was charged with voyeurism, led to Mandel’s being asked to sit on a Rabbinical Council of America panel to review conversion policies.

“She wrote this treatise on how conversions happen and what shouldn’t happen and it was from the popularity of that piece that she was invited to be on the panel,” says Herschlag.

Moreover, organizational leaders can get a zeitgeist on what is important to their broader constituent base – and prospective constituents – by keeping an eye out for blogs with similar themes or by seeing which blogs are shared widest.

“Those who understand how to communicate in this noisy environment can really be effective. How does this – or should it – impact how decisions might be made for the Jewish future? They used to be top down. Is there more of a bottom up, grassroots way of doing things now? The answer has to be yes,” Herschlag says.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America sits somewhere in the middle. A self-proclaimed “social media evangelist,” Daroff sees social media platforms as “the great democratizers.”

“It is a way that Jewish leaders can be less like the Sanhedrin – unapproachable by mere mortals – but rather 140 characters away. Social media opens doors for regular folks who aren’t blessed to live on the upper east side of Manhattan … to interact and engage with Jewish leadership in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago,” says Daroff, noting that is the responsibility of the establishment to use social media as it is intended – as a place to listen and respond.

Daroff acknowledges there could be “some guy in his underwear in his parents’ basement who has designed a website that is more colorful, helpful and user-friendly” than the Federation’s website and who makes his message easier to relate to than the important one being conveyed by an organization with a more than 100-year history. But he doesn’t see that as a bad thing.

“It encourages the traditional organization without the splashy web presence to up their game,” he says. He has faith that the masses can discern the difference between something Abe Foxman with 60 years of experience and the backing of hundreds of constituents might say and the message of “a person who speaks for no one. … And certainly there are times that Jewish leaders get things wrong and a random person in his basement gets things right and hopefully the marketplace of ideas will settle that.”

“Just as corporations hold an annual meeting with their stockholders who vote on the direction of the company, mega-donors should treat the larger Jewish community as stakeholders in their communal giving enterprise and factor in their aspirations and priorities,” writes Ruderman, noting donors need to stay in sync with the people they are serving and he implies that social discourse is one positive way to do that.

Matt Rissien, whose original Purim rap music video has more than 32,000 views on YouTube, has been leveraging YouTube video as a means to express his Judaism for the last half-decade. He started the endeavor as a way to “adapt my Judaism to the generation I’m living in.” Overtime, he has seen the power of the platform.

“Everyone who makes a Jewish YouTube video is really helping spread the word to kids and families that Judaism is fun and that it’s still cool to be Jewish,” he says.

Says Daroff: “If we are going to survive and thrive as a Jewish community, as Jewish organizations, we need to meet people where they are and among those places are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and any others.”