When Mordechai Lightstone attended the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) in 2010 to speak about ‘Judaism 2.0,’ he packed a little something else in his suitcase besides his clothes.
“We bought kosher meat in New York and brought it with us,” said the 29-year-old social media director for Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters who, with his wife, Chana, traveled to Austin from their home in Brooklyn with the plan of throwing a one-off kosher bbq.
Little did they know that their bbq, which they initially tweeted as an open invitation for one and all, would soon become a SXSW tradition.
Today, #openShabbat, which bills itself as an “unplugged Sabbath,” now attracts upwards of 150 people – many of whom are participants in the popular conference on emerging technology. And the couple recently expanded to Comic-Con San Diego, too, a popular mega conference for comics and popular culture fans.
For Lightstone these types of casual Shabbat meals at some of the 21st century’s most frenetic and plugged-in gatherings, are the perfect way to give all Jews from every background a chance to “connect and unwind.”
“It’s an exploration of what it means to be a Jew, especially at a festival where you are out of your element,” said Lightstone. “This is a way to give people a chance to express their Jewish identity and to have a Jewish experience, which is no longer reserved just for the synagogue or at home. People can grow as Jews even at places as crazy as SXSW or Comic-Con.”
In a way, this merging of what on the surface seems like two distinct universes – emerging communications and Judaism – perfectly describes Lightstone’s own story.
Born and raised in Los Angeles to parents who work in the film industry, he became religious on his own at the age of 14.
“It was the logical conclusion of Jewish identity to me,” he said in looking back. “It I felt like this was how I was meant to be Jewish. I felt complete.”
These days, Lightstone lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children, working as the Director of Social Media at Chabad-Lubavitch World headquarters.
But back in 2006, when he was living in Warsaw as part of a group of rabbinical students sent to help local families, he found himself blogging about their lives in Poland. Soon people beyond just his family and friends were reading his essays and thoughts.
It was then that the light bulb went on.
“I realized that there was this whole community online you can reach out to and have conversations with,” he said. “It opened my eyes to the potential of connecting with overs through the Internet.”
In 2007 after being ordained as a rabbi, Lightstone returned to America and settled in Crown Heights. He started writing for Chabad headquarters news site lubavitch.com. At first he was blogging, but soon he expanded his scope beyond just the centralized website to Facebook and Twitter, where he would post (or tweet) about his latest articles.
What he found was that by alerting people to his work on social media he increased community and dialogue around the content.
“I approached my editor and suggested that we really be on this [social media] as well as this is the future,” recalled Lightstone about the then still emerging platforms.
So after Lightstone officially became a staff writer for Lubavitch.com, he began his career broadening their reach via social media. This turned out to be a timely move as only a week later, Chabad found itself under attack by terrorists in Mumbai, India.
“I started tweeting immediately after the terrorist attacks to let people know what was going on and to get the word out,” said Lightstone.
What Lightstone found so powerful was the way social media enabled them to have conversations with individuals around the world. For unlike articles that are static, once something is posted on social media, people can weigh in, interact and become engaged on a whole new level.
What Lightstone quickly concluded was that it was important to take Judaism itself to the world via this emerging technology.
“It’s a chance for Jews to explore and grow in their Jewish identities in the platforms the world is moving onto,” he said. “This is where the conversation is. This is where Jews express themselves as Jews.”
Open Shabbat is a continuation of this conversation.
“It’s my hope that whatever interaction I have with others, be it a tweet online or a l’chaim at one of my events, serve as the impetus for others to grow as Jews,” he said.