Judaism On Demand

The web has redefined the way we live and communicate Jewishly

by Raissa Hacohen and Danny Oberman

Accessibility and meritocracy have become the mantra of the young generation. As daily activities have moved online and become more accessible, can the Jewish experience really be that far behind? What do these developments mean for the Jewish people today?

We can certainly learn many lessons from recent history – about what not to do as well as what to do.

In 1993, Microsoft set out to develop the world’s first online encyclopedia, called Microsoft Encarta. Investing a considerable amount of time and resources, Microsoft hired a team of experts who composed over 62,000 articles. Their product was available online for a yearly subscription or by DVD purchase. Eight years later, a competitor entered the market. With minimal capital, Wikipedia launched as a free, online, open-source encyclopedia. Today, Wikipedia offers over 18 million articles for free, written by over a million volunteer contributors and editors worldwide. Do you remember the last time you heard the name MSN Encarta? (Hint: MSN Encarta was discontinued in 2009.)

With the amount of information and technology currently available via the web for free, the world as we know it has been fundamentally transformed. The tectonic plates of technology have shifted, making information easily accessible and free at the click of a button. But this transformation is as much about convenience as free access. Ten years ago, when you watched television, you had a limited choice of content predetermined by the cable channels. Today, with VOD, TiVO, and online streaming, you can access any content you desire at any time. This fundamental change has empowered consumers to create and tailor their own entertainment experience.

In fact, Google has made it so easy to access information, and Facebook and Twitter have made it so effortless to communicate with a wide audience, that one could argue that most of our social activities have moved online. But is it merely the ease with which we can communicate that has drawn our social interaction to the web? Or is it the fact that we can do it in the privacy of our own home?

And even more significantly, might these developments be connected to our natural attraction to meritocracies?

A system that is meritocratic in nature is defined by its ability to credit individuals and their work based upon their merit and not the circumstances of birth, geography or social standing.

YouTube, for instance, which discovered the likes of US pop stars Sam Tsui and Justin Bieber, is an excellent example of such a system. YouTube viewers create a mechanism for measuring the ‘value’ of the content through their ability to view, ‘like’, comment, and share videos. In fact, Justin Bieber’s hit, “Baby,” is the most watched video on YouTube with over half a billion views.

This sense of empowerment, however, is not limited to the realm of entertainment and directly influences Jewish life. In the not-very-distant future, we will see an increasing number of empowered Jews choosing to create and shape their own Jewish experience. No longer constrained by geography or inhibited by their unfamiliarity with Jewish traditions and texts, Jews all over the world will find new ways to connect. By breaking down some of the barriers of entry to traditional Jewish activities, new platforms are being developed to satisfy the demand of those searching for more accessible Jewish experiences.

Here are a few examples:

In 2008, JTN Productions broadcast the first online Yom Kippur service; more than 200,000 Jews logged on to participate. Today, Rabbi Laura Baum runs OurJewishCommunity.org, a virtual synagogue which, among other services, provides access to rabbis, sermons, educational materials, and social networking. WebYeshiva.org offers a fully-interactive online Jewish learning site, allowing anyone with internet access to participate in Jewish learning.

The interactive aspect of these platforms is vital, providing opportunities for both community-building and Jewish engagement. Innovative, accessible activites are leading to new levels of Jewish participation. In 2009, for example, Darim Online launched the “Social Sermon” concept. At the beginning of the week a rabbi posts a question online (via blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) relating to the theme of the portion of the week or to some other relevant Jewish subject. Throughout the week, the community is invited to comment, post, and read the online discussion that develops. On Shabbat, the rabbi gives a sermon integrating the entire community’s previous online discussion and then posts that sermon online.

As for creating accessibility to texts and liturgy in a more meritocratic fashion, platforms like Haggadot.com and the Open Siddur Project are leading the way, enabling users to browse, upload, share their own content, and ultimately create tailor-made Hagaddahs or prayer books according to their own preferences.

Over the past decade, many have expressed an increasing concern with dwindling Jewish engagement. But perhaps we are overlooking an important piece of data. In the 2010 US Jewry study conducted by Professor Leonard Saxe, published by Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, only 33% of those who identified themselves as “Jewish by religion”, or approximately 1.8 million Jews, had ever attended a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and only 22%, approximately 1.2 million, had ever attended a Jewish wedding. As a point of comparison, according to The New York Times, an estimated 2-3 billion people across the globe tuned into the Royal Wedding. These Jewish engagement statistics alone provide a compelling argument for integrating the Jewish online experience into our strategic plan to strengthen the Jewish Community.

Until now, Jewish engagement has largely been defined by one’s participation in institutional Jewish programs or activities such as youth groups, synagogue services, or lifecycle events, which have been steadily declining, and by intermarriage rates, which have been rapidly increasing. But online Jewish engagement may be a manifestation of the natural evolution of the Jewish experience and a reflection of the way the web has changed the way we live and communicate.

For some, and perhaps for many, an online synagogue experience has the potential to be more engaging than a “bricks and mortar” synagogue service – since, online, one can view, pause, repeat, ‘like’, post, discuss, comment on, and share content. Participating in an online service is much more active than often assumed; online participation does not entail passively sitting in front of a screen; rather, it allows participants to transcend space and time by connecting to a community of individuals sharing the same content. A Jew living in Bangor, Maine, now has the unprecedented opportunity to connect to and communicate with, in real time, a virtual community of Jews across the globe.

Jewish social media empowers users to take their Jewish experience into their own hands. This empowerment can facilitate a more active engagement amongst users. Some university professors have started to encourage Twitter use in their lecture halls to facilitate class discussion, enhance classroom engagement, and to keep students engaged beyond the classroom walls. Imagine a scenario in which a rabbi gives a weekly lecture to a large audience, and those in either physical or virtual attendance can easily reference primary sources online in order to follow and enhance the discussion and can “tweet” their thoughts as the lecture is being given. In essence, you can encourage an active dialogue, a deeper discussion, and create a learning circle within the audience during the lecture. The elements of interactivity, accessibility, cost-effectiveness, and scalability of social media make it an extremely attractive tool for Jewish leaders as well as Jewish organizations. Jewish organizations have the opportunity to leverage these tools to promote engagement among their constituents, and those willing to integrate the values of accessibility and meritocracy will become more and more relevant in the global Jewish dialogue. Those who aren’t willing to do so risk shrinking their sphere of influence.

From this perspective, there is a wide spectrum for Jewish engagement today. For many Jews, Jewish engagement peaks at one’s bar or bat mitzva or on a Birthright trip to Israel. By investing in Jewish social media, we can create a more meritocratic system in which all Jews, regardless of geographic location, affiliation, or time constraints can engage in the highest levels of Jewish learning, rituals, ceremonies, and social experiences as often (or as little) as they desire.

Jewish social media affords all Jews the opportunity to participate in and contribute to the global Jewish dialogue while customizing their own Jewish experience. Separated by geography, the Jewish people have always been a nation in the most virtual sense, connected by our shared heritage and values. Just as the Gutenberg press revolutionized the Jewish community in the 15th century by allowing wider access to Jewish content, Jewish social media has the same potential power in the 21st century.

The challenge before us: Will we maximize that potential?

Danny Oberman and Raissa Hacohen co-founded the Fulcrum Project, a platform which leverages social media to promote Jewish engagement. For more information, please visit jewishsocialmedia.org.

This article appears in the current issue of The Jerusalem Report; reprinted with permission.