Let’s Not be a Minidisc

By Rabbi Amitai Fraiman

On a trip to Thailand in 2002 with my family, we went to visit a local bazaar. We walked through this seemingly endless market where they sold practically everything – clothing, food, art, tzachkes – you name it, they had it. As we moseyed down the aisles, we came across an electronics booth. And that is when it caught my eye: a brand new and shiny minidisc. I coveted it. I decided I needed it. It was so fresh-looking, sleek, shiny, and with the clear potential of making me the coolest kid on the block. I don’t remember what I told my Dad, but somehow I convinced him to get me one.

If you recall, this device was meant to replace the compact disc, addressing its space issues, both physically as well as digitally. Sony thought it had cracked the market and produced the next big thing.

But it failed miserably. Outperformed by MP3 players and other devices, this innovation soon became obsolete. In retrospect, it seems that it was only a “half-innovation,” solving the wrong problems with the wrong solutions. I, like so many others, probably used mine only twice (sorry, Dad!). It was not so innovative, and not at all that dramatic.

The COVID-19 pandemic is perhaps the most dramatic event of our lifetime; countries around the world have enacted varying levels of lockdowns on millions of citizens. The very communal structures we have come to know and trust are altering, and our daily routines disrupted beyond recognition. Looming ahead is the immensity of the tragedy that we have yet to fully fathom: the potential collapse of health systems (both state-funded and private) and the economy, and above all, the sickness and deaths of so many. This alarming assessment is based on what authoritative medical experts are saying, and what we are seeing unfold around the world. The full implications of this pandemic are beyond the horizon; the end may be nowhere in sight.

In these chaotic times, we are witnessing inspiring moments of kindness, caring, and community. In the city I live in, Palo Alto, on apps like Nextdoor, there are many offers for mutual support and assistance from total strangers. My colleagues at the Oshman Family JCC where I work have created an inspiring community-based TV channel online, where different members, of all ages, deliver content. Cooking classes, story times, talk shows: you name it, this community-based channel has it all! It’s amazing and inspiring. On the other end of the spectrum, we are seeing sports teams care for their employees; despite a season-ending shutdown. In a time of social distancing, we see more social connectivity. Truly, humanity at its best.

I have a feeling that what we are experiencing will alter our lives so dramatically that what we knew to be true yesterday will no longer be true tomorrow. These changes may affect our communal structures, affiliations, expectations from government, how we work and what we do in our leisure, and perhaps ultimately, our distinctions between “essential” and “trivial.”

Do you think I’m exaggerating? There is talk of a second wave (and perhaps third and fourth) of COVID-19 in China. Can you begin to imagine a reality in which this shutdown becomes an annual event, or lasts for a year?

We will need to adapt, we will need to innovate. And we already are doing so! The JCC where I work, as well as many other communal structures I am part of (synagogue, kids’ school, etc.), are all moving their activity to the digital realm. I’ve seen concerts delivered to hundreds of people remotely. Religious structures are shifting, with new realities forcing us to imagine new solutions. While these are significant developments, all this has already happened in one way or the other. Skype has been around for a while. The Beatles played a concert on a roof long before folks were singing from their porches while in quarantine because of a virus (and they weren’t even the first!). COVID-19 has not forced us to truly reimagine our lives, but just accelerated processes already in motion. What we see now is a “minidisc” moment. We are delivering only “half-innovations,” addressing immediate needs.

But that is not good enough. As difficult as it is, we need to try to look further ahead and anticipate the most significant changes we will see. As a rabbi, I am compelled to ask: What will be the new needs of our communities? Will there be a major shift in how we relate to the most vulnerable in our communities? How will we congregate? In a broader perspective, I’m thinking about our public square and public institutions. How will we continue to disseminate accurate and actionable information? How will we make policy decisions? Is this going to push us further into the virtual world, or, rather, the social isolation will be so difficult to bear that once this is done, we will all retreat to our most immediate communities in the real world?

It’s time to start imagining the further-out scenarios like these so that we, as a global Jewish community, can truly innovate, and innovate fully in a way that copes with a brand new reality. For example, in light of Western countries’ roadblocks in responding to this pandemic, we might have to rely more on our communal structures in ways we never imagined. Is it time to reimagine the role of the Jewish community-based organizations? In a reality where governments fail to serve their citizens, civil society will have to step up and fill the void. And that cannot be limited to digitizing our programs.

There are many big questions we need to be thinking about, and while the digitization of our lives is a good first step, it won’t be enough. We need to start thinking bigger and bolder. Otherwise, our generation will become a minidisc. That’s not a good idea. (just ask Sony…).

Amitai Fraiman is an Israeli/American Rabbi and entrepreneur. He is the founder of Interwoven, and the director of Z3. A Jewish Peoplehood enthusiast.