By Yakir Segev
I grew up as a proud yet ignorant IsraeIi Jew. While it may seem unexpected, I care deeply about all Jews around the world and commit myself to supporting vibrant Jewish lives and community regardless to their whereabouts and affiliation. This task feels to me especially necessary today. A former stranger to the dozens of programs and NGOs of the Jewish world, almost an alien, I presented myself with the following challenge: “On the one hand, we have a great civilization, with an enormous body of texts, rituals, traditions, music and art created over the course of 3000 years; On the other hand, we have millions of young men and women who we want to connect and engage with these resources and practices – and with each other.”
Sometime it helps to be a naïve stranger. The way I see it, there are wonderful programs you can think of for these young Jews to participate in, but in 2018, if it doesn’t include an outstanding online component, something is terribly missing.
Almost, by definition, the internet enables anyone from anywhere to easily access targeted information and be engage – share, read, connect and even join a community. It is arguably our most powerful vehicle for engaging young Jews who, like their non-Jewish peers, spend more than five hours a day(!) online: searching for information, relationships and means of self-expression.
As I have gotten to know the communities, organizations and leaders of the Jewish world over the past two years, I have found that there is at least one consensus among them: we are not doing well on the internet – this consensus even stronger among the millennials themselves, sometimes seeing this failure as yet another proof to their notion that Judaism is a bit outdated and uncool.
Issues with Judaism‘s Current Online Presence
While the Jewish world is made up of a huge spectrum of affiliations, ideologies, practices and traditions, the net is undoubtedly dominated by just one: Chabad. Despite the wonderful work they do, there should be more options available and more perspectives presented for the average unengaged Jew seeking a welcoming, inclusive and open-minded gateway into the world of Judaism.
The vast majority of Jewish organizations focus their efforts on programs that take place in a specific place and time, and these programs always end at some point (the end of the trip, the summer, school year…). But we want Judaism to be a constant and consistent part of people’s lives, throughout all of the different ages and phases, not just something to tap into every now and then when the opportunity arises.
A successful program builds a kind of community and serve for many as their gateway to Judaism – but due to their limited nature, too often loos all that when people graduate from it.
Every Jewish organization, from the smallest synagogue to the biggest and richest NGO, has a website – usually one that is beautifully design, yet serves as no more than a static brochure containing written information on “Our Programs, Our Vision, Our Staff.” Most websites offer nothing that gives the target audience a reason to revisit or relevant to their alumni: not enough good Jewish content (if any) and often no inclusive gateway for the under or unengaged.
Before I started to look for a solution to these problems, I tried to understand their underlying causes. What is it about the goals, values and structure of modern Jewish communities that is allowing us to miss these obvious opportunities for presenting an engaging, relevant Judaism online?
Why Are We Missing the Boat?
1. Survival Focused
The Jewish world has a hidden (or not so hidden) agenda to make it to the next generation by getting young Jews to socialize with other young Jews. By fostering the creation of Jewish communities and gatherings, hopefully we can encourage Jewish couples, which will lead to Jewish families. The question we need to be asking, however is, other than affiliation, in what ways are these gatherings and couples actually Jewish? Where is the content? The Judaism.
2. Old School Leadership
So many of the resources dedicated to Jewish causes are directed by committed and intelligent people that simply didn’t grow up in the digital world, and to some extent, some of them still live outside it. Just think of a Jewish organization you know, and now think of what percentage of its budget is invested in online tools and content, as opposed to staff, physical spaces, gatherings, retreats and Israel trips. When you consider the reality of today’s world, where our target audience of young Jews spends most of his time online, and digital advertising makes up one third (on its way to 50% in the next ten years) of the world’s advertising budget, does this division of resources makes sense?
3. Past Failures
We tried and failed. In the past, there were few brave attempts to invest heavily in Judaism’s presence on the internet. The few that exists like Safaria, who is doing a great job on the texts/deep learning side and MJL who produces its own content to a designated site, are far from offering a complete solution. Maybe it was too early, maybe it was before smartphones took over our lives, but how can we not try again?
4. Conflicting Interests
Traditional structures of knowledge and power tend to act where their influence is better preserved. Perhaps the talented and charismatic Rabbi would rather not post his lectures online, because he or she wants young Jews to physically attend the synagogue; The local Jewish community center or cool new Jewish organization relies on a head count of attendees at events, so there is very little incentive for them to invest in ways for people to access their Jewish community from home.
So what‘s next?
1. Push this issues within Jewish Organizations
We need to challenge the organizations we support or work in. Find out what are they doing online, and encourage them to measure and report their performance in this field (easy to do with online activity: How many releases, views, shares, bounces rate, average time users spend on the site are all global and easy to compare benchmark criteria. As a rule of thumb, there should be at least ten online users for every program attendee. Online engagement should not and can not replace the ORGs current programing, but rather complement and enhance it.
2. Create the right global institutions
The internet is the perfect vehicle for easy scaling, for sharing content resources and for utilizing big data to further support offline engagement and community building.
Let’s start thinking of how to create global Jewish R&D centers and worldwide online platforms that can serve, lead and educate all the different NGOs and communities in a way that would be cost effective and most of all fast (This article was published in 2018, but it should have been published in 2008…)
Yakir Segev is the Founder of Kulam, a nonprofit building a universal “private label” content platform, to help Jewish organizations and communities enhance their online tools and offerings.