Changing the Way Jews Think About Themselves and Their Community
Why do we want to change the way Jews think about ourselves and our community? How can we best do that? What is the next big idea to achieve that goal? We need to change because things are not working on many levels. I will show that below. The best way to change the way Jews think about ourselves and our community is a massive expansion of Jewish presence on the Web and use of digital technology to communicate Judaism. This is as big and important as the printing press was to the dissemination of information in the Middle Ages, and, as I will demonstrate, it presents the best chance of revitalizing today’s peripheral Jews, potentially reaching the majority of connected Jews, and reaching out to non-Jews who might find a home in Judaism. We must reprioritize our communal efforts to focus much more heavily on the digital world.
Torah was first communicated orally. Then it was written and discussed. Then the printing age came and learning spread exponentially. The most important “next big thing” in the Middle Ages was not an idea, but an information delivery system - the printing press. In 1456 there were sixty copies of the Guttenberg Bible which was the first book printed in Europe. Less than fifty years later by the turn of the century in 1500, there were fifteen million printed books in circulation. For our century, and perhaps beyond, the Web will be to our world what the printing press was to the Middle Ages. The digital age presents us with the opportunity to spread Torah in its broadest meaning, at the speed of light everywhere at once. The Jewish community needs to have a full fledged campaign to move forcefully to take advantage of this new, unprecedented opportunity. There are some good efforts now, but it must be bigger, broader, and comprehensive. This is the key idea for the Jewish future.
Expanding use of the Web is the key idea for the Jewish future, because with it all ideas can be quickly and broadly disseminated and it can reach unlimited audiences. Ideas may start out small and reach a critical tipping point where they become transformative (see Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point). If it is true the only way to persuade “sovereign self” Jews (in the language of Jewish sociologists Steven Cohen and Arnold Eisen in The Jew Within) to modify their behavior to be “more Jewish,” is through peer pressure, which can most easily be attained on a large scale through the Web. It is via the Web that young people communicate and is likely how future generations increasingly will communicate and relate. We need to explore how to go digital in many areas of Jewish life. It is the most economical way to reach the masses, and at the same time, inspire individuals.
Why do we need a big idea?
Every study of American Judaism shows decreases in major measurements of Jewish identity, practice, numbers, involvement, education, belonging, and caring. Pioneering work by Professors Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen, and large populations studies undertaken by the organized Jewish community, show that American Jews see themselves as “sovereign self” and pick and choose in Judaism what personally moves them. They do not tolerate people telling them what makes for a good Jew, and affiliation rates and loyalty to the Jewish people and Israel are waning. A story in the Forward about this year’s General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities quotes professional pollster Frank Lutz: “We are not connecting effectively with the young Jews.” In fact, the messages, messengers, and mechanisms we are using for our advocacy and fundraising may even be turning them off. Luntz notes, “The culture has replaced tradition and spirituality for an entire generation of young Jews.”
There are several challenges we must address. First, Jews constitute a smaller and smaller percentage of the world and the USA population. Jews will continue to be spread out more geographically, increasingly in areas of little Jewish infrastructure, such as south and southwest USA. Second, there is growing anti-Semitism, especially in nations which have few Jews and control the dissemination of information. The internet is fast becoming a major source of anti-Semitic proliferation, and must be countered. “It might come as a surprise to the soldiers who defeated fascism in World War II, but the United States has become a refuge for Nazism and other brands of extremism over the last decade. On the Internet, that is.” The digital world offers an even playing field and the marketplace of ideas will determine how successful the anti-Semites are in spreading their venom. Third, while there may be six million Jews in the United States, an additional two million non-Jews live in home with Jews. We need to reach out to them. Fourth, we should reach out to the millions of Americans who have no spiritual or religious home in a kosher way--we need not proselytize actively, but surely we can bring our brilliant civilization to the attention of those looking. Fifth, we need to understand why more Jews are not strongly Jewish and address those concerns, as well as understand what might motivate non-Jews to be interested in Judaism. Sixth and finally, there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic Jews who have simply stopped being Jewish, are participating minimally, or are actively embracing another spiritual system.
This critical information delivery system is being vastly underutilized by Jews, and is disorganized. When Jewish leaders speak or write about what needs to be done to address the needs of our time, the cyber world and its revolutionary potential impact are not mentioned, or at best, are mentioned peripherally. It is the key and Jewish leaders are thus far missing out. JTS Chancellor Eisen in a recently address to the Chicago Rabbis stated, “We missed the cable age,” but did not mention the digital world until specifically asked. In the book Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry Scott A. Shay does not emphasize the digital age. While he demonstrates the need for reimagining Jewish life, his solutions potentially touch a small percentage of active Jews.
There are some Jewish efforts on the Internet, but it is not being done in an organized comprehensive program of videos, services, experiences, classes, and education. Philanthropic dollars are going to many other programs with much poorer cost-benefit impact. The Forward newspaper of November 8, 2007 stated, “Viral philanthropy starts to spread…the Jewish world is a couple steps behind the rest of the world when it comes to adapting to new technology." For example, on one site someone wrote:” the Jewish community – both as individuals and collectively - has yet to fully embrace Webcasting. It is time to consider how the community may give support to Jewish Webcasting in order to move it from its cottage industry status and, more importantly, to exploit its great potential for the benefit of Jews everywhere.” (http://www.jewish Webcasting.com/about_us.htm)
Fidelity Mutual Funds ran a full-page ad in the Chicago Tribune (November 6, 2007) about a new mutual fund. The text read, “The next big idea, while it is still small.” Comprehensive, organized use of the Web to foster Jewish interests is the next big idea but it is still small because it has been embraced by the organized Jewish community. As an example of the significance of this idea in the secular world, an organization supported by Duke and MacArthur Foundation recently had a competition with grants of $250,000 for pioneering initiatives in using the digital world for educational purposes. There is only one method that can potentially, efficiently, cost effectively and quickly deliver Judaism in its many dimension to the masses. It is the only way to create a “tipping point” that can create change. Over time, the digital world can prove to be transformative.
As of Sept. 2007, 67% of Americans use the internet. The Worldwide Web contains over 300 million pages hosted by more than 2.6 million independent sites. These numbers are increasing rapidly. It took radio thirty years to reach fifty million people, while television needed only thirteen years. The Internet did it in only four years. Traffic on the Internet doubles every one hundred days. Today’s young adults are “attached at the hip” to technology. Their community is often largely in the digital world. As they grow older, and technology continues to change, there is every reason to assume this will grow exponentially. Future generations will likely be even more attached digitally.
Every day there are articles about the explosive growth of the Internet and the ways in which it is changing our lives. For example, “Google Inc. officially announced Monday a sweeping plan to encourage a new breed of software development designed to make it easier to surf the Internet from a cell phone.” Studying the Web is a growing academic field. “Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and M.I.T. professor, has been studying the folkways of computer culture for over two decades (since long before the rest of us knew to put “culture” and “computer” in the same sentence). She looked beyond what the computer could do for us to what it might do to us, as individuals and as a society.” “Why are fewer viewers watching the new fall television series? Perhaps because they are too busy watching video online. The Internet is bringing people together in unexpected ways.” (New York Times, November 16, 2007). “As more people turn to the Internet for comfort, information or distraction, some are finding a treasure they never expected: friendships as strong as or stronger than in real life. Men, in particular, find that e-friendship allows them to open up in ways that may be difficult in person. A recent study by the Pew Project for the Internet and American Life found that the Internet builds rather than decreases friendships by broadening users’ geographic networks, giving people more contacts to communicate with about health issues, hobbies or other interests.” (New York Times, November 18, 2007)
Religion and spirituality increasingly play a large role on the Web. The New York Times Magazine on November 4, 2007, ran a major story entitled “God and Man on Youtube.” “Using technological devices ranging from simple cassette tapes to solar-powered audio players and an IPod-like gadget called the Bible Stick, Christian groups are spending millions of dollars a year to make one of the world's oldest books accessible in remote corners of the planet. Complete versions of the Bible can now be downloaded onto cell phones in parts of Africa. To reach those who can't read—nearly one-fifth of the world's population, according to the United Nations—Christian groups are rapidly increasing production of audio and video versions”
There is even now beginning philanthropy focusing on religion and the Web. The Alban Institute just received a $3 million gift for focus on religion and the Web. A statement about this grant said, “As we begin to carefully consider the ways we might use these funds, we see tremendous opportunities to help congregations and their leaders through the Internet and other emerging avenues of communication." (Religious News Service, November 20, 2007).
Many Jews are using the Web widely and therefore are already are predisposed to this medium.
“To grasp the import of the Internet for Jewish identity, consider just these few facts. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000 (and that is long ago in the age of the Internet) indicates that the Internet - literally nonexistent just a decade ago - was then used for Jewish purposes by 50% of adults of child rearing age (this is a level of use which is roughly 4 times the level of use of the Internet by all Americans for religious purposes). For this generation, Internet usage for Jewish purposes already was at a higher level than the use of CDs, tapes or movies, and was 82% the level of book use and 73% the level of newspaper use.” Ultra-Orthodox Jews are utilizing the technology. Facebook has several groups trying to get 6 million Jews to join. One group has 43,000 after a few months. One of my blog sites, www.jwcybercentral.blogspot.com, lists hundreds of Jewish digital sites.
Any proposed “next big idea” solution, to be effective and truly “big”, must impact all the groups I mentioned above. If any proposed solution does not reach each of these groups, it will not be a “big enough” idea, and have little measurable impact on the Jewish future. What possible solutions do not qualify as the “big new idea?” The current methods of addressing Jewish challenges have not had great impact, despite huge investments of money and time. The United Jewish Communities’ “Continuity” emphasis of the 1990s, along with major philanthropists’ continuing efforts tried to create change by spending hundreds of millions of dollars, with little discernable change for the better. Leaders who speak about what ails American Jewry often suggest we need to improve or expand day schools, afternoon schools, summer camps, free trips to Israel, Rabbinic education, Hebrew schools, minyonim, havurote, coffee houses targeted for young urban Jews, among others. While noble efforts, this will not produce the dramatic changes we need. Many of the “new” organizations and efforts appeal to a very small percentage of the potential involved Jewish population. They are not broad enough to bring about the sweeping changes that would transform American Jewry. This is not to suggest we should not continue to grow and expand these. Any idea that focuses on fixing or expanding existing programs will not create significant change. Recently, one major donor expressed regret for the $150 million he spent on Jewish causes, noting that years later nothing much has changed. An article about this in the Forward suggested it was because he spent the money on traditional institutions, as if pouring good money after bad.
Calling for more cooperation among Jewish institution is also not the solution. It will not occur on a large scale because of turf-guarding, and evidence shows it does not necessarily produce economies of scale or better programs. General non-denominational Jewish organizations which train a few dozen future leaders a year do not seem to have made a big impact on the overall challenges we face. Nor will the next big idea come from one denominational perspective. Jews do not care that much about denominational differences today, and program initiatives from the denominations have had little impact on the population. No one new kind of institution or idea is going to be universally accepted. No one synagogue or institution, no matter how good, can be duplicated exactly, nor could ever meet the needs of more than a few thousand Jews. There is only one idea that can have a universal appeal and impact, and that is better use of the digital world to inculcate Jewish learning, living and loving, in many versions.
This is what I see as The Next Big Idea. In his call to action at the end of The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century, Alan Dershowitz, endorses this point. He wrote, “ . . . there is no reason why one of the oldest continuing human civilizations cannot turn to the newest of technologies to enhance its prospects for continuity. For the first time in our long history, our future is on our hands, not in those of our enemies.”. He also advocates that this network must reflect the truth that there is not just one way to be Jewish, and it must be of high quality, not amateurish as it is today. Bravo! .
Seven months ago I realized the best way to work towards all the above goals was via the Internet. I have since devoted much of my time and energy to expanding Jewish presence on the Web. I am a pioneer in this effort and rapidly am developing a large, interconnected virtual Jewish world where individuals can learn and even experience a sense of Jewish belonging. There have been good early efforts by Jews to utilize the digital world for Jewish purposes. Many synagogues and Jewish institutions have Web sites. There are many publications now on line. There are many opportunities to learn Torah on the Web. Some Rabbis have done limited podcasts of sermons and teaching. We must massively expand, organize and professionally upgrade these efforts, and explore new ones.
I believe I am the person best suited to lead this project. I have experiences in all denominations of Judaism. I was trained by Orthodox and Conservative schools, spent years at a Reform summer camp, serve a jointly-affiliated Reconstructionist and Conservative community, and have many Haredi relatives. I do not believe there is any other Jewish web-based program with as many different educational sites, which are cross-referenced and linked. I doubt anyone has as wide a variety of educational on-line resources for those wishing to learn Judaism as I have. I have developed many firsts in the field, and am working on others. I have a clear idea of where we should be going next, and am very open to new ideas. I am a Rabbi with thirty years of Congregational experience, as well as a decade of college teaching experience. I have led Religious schools for decades as well as taught adults. I can work quickly and efficiently
Thus far, in seven months of working on web projects, while working full time as a Congregational Rabbi, I have:
• Created and daily update 5 websites to promote: our synagogue - www.ehnt.org, our pre school - www.ganskokie.org, my site - www.jonathanginsburg.com, our Chicago conversion program - www.jewishconversionchicago.com, as well as my cyber synagogue - www.esynagogue.org
• Created blogs focusing on: Rabbinic insights on the news, Pro Israel items, conversion essays, and Torah teachings at www.rabbireflects.blogspot.com; centralizing Jewish Web material by subject: videos, newspapers and periodicals www.jewcybercentral.blogspot.com, and a blog for esynagogue,org at www.esynagogue.blogspot.org to facilite communication among long distance members, and a blog for esynagogue,org at www.esynagogue.blogspot.org to facilite communication among long distance members. Many other blogs upload and embed my videos.
• Created and uploaded 300 videos of Jewish educational content on many upload sites. The series will eventually include videos on each Torah portion, as well as many topics of Jewish interest, As of this writing the 300 videos have received over 200,000 viewings, with well over 1000 daily and growing. In conjunction with this, I created informal incentive program to stimulate watching my videos, with BA, MA and PhD “degrees” awarded from JEWU for viewing my videos. I have been requested to upload them to video sites: Jewtube, 5min., and Flix 55.
• Developed and administer a unique long distance conversion program, currently with twenty students world wide, utilizing the videos I have uploaded in lieu of class time, and am developing, the world’s first on-line Religious school for children, which will be available world-wide.
• On the invitation of the founder of Jewtube.com, I upload a weekly video in response to emailed questions on Jewish topics and was asked to be mara datra for the on-line community at www.Jewsbychoice.org.
• Created an on-the-web Shabbat prayer experience, whereby people can watch me lead Shabbat services, hear Torah and Haftorah weekly on a site I link to, and hear a dvar torah from me on my video for the parsha. It is currently not live, but am exploring how to do that technically, and am also working out halachik objections.
• Begun exploring how to best utilize the new phenomenon of Second Life, for Jewish purposes. Large corporations and top universities are doing so now. This will require a large investment of time and money to do correctly. Second Life is briefly explained below.
• Regularly I receive the following kinds of requests, (this one I received Nov. 28, 2007).
“My name is Ealeal, and I am writing you from www.5min.com, a Videopedia community specializing in tutorials and instructional content. We are based in Israel, and our aim is to provide the world with practical, exciting and unique knowledge solutions. While scouting online for potential content contributors, I happened upon your videos on JewTube, and I was deeply impressed! The 5min team was obviously VERY excited to find quality content in the spirit of Judaism, and we would love nothing more than to offer you a home on 5min. You’ve got some wonderful, well-executed videos, and we are certain 5min can serve as a great opportunity for you! I receive daily positive feedback and thanks from around the world. My congregation has added members from people finding us via these digital sites. We are now creating policy for long distance members who will be linked mostly digitally. I receive emails everyday from around the world asking questions, thanking me, telling me they stumbled on the site and how much it has helped them.
What is needed in the future to maximize the potential from this fantastic new technology?
• Research to determine exactly what is being done by, and for, Jews and potential Jews, on the Web.
• Research what technological developments result in opportunities to use digital means to communicate most efficiently and effectively. Live streaming and canned classes and services of high quality ought to be easily available on the Web. We need to invite our top web technicians to teach Jewish educators how to best utilize the technology
• As virtual reality programming improves, we can study the feasibility of developing authentic Jewish experiences reality software as a huge aid in teaching skills and “how to.” Utilize Second Life technology (Second Life is a 3-D virtual world entirely created by its Residents. Since opening to the public in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of Residents from around the globe. We need a Jewish community there, in the vast digital continent, which “ teems with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity) for classes, services, meetings etc
• Educators should be developing games of Jewish learning, useful in the many electronic game systems, such as Xbox.
• We might envision technology in sanctuaries, so congregants can use these means to enhance prayer.
• We need communal advocates in Jewish institutions, utilizing these techniques to train people in how to develop them, and begin placing teachers with this expertise in Seminaries and training programs.
• Create a book explaining the theory and method of all this, in the hope it can be replicated and expanded. Given the speed at which the filed change, the book might be on line, with easy updates available as things change.
• Continue to centralize cyber Jewish sites which brings together as much Jewish cyber information and resources as possible in one location.
• Create a Jewish Webcasting Guide: There is a significant amount of wonderful Jewish programming done in various live settings but seen by only small audiences. We must increase its awareness.
• Create a Jewish Internet/Webcasting Center: there is no central daily Jewish radio or TV news broadcast anywhere in the US and Jewish news is received by the vast majority of Jews via Jewish newspapers some 1 - 2 weeks after the events.
• Create a Jewish Public Webcast Radio and TV: Imagine a Jewish NPR and/or PBS.
• Many more ideas are possible. Our imagination and current technology are the limit.
The Brandeis course could mobilize the students to research the various aspects of this, develop prototypes for all the avenues deemed worthwhile, and prepare a plan for the Jewish community to move forward. There could eventually be a centralized institute for the Jewish web, with both Jewish educators and computer web technicians, who can coordinate and further Jewish use.
In conclusion, quoting Professor Jonathan Sarna from his book American Judaism:
“But history, as we have seen, also suggests another possibility: that today, as so often before, American Jews will find creative ways to maintain and revitalize American Judaism. With the help of visionary leaders, committed followers and generous philanthropists, it may still be possible for the current “vanishing” generation of American Jews to be succeeded by another “vanishing” generation, and then still another.”
How will this be achieved? It seems obvious that of all the Jewish efforts to combat assimilation, stimulate dedicated Jews and fight anti-Semitism, prioritizing utilization of the new technology of the Internet is a must for the Jewish community. It is the most important “Next Big Idea” in Judaism. It alone holds the best promise to transmit whatever innovations occur and whatever best practices and programs currently exist, into success. It best holds promise for reaching peripheral Jews who are currently unattached to the Jewish community. It best holds real promise for reaching the new generations of spiritual seekers. It will be a very useful tool in combating anti-Semitism. It is the big idea in Judaism for the foreseeable future.
Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg