E-Judaism and the Online Shtetl

By Merav Levkowitz

Those of us who have a Facebook roster full of Jewish friends are used to it: “Shabbat shalom” status updates, photos of apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, and viral articles or videos that are reposted ad infinitum (this week’s was Judd Apatow’s clip for the American Jewish World Service’s twenty-fifth anniversary). For many of us, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs are our main channels of news, particularly with regards to the Jewish world. Thanks to the Internet, the international Jewish community has become closer than ever.

First, the Internet opens the doors of Judaism to the world. Throughout history, Jews have been encouraged to actively engage with the texts. With the Internet, discussion and the exchange of history and customs has moved beyond physical tables to online forums and chat rooms that transcend borders imposed by distance, age, and gender in traditional study settings.

Thanks to Internet media, news—general or personal—spreads quickly. In this digital age, we have access to more information than ever before. We can learn about the plights and successes in Jewish communities around the world and remain better connected and informed. New media can easily be used to “rally the troops,” thus finding great fans in the Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Any charity or service project—big or small—can use these tools to educate and draw from a wider base of people.

On a smaller scale—call it the “shtetl effect,” if you will—new media facilitates the spread of personal information. So many sites are available to trace Jewish ancestry and help people connect. Dating sites, like JDate, transfer the age-old tradition of matchmaking from Yenta’s hands to a larger, wider platform. Happy occasions, which we so value in Judaism, are magnified when everyone can share in them.

These days I find myself drawing more information about Judaism, in particular, not from “traditional” news sources, but instead from blogs and articles, comments, and discussions shared on Facebook by my friends and acquaintances. Whereas in the past these exchanges may have taken place in a synagogue’s social hall, they now thrive in the webs of cyberspace.

The Jewish community remains alive and more connected than ever before thanks to the Internet. But what challenges does it pose? Will it replace, ore merely augment the traditional venues of Judaism?  Does it help or hinder Judaism? How does it stand to revolutionize the Jewish religion and international community as we know them?  I hope to find some answers to these questions in the myriad blogs, forums, and, of course, the comments section below.

8 responses to “E-Judaism and the Online Shtetl

  1. One of the effects of the Jewish shtetl I cherish the most is the ability to connect and form friendships with Jews who identify all across the spectrum. Jews who hold VERY different opinions and practice their Judaism in ways that differ and inspire. I do not believe that these connections will or should replace the physical interactions we have. But they are equally valuable.

  2. I’m not sure if “help or hinder” is such a relevant question anymore. It also too closely echos the assimilation and annihilation dialogue that so many of my peers brought up with. The internet has arrived, clearly altered our personal behaviors and morphs into its next phase while we catch our breath and try to figure out what to do next.

    More interesting, is your metaphor of the “shtetl”. Are our online Jewish experiences becoming too public? When active Jews (lay leaders and professional) blur the lines of intimacy / professionalism / spirituality with online identities – what are the repercussions? Does our comfort with a higher degree of exhibitionism dampen our ability to carve sacred space in our lives? And finally, have we begun to witness a backlash amongst early adopters?

    I’m curious to hear any examples or stories of individuals that are now regulating their online Jewish participation as a result of privacy concerns… or simple overload.

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    • Steve Schwartz

      The pros out way the cons of communicating in cyberspace with others who
      share some form of Jewish identity. Living in PA’s bible belt, I do find myself tucking my Jewish star inside my shirt sometimes in public.

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  6. Since at least 1993, the Internet has ushered in a Torah Golden Age with students and texts and what popping up everywhere. (We Torah Nerds notice such things.) Web 2.0 has provided the same for Jews and Judaism by supplying the essential component for cultural transmission: easy conversation. Myself, I have benefited from friendships with people whom I may never have otherwise met.

    The tools are wonderful. How much poorer were we, would we all be, without them?

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