I am a digital Jew. Who am I?
Judaism is rich with an abundance of digital content from diverse sources such as cable TV networks, audio podcasts, social media outlets, Web pages and live streams. A rapidly increasing supply of resources enables Jews worldwide to “practice” Judaism – digitally. This trend could be simply the logical progression of technology innovation. Or, on the other hand perhaps we are witnessing an inflection point in Jewish identity, the evolution of the digital Jew.
Digital sources deliver cultural, social, educational, spiritual and ceremonial alternatives to the traditional approach of congregational Judaism. Digital engagement can help you enrich and expand your Jewish life without ever leaving home. Is Jewish identification with a congregation about to go the way of the shopping mall and be replaced by an array of lower-cost, yet high-quality online options? A new movement may very well be evolving underneath our own fingertips – digital Judaism – with potential for reshaping how we think, learn, affiliate and observe. And, you may already be a part of it.
A digital Jew can observe Shabbat, study Torah, monitor political and cultural life in Israel and connect with the global Jewish community. Digital Jews use Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as smart phones, tablets, digital personal assistants and streaming appliances to support ritual observance. Judaism in 2018 is both real and virtual, communal and private.
Digital Jews are not disassociated loners or outcasts. Rather, they are connected, as well as affiliated, but in a different way. Judaism is moving through a seed change that will accelerate with the pace of innovation. Technology adoption can be a disruptive force. And, Jewish organizations need to prepare to be all in.
The virtual Jewish community is a welcoming place for a Shabbat or Yom Tov service via livestream. Central Synagogue in New York is a must see livestream for digital “warmth” when a congregational experience isn’t accessible. Clergy at Central Synagogue never fail to welcome their global digital congregants at the outset of each and every service via livestream, the Jewish Broadcasting Service (JBS) or other methods. For some congregations, digital participation is a form of outreach from the congregation with no strings attached. Virtual congregants are accepted as part of an expanding definition of Jewish diversity.
Dozens of other congregations across North America stream services and celebrations and can be found in every time zone by searching for “Attend Shabbat Services Online” in your favorite search engine.
The digital Jew can study Torah with podcasts from Jerusalem (Pardes), the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative movement) or in just 10 minutes a week with Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.
It only takes a few keystrokes to immerse yourself in a sea of Jewish genealogy, geography, politics or vegetarianism. Rabbi Google identifies more than 798 million instances with search word “Jewish” and 21 million with search word “Torah.”
Need the help of a virtual “Shabbat goy”? Try Amazon Echo or Google Home to turn lights on or off, heat the oven or secure your home. It takes a liberal interpretation of halakhah (Jewish law) to accept these devices as Kosher equivalents, but, for a modern digital Jew the assistance provided is a step in the right direction addressing the spirit of the law.
Need rabbinical advice? Perhaps your digital personal assistant can answer the challenging existential questions Jews have asked for generations:
SIRI: Am I my brother’s keeper? Answer: “Sorry, I don’t see ‘Keeper’ in your contacts list.”
ALEXA: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Answer: “Sorry, I don’t know that one.”
Well, maybe we have to wait for a newer release of the software.
In the song “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway hit musical “Rent,” we learned there are five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes in a year (excluding leap years). This is a pretty good number for a digital Jew to memorize. We also discovered from this song that a year can be measured in sunsets, midnights or cups of coffee. How many of these moments in 2018 will you spend connecting and engaging with digital Jewish content?
OK GOOGLE: How do I become a better digital Jew in 2018? Answer: “Resolve to try.”
You guessed it, I made that answer up, but I believe the essence of the answer is correct. Maybe the true answer lies in the numbers. How many moments will you spend in online study and learning; observing Shabbats, holidays or yahrtzeits virtually that otherwise might have been missed; forming social connections and friendships that counter isolation; gaining insights that were previously illusive?
Identity versus Identification
Digital Jews are forming an identity that comes from filling their personal cloud with Jewish content from any of the more than 140 podcasts with keyword “Jewish”; 138 with keyword “Torah”; or more than 180 with keyword “Israel.” Regardless of your religious affiliation, there’s a place in your Jewish cloud to further your ideology. No application process, building fund or annual dues required that maybe were an obstacle in the past.
It is a common maxim that being Jewish is expensive. But, isn’t it ironic that there is almost no cost to building a robust digital Jewish identity? However, there is no substitute for identification with a congregation, organization or movement. Commitment to building a digital Jewish identity doesn’t have to come at the expense of affiliation.
Meaningful digital religious experiences are happening and may very well challenge conventional notions of identification. The challenge facing congregations may well be how best to integrate the digital Jewish experiences in a meaningful way to fill gaps.
2018 will be a uniquely Jewish year. A secular “chai” year of Jewish change and adaptation. How many of your 525,600 minutes will you use toward becoming a digital Jew? Poke your toe into the waters of Jewish digital content. What’s going on here may well be the start of a new movement. It can be a technological gift or a threat to tradition. Digital Judaism is a daily festival. Chag sameach. Learn, pray, share, subscribe, view, listen and grow in the chai year 2018.
MARC RUSSMAN is an observer of irony and inuendo in daily life at reasonable rates (firstname.lastname@example.org)