How The Internet Is Changing The Jewish World

All of us know the world is changing.  All we have to do is look around and see how much things have transformed, and at what a rapid pace, over the last twenty years or so.

From the internet taking over our lives, to smartphones extending its reach to the downfall of some of what seemed to be the most stable totalitarian regimes around the world to the sudden power of men behind a screen forcing the changed release of a movie.

We all know we’re living in revolutionary times, but I wonder, at times, if people are aware of just how revolutionary they are.  Just how different.

As an online marketer and a person who has been creating online communities for almost a decade now, I’ve been fascinated by the way the Information Revolution has changed our world and the way we interact with each other.  As a Jew who entered the religious world only seven years ago or so, I’ve slowly become even more fascinated by how that change has and will affect us as a people.

I think that, as Jews, it’s essential we understand this change, and understand what it will mean for us.  Also, we must understand how we can use it, and what we must be wary of.

Because if we don’t, there is a chance we will be missing huge opportunities as well as potentially lose our focus on growth as people.

So, I present to you a list of ways I believe the internet is changing the Jewish world, and how we need to change our approach to communal development because of it.

1. The rise of organic communities

The internet is the ultimate community-maker.  The ultimate voice for the voiceless.  Whereas in the past, a community was generally built by some structure: whether it be a leader with followers, an ideal with believers, a movement with zealots, or whatever else, the internet has been able to reverse the process by which communities are created.

Now, a commonality brings people together, looking for others like themselves.  A great example of this is how TV shows that would (and did) fail in the traditional model because they could not gain enough fans quickly enough (because they did not pander to the lowest common denominator), would build a following of truly passionate fans who then spread the word simply because they found each other online, connected, and built communities that eventually grew.  Arrested Development was resurrected because of this.  Freaks and Greeks is now considered a classic.

A more potent example, and a more world-changing example, would be the atheist movement.  This BuzzFeed article is perhaps one of the most fascinating examinations of how atheism has been able to flourish due to the internet.

Essentially, atheists used to be tucked away in communities, hiding their identities and feeling very alone.  There was usually too much to lose by being an atheist, especially a militant one.

Then the internet came around.  Suddenly, atheists could speak to each other without fear of being looked down on by their parents, relatives, and communities.  They could be passionate about their beliefs, grow communities, and change the world, all without the dangers of exposure.

The even more fascinating aspect of this is the way that organic community-building has now allowed atheists to feel safer with that exposure.  They’ve created conventions, their own media outlets, even “churches”.

The point here isn’t whether atheism is valuable as a movement: it’s why atheism has been able to flourish today.  It is an organic community, built not because of a charismatic leader who wants to change the world, not because of an ideal forced onto others, but because of an ideal that existed within others and which brought them together, thus eventually creating the leaders and institutions that we usually associate with being the root of successful communities and movements.

How this affects the Jewish world: What the Jewish establishment does not seem aware of is how much this has happened already and how much more it will happen in the future.

A perfect example of such a movement is here at Hevria.  Hevria did not create a community, it was created by a community.  The writers here all knew each other already.  The community had been built on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other venues.  Now it’s beginning to be formed.  Soon it will take on a physical existence, just like the atheist movement.

Another example is the “off the derech” community.  A group of people that simply would not exist without the internet.  Just like the atheists, they could not possibly have found each other without the aid of the net.  Now they have seders together, they have funded organizations to help others, and they will continue to grow (until the Jewish world rights itself).

This means that as Jews, we need to be aware that these communities are not just minor blips, outliers, as they appear to be now: they are the future mainstream.  They are the beginnings of something big.  And this isn’t a fantasy I’m living out: it’s been proven all over the world, in every community that has been touched by the internet.

The ideal reaction to these changes, one I’m hoping will happen soon, is that the Jewish communal and financial leaders, rather than continuing to force communities onto us (I hesitate to call anyone particular out for this since this is essentially how everyone works), they should be aiding the communities that are developing.  The ones that show potential should be aided, not treated as funky outliers.

2. Sweeping things under the rug will no longer work

Make no mistake: this is not just a “change”.  This isn’t evolution.  This is revolution.

For an example of what I mean, we need to look at the overhaul of regimes that have happened in the Mideast, starting with Egypt.

Now, the general concensus around what happened in the Mideast is that people got tired of their governments mistreating them, and decided to overthrow their governments.  And yes, most people acknowledge that social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, aided them in their struggle.

All this is true, but what I think some people miss is that these revolutions weren’t just aided by social media, they were caused by social media.

True, people were oppressed, but they had been oppressed for years.  The difference between before and now is that the tools were put in place for them to communicate, organize, and eventually overthrow their oppressive leaders.  Organic communities of resistance were thus created and sustained through social media. 

In other words, the internet in many ways has begun to fulfill (if imperfectly) the true potential of democracy.

This is not to say that the overthrow of any of these governments were effective, or even that they were a good thing.

But I find the continued overthrow of governments in Egypt (what are we up to now? 3?) to be heartening rather than dispiriting: a sign that even if democracy itself cannot flourish in a nation like Egypt, the will of the people will still have to be heard in some fashion.  The internet makes it much harder for leaders and governments and societies to hide away the people in pain, and thus makes it much harder for the pain of the people to be unheard.

What this means for the Jewish people: The last ten or so years have seen a rash of reports, action, and confusion around certain topics in the Jewish world.

Just a few examples:

1. Women trying to divorce from husbands who refuse their get.

2. Sexual abuse by leaders of certain communities.

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3. General corruption in the Jewish world.

These stories have always been around, and were even covered by some mainstream publications in the past.  But the strength to truly address them, and the persistence of their reappearances can be directly attributed to the internet.

Why?  Whereas in the past, it would take quite some work for a story to get out, and even then, a community might not address it fully, the power of the internet to magnify even a single voice who then attracts more voices to a cause is beyond compare.

Incidentally, I think this is part of the reason we’ve been seeing more stories of sexual abuse of celebrities come to light these days.  It used to be possible to quiet a story, but today it’s become almost impossible.  Someone, somewhere will speak up, which will give the strength to others.

The implications of this are that the more oppressive communities in the Jewish world, from New Square to others, and the corrupt communities, are due for much more transformation than even they are aware of.

The communities that are afraid of the internet are right to be afraid of it, but for the wrong reasons.  The internet will expose the pain that exists under the surface, and it will bring more and more people out of the woodwork who have been afraid to speak.

And while the most insular communities have managed to keep the internet out of their domain, it will become more and more impossible to make this a reality.  The internet is seeping into everything we do, and will soon be in our appliances, our thermostats, and our cars.  Phones were just the beginning.

Also, many of the problems that aren’t quite as dramatic, the ones that have frustrated people like me who live in vibrant communities with a host of dysfunctions, will have to address these problems more fully.

I would argue this is an urgent issue for most communities, and one that they ignore at their peril. The lesson of the Middle East is that the more communities fight and try to hide these stories, the more violent a reaction they are in for.  The more power will be lost by the leadership.  And the more likely it is that something different (rather than naturally evolved) will take their place.  And even worse, the less people will look to rabbinical leaders for advice.

These are neither good or bad things, they are simply the reality of a community that ignores the problems the internet will bring into the light.  Communities that want to survive, and definitely if they want to thrive, will need to adjust as quickly as the internet has changed their world.

3. This is temporary

Like any revolution, from the French revolution to the industrial revolution, the information revolution is a temporary moment in history.

In other words, the instability we are experiencing now, the world shaking under our feet, the scandals and disruptions to communities, are not the rule, but the exception.

We are living, in other words, in extremely exceptional times.  People my age and older have gone from living in a world where you had to make a call from your home and send a letter to communicate with others to being able to send a letter from a phone at any moment, and anywhere.  We’ve gone from knowing where we are from a paper map to always having a map in our pocket that even tells us where we are and exactly how to get to where we want to go.

It is thus important to understand that the tumultuous, uneven feeling of the world right now is something that is something that is normal for every revolution, every abrupt change in paradigm.

And every transition is hard, bumpy, and scary, even if it is good.  There are entire governments falling apart all over the world today, something unimaginable twenty years ago, but which has almost become the norm in some areas.  There are antisemites, racists, and terrorists gathering strength and banding together in ways unimaginable.  There are people whose only qualifications for extreme power is their ability to hack other computers, who have made entire corporations, even countries, fall to their knees.

We are, in many ways, living in the Wild West.  Uncharted territory, lawless and chaotic, but also full of potential.

It is thus our responsibility, as the people given the responsibility to live at a time that will affect many for years to come, to make this world safe and lawful.  To bring order to the chaos.  And to not simply accept the present as it is, but to see it in the context of history.

We must realize that things we do now will affect the inevitable order and calm that comes after a revolution.  That the “leaderlessness” of this generation is not necessarily how it will always be.  There will always be establishments and structures of power, the only question is what form they will take.

What this means for the Jewish people: The temporariness of it all means that those of us who happen to be having a Golden Age in the chaos of it all because we are finally being heard, need to understand that what we in the midst of now is simply the creation of a new order, not a continual chaos.

We need to step up, then, and work with uninhibited energy toward creating that order, and with a mind toward the end goal of ordered communities, not just loose-knit online chats.

We need to realize that there will be stages to this process, in which more order, more financial backing, more leadership, will be necessary.  We need to work with all our strength to make the new organic communities that are being created more empowered, more strong, and more vocal.

In other words, and I can’t emphasize this enough, we aren’t playing games.  Hevria, for example, is not a fun blog, it is simply one of the many organic communities that are a building block toward a changed Jewish community.

Most importantly, we need to understand that the organic communities of the internet are not meant to stay on the internet.  Like the atheists, we are meant to come out from the shadows, into the virtual world, and then into the real world.

While the world laughed at New Atheists, they built and are building, communities much stronger than many of the “old age” ones.  We have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to the do the same.  And just like the atheists had to learn to adjust from simply being a “fun” community to a “real” community, so will we.

What it will take is fearlessness, an attitude that this is not simply a hobby or a side project or something that we’re imagining.  It will take a vision of what we intend to accomplish.

And most importantly: it will take a community.  It will take continued collaboration.  It will take our Ahavas Yisrael.

And for the “old age”, the answer to this temporariness is not to fight it and wait for it to go away, but to engage with it.  Because while the change may be temporary, the effects won’t be.  Societies like New Square will not survive (if they don’t change).

What there needs to be is a deep engagement with what is happening and a trust in the people who are at the forefront of the changes.  There needs to be a willingness to change and to grow.  There needs to be the ability to handle the changes in our community, the revelations of scandals as well, with an openness and willingness to adapt.

This is a storm.  And we can use adjust our sails and allow it to push our boat forward, or we can get lost.  Or, G-d forbid, we could sink.

Most likely, all three will happen.  The only question is where we will be when the wind quiets.