Reform Teens Seek Clean Space on Web

By Rebecca Spence

Published October 13, 2006, issue of October 13, 2006.
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Keeping one’s good name is a central pillar of the Jewish faith. So too is refraining from gossip. But in the age of the Internet, where teenagers can spread rumors in mere nanoseconds and nearly everything goes on personal Web pages, upholding Jewish ethics — especially in cyberspace — poses a formidable challenge.

But now, in response to the explosive growth of social networking Web sites like MySpace, the Reform movement’s high-school youth group has launched OurSpace — an initiative designed to encourage “ethical blogging” and discourage teenage members from posting information to online forums that might sully the organization’s good name.

The student leaders of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, known as NFTY, decided last year to create a set of recommendations for what their members should and shouldn’t post. Too many kids, the youth group leaders say, are revealing inappropriate details about their lives and mentioning NFTY, which boasts 8,000 members, in the same breath. Some teens, they say, shared information about whom they “hooked up” with at the youth group’s events; others insulted their peers.

With the proliferation of Web sites like MySpace, Facebook and Xanga, which allow high school and college students to post personal photos and writings on their own pages, teenagers have an unprecedented ability to broadcast the facts of their lives. The Reform youth group’s move to rein in the content of their members’ postings reflects a growing public concern with setting limits in an otherwise boundary-free zone.

The initiative comes as the Reform movement launched in the past year an educational curriculum on sexuality and Jewish ethics designed to help teens and pre-teens make choices about sex and dating. In keeping with that theme, last year’s NFTY conference to train regional leaders focused on sexuality issues.

This past June, when 140 student board members from NFTY regions across the country gathered at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Kutz Camp in Warwick, N.Y., for the national group’s annual leadership training, organizers introduced the OurSpace program with a dramatic gesture: They tacked onto the walls of the conference room some 5,000 Web pages that NFTY members had set up on various networking sites. The results, said Dean Carson, the youth group’s president, were startling.

“There was some pretty terrible stuff written,” said Carson, an 18-year-old freshman at George Washington University. “The fact was we were looking around the room and in these open spaces, there were things that didn’t look good for NFTY.”

A handful of postings included nude photographs, but most, said Carson just had “a lot of lashon hara” — Hebrew for an “evil tongue,” the term traditionally used to describe the sin of gossiping.

Carson complained that not only are teenagers damaging their own reputations with salacious Web postings — as employers increasingly turn to the sites for information on potential recruits — but they could also wreak havoc on NFTY’s reputation.

The ensuing town-hall meeting to hammer out the details of the OurSpace recommendations turned into a heated debate, Carson said, when some group members raised concerns that the guidelines could trample their rights to free speech.

The delegation of seven regional board members from Michigan, for example, was in the small minority of participants who voted against the recommendations, saying that the youth group was overstepping its bounds. “I have a Facebook and a MySpace page, and I believe it’s completely my choice how I want to maintain those things,” said Madeleine Levey, 17, the president of NFTY Michigan.

Still, the recommended guidelines passed overwhelmingly.

The group’s programming vice president, Ben Levine, defended the initiative against its critics. “As we explained in the recommendation, it’s not about limiting free speech but being aware of what you’re saying and how you’re presenting yourself,” said Levine, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. He added: “Are you really prepared to handle the consequences?”

The resulting recommendations state, among other things: “We, as Jews, are aware that we must be responsible for our own actions” and “We are aware that some statements made online are in direct conflict with our middot, or Jewish values.”

Levine plans to distribute the recommendations and advise each of the youth group’s 19 regions on how to educate members on blogging with Jewish ethics in mind.

Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University, hailed the Reform youth group’s efforts to foster responsibility in their on-line communications. In an e-mail to the Forward, he wrote: “The right to speak, especially in as broad and enduring a way as speaking on the internet can be is best coupled with reflection on what boundaries to respect about oneself and one’s treatment of others.”

Zittrain also suggested that allowing teenagers to develop their own guidelines, as was the case with the Reform youth, is the most effective way to get kids to respect the rules. “Ideally these recommendations aren’t simply handed down on tablets from the mountain,” he said, “but rather themselves developed by the very people who will be expected to observe them.”

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