The Internet’s Virtual Community: Boom or Bust?

JDate offers Jewish singles a place to mix and mingle online. The Web site Jewishpartisans.org promises to imbue young Jews with a more muscular sense of Jewish identity through stories of resistance to the Holocaust. Toldot.org extends to the “next generation” an online Jewish museum without the hassles of an overpriced café.

The Internet is now awash with Jewish-themed sites mimicking brick-and-mortar institutions, often in an effort to draw young Jews into the fold. Looking to ride the wave of the future, philanthropies, Jewish federations and some for-profit companies have poured millions of dollars into such online experiments, but questions remain unanswered: Will it work? Can the Internet bring disaffected Jews any closer to Judaism? Though the Jewish Community Center might seem like an out-of-date relic to the under-30 set, can a virtual JCC really take its place?

“Unlike their grandparents, who were great joiners of institutions, younger Jews, more often than not, are not related to an institution.” said Roger Bennett, vice president for strategic initiatives of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “There’s been an evolution in how community is experienced, and when you look at how most young Jews define their community, the traits are local, personal, conversational.”

Given this scenario, Bennett said, the Web can play a role, but only a limited one.

“The Web is wonderful for information sharing,” Bennett said,” but the jury is still very much out about whether a community that once existed physically, when translated through to cyberspace, is as satisfactory to its audience as face-to-face interaction.”

The notion that Judaism is in crisis, that its youth has grown indifferent or even hostile to the faith, is hardly new. Seven decades ago, iconoclast scholar Mordecai Kaplan held that a Judaism based exclusively around ritual was doomed to fail. “Never did the rising generation so question [Judaism’s] value and resent its intrusion into their lives,” he wrote. And Kaplan was, of course, hardly the first to voice such fears. His proposed solution — a Jewish center that encouraged interaction in a way that did not revolve around prayer — became the model for Jewish life for much of the remainder of the century. But by century’s end, with surveys showing that young Jews again had little taste for traditional forms of Jewish expression, Kaplan’s Jewish center seemed as outmoded as the synagogue once did.

In the 1990s, during the heady days of the Internet boom, many in the Jewish world — rabbis, philanthropists and community leaders — saw in the new medium a near-messianic potential for attracting young Jews.

But much as the business community has tempered its early visions of the Internet’s revolutionary power, so, too, have those in the Jewish world. While in its infancy the Internet was seen as an unsurpassed unifying force, today it is just as often seen as an atomizing one. The challenge facing today’s “social entre-preneurs,” experts say, is how to strike a balance between using the Web as a vehicle for solitary pursuits and as a networking tool.

Bennett is one of the organizers of Reboot, a series of seminars held in Park City, Utah, to which young Jews (ages 20 to 40) are invited to entertain novel ways of re-energizing Jewish life. One seminar attendee, Scott Heiferman, is an originator of a site called Meetup.com, which Bennett sees as a good example of how to use the Web as tool for getting like-minded people together, face to face.

Meetup, which claims to have more than a million users, could not be more simple. One logs on and is greeted by a prompt that asks, “What are you interested in?” Type in “Kabbalah,” and the site will list 222 “meetup groups” in cities from Dallas to Dublin. According to Bennett, Meetup, which was not designed as a specifically Jewish site, is only beginning to be utilized by Jewish groups. In fact, the site first achieved prominence as a tool for organizing supporters for the Howard Dean presidential campaign.

Another site that Bennett recommends similarly combines modern technologies with real-world interaction. Talkingstreet.com is a site where one can print out maps of historically rich neighborhoods like New York’s Lower East Side. Then, once in that neighborhood with map in hand, one can dial a number on a cell phone and Talkingstreet will offer a tour of the sort that one can get in a museum. The Lower East Side walk, which donates a portion of its profits to the Henry Street Settlement, is narrated by actor Jerry Stiller.

Interestingly, some active in the realm of traditional Jewish learning and observance identify Internet-related concerns similar to those voiced in the cultural sphere.

“People are now used to doing all sorts of things alone that were normally done with other human beings,” said Gordon Tucker, rabbi of the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., and a professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “Think of all the long-distance learning that’s done now. People have the sense that they can do Jewish studies, study their culture, without ever being together with the people who make up that culture.”

The tensions between community and solitude, tradition and modernity, and technology and text were spelled out eloquently in Jonathan Rosen’s book, “The Talmud and the Internet” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000). Although it was written before the Internet boom went bust, the book already anticipated some of the disappointment to which the Web would eventually give rise. But Rosen’s outlook was hardly gloomy. For him, the tension between being integrated with a community and being apart from one is as old as exile itself.

“The loose, associative logic of the Internet and the culture it reflects is not merely a mirror of the disruptions of a broken world but offers a kind of disjointed harmony,” he wrote. “The Talmud helped Jews survive after the destruction of the Temple by making Jewish culture portable and personal. In the same way, there are elements in the inclusiveness of the Internet well suited to a world that is both more uprooted and more connected than ever before.”

Rosen, creator of the Forward’s Arts & Letters section, is now editor of the Nextbook/Schocken publishing series. Nextbook, a nonprofit organization established by Keren Keshet-The Rainbow Foundation, also runs a Web site (Nextbook.org) that offers Jewish-oriented material that can be perused in solitude (lists of recommended books, a digest of the day’s Jewish cultural news) even as it directs its viewers to events that happen in the flesh.

The language of the Internet is in a way very much one of interpersonal contact: Through “portals” one “searches”; one looks to “connect.” In this light, Nextbook’s motto, the line that appears at the top of its home page, reflects the site’s dual function well. It is not a repository or a library — or for that matter a cultural center — it is, rather, a “gateway” to Jewish life.

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The Internet’s Virtual Community: Boom or Bust?

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