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In the age of social distancing, we need to flood the internet with love

On Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County voted to shut down Jewish communal life out of precaution for the coronavirus, informing hundreds of thousands of Jewish parishioners that all synagogue gatherings including prayer have been canceled. That means no dining in at restaurants, no weddings, no shiva, no play dates, no large Shabbat meals are to take place. Even funerals will be limited to the bare minimal quorum.

For a tight knit community which thrives on socializing, the social distancing may seem like a death sentence. But Judaism is a religion which affirms life. The Jewish drinking adage l’chayim is actually a blueprint for a religious value system: Jews are instructed to choose life, bacharta bachayim, and to save life, pikuach nefesh, at all possible costs.

Still, these kinds of social distancing and other types of precautionary measures are bound to increase. It begs the question: How are we to continue our commitment to Jewish communal life without meeting communally? Where will we be left to gather while we wait for a vaccine?

Ironically, the same place we’ve been gathering to avoid one another: online.

The blogosphere tends not to be the most kind gathering space. Anyone who writes publicly knows that the comments section can often be the most severe and biting place for unfiltered, unflattering commentary and raw criticism. When we live behind the imaginary walls of our wifi, it becomes easier to attack in ways we might not be as willing to allow ourselves in person.

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But with social distancing the norm and continuing to affect large gatherings of people, it’s time to revisit the comments section. Specifically, it’s time for an online ministry.

In the coming days, weeks and months, let’s flood the internet with opportunities for bridge building, dialogue, learning, and even love.

Rabbis, priests and imams ought offer online classes on a variety of topics. Social workers and therapists should offer online group-therapy and counseling. Assisted living facilities, hospices and nursing homes who have shut down visitors from the most isolated, must expand their online bandwidth so that every senior gets an online visitor or phone “pen pal.” Let community centers and YMCAs invest in online performances and musical opportunities.

Who will finance such a drastic change to our daily life? Why not the same industry that is pretty much responsible for the deterioration of in-person human relationships: media giants like Facebook and Twitter should lead the way in these new initiatives, hiring cohorts of chaplains not for explicit religious activity but to infuse some spirituality into cyberspace.

Let’s transform Twitter to a site of daily gratitude. Let’s redefine reddit as a gathering place for sincere questioning.

I hear the John Lennon song and chorus coming: “You may say I’m a dreamer.” Let me remind the reader: The host of a reality TV show is now the leader of the free world, the NBA has canceled their season and all passengers on flights from Europe except the United Kingdom have been banned from entry into the United States. Is our current science-fiction fantasy thriller reality really stranger than trying to transform the internet into a meeting place for the Divine?

In the age of social distancing, we need to transform the internet into a place filled with love. Especially as Jews, we know the importance of a communal space devoted to fellow feeling and connection. It’s time to take the place we’re bound to flee in our isolation and make it a place where we can support each other and find connection.

Rabbi Avram Mlotek, a co-founder of Base Hillel, is the Director of Spiritual Life for the international program and rabbi of its Manhattan site.


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