Or at least I thought I was escaping when I sank into my aeroplane seat, knowing I was travelling without my laptop, outside EU text and phone allowances to a place where internet comes through cables onto screens that you put 5 franc coins into to access. The kind of rare place where a family name and the local area code is enough to get a letter to someone’s door and if you want vegetarian food in a restaurant you bring your own tofu. No 3G signal, no English TV, no newspapers, total seclusion.
WiFi has come to our tiny little village in the middle of Swiss nowhere, and despite my professed excitement about escaping the world, I can’t say I’m as sad as I perhaps should be about the proliferation of hyper-connectivity.
Given our recent local technological revolution, I was rather amused by this article entitled ‘The Joy of Quiet’ worming it’s way into my twitter feed this morning. It’s author, Pico Iyer, extols the virtues of time unplugged, needing time outside of our online lives (or lives that live at the pace of the information age) to summon ‘ the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen‘. To Jewish ears, time away from the world is hardly a new idea, and the value of Shabbat as a counter to the hectic world we exist in is well appreciated (if not necessarily acted upon). It’s also only part of the conversation.
The second ‘new media’ related article to pop up in my twitter feed today takes it’s social media critique in a slightly different direction, the importance of in-person socialization. The article introduces the idea of a ‘third place’ (one of those things that I suspect most people already appreciate, but probably didn’t realise there was technobabble for it). Third places are those that aren’t home and aren’t work, they are spaces we meet new people in, share ideas, learn from those we know in new ways and share what we know with those who don’t yet know us. That third space can be physical, a coffee shop, the hairdressers, a community centre, but it’s clear that since Ray Oldernburg developed his thesis, the blog and twitter-spheres have formed another facet of this space.
I love the online Jewish world and whilst it remains largely US based, for the past few years it has provided inspiration, conversation and several really solid friendships. There is no doubt though, that there is no substitute for RL (Real-Life) interaction. I write this on the back of 3 weeks of intense Jewish socialization, first at the 6,000 attendee URJ Biennial in Washington DC and then at the 2,200+ person Limmud Conference in the UK. Both gatherings serve as a ‘third space’ for the communities they are drawn from, spaces to meet, to re-connect, to converse, to learn and to celebrate community.
Whilst my twitter habit and the excitement of reading a great blog or sharing an in-depth conversation on a thread keeps a part of my Jewish mind alive, it’s the late night conversations on the floor of the limmud bar, the super early breakfast meetings at various Jewish conferences or the countless memories from my youth movement upbringing that form the cornerstones of my Jewish identity.
One of the most repeated maxims I’ve heard over the past month is Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule, of how long it takes to master a skill. The rule has mainly been referenced when discussing the value of immersive experiences in building Jewish identity.
I find myself returning to Pico Iyer, who notes that ‘we have more and more ways to communicate… but less and less to say’. I reckon I must read upwards of 30 articles and blog posts a day, and judging by the post frequency of many of my twitter friends, I’m hardly in a minority. In one sense, I’m immersed, but how real is this immersion? Do all hours have equal value?
This formed the basis of a late night conversation at Limmud and my friends’ opinions fall into two broad schools. There are those who argue that the ability to access so much content all the time accelerates this mastering process, that the mindset of the web 2.0 generation tells us that what is online is ours for the taking, and creates a Judaism that is unique, dynamic and interconnected. There are also those that argue that the dynamism of Jewish community, the hum of chevruta in the Beit Midrash and the value of encountering challenging ideas that you can’t just close a window on, can’t be transferred online. That virtual community may build Jewish identity, but it places Judaism in an information marketplace that offers us a pick-and-mix of truths and builds an incomplete picture of what it means to be Jewish.
Once again I’m reaching for a third space; searching for the balance between personal and collective, formal and informal, on and offline. I get more than a little bit anxious when an organisation announces a website or ‘social media’ space as their answer to the question of engaging the next generation and simultaneously find myself squirming at the lack of any kind of formal social media strategy in most Jewish organisations and synagogues in this country.
It sounds so obvious that I feel a bit ridiculous stating it, and I think we know that, as in most situations, the answer invariably lies in finding a happy medium.
One of the highlights of this year’s Limmud were the JDOV talks (Jewish Dreams Observations and Visions) based on the TED phenomenon. Seth Cohen of the Schusterman Foundation focused his talk on networks, showing this film that did the rounds of the twitter-sphere a few months ago.
Jews are networkers and community builders. Our teachers are simultaneously those in the room with us and those whose voices leap out from our texts. My Jewish life needs the energy that the fast paced online conversation gives it, it needs the personalities and the passion and the sense of universality, but it also needs unplugging, slowing down and refuelling. The value of social media, of an online third space balanced with firm interpersonal interaction and substantial ‘time out’ is so clear that in many ways this sentence is wasted. What needs to accompany it is some evidence in our community that we are really investing in it, and not just in an ad-hoc ‘oh, we need a twitter account’ way. That evidence isn’t absent, JHub just hosted Social Media training (resources here), Limmud has had a twitter wall for several years, the Board of Deputies live-tweets(ish) some plenaries and this blog is in many ways trying to take this conversation forwards.
There’s a plethora of places this can go, and little bits of shining best practise dotted around our community, whether it’s live-streaming services, making sure that thought leadership in the form of rabbinical blogs is accessible and sign-posted, apps for parents, a monster spreasheet of web tools or the multitude of things that are yet to exist or be shared. Critiques of online Jewish engagement will remain, and some will stand, but we can only gain by exploring.
Four years ago when I found the Jewish blog-sphere it was pretty much entirely American. There are great minds and great ideas in our British community as well, and it’s time we take sharing them a lot more seriously.
Please feel free to continue the conversation on the #JNetsUK hashtag