Q: To Zoom or not to Zoom, that is the question. Every Jewish organization I belong to is trying to get us all back in person. Many seem to be eager to abandon Zoom and hybrid events. However, moving online brought some benefits, even if it came with many challenges. I want some way to express to my community the benefits of electronic communication and still acknowledge that it might not be the ideal solution. How would you recommend doing this?
A: I think it’s ironic that so many of us, in a few short years, went from disparaging “screens” to clamoring for the return of online events and their conveniences. I think we should all take an audit of what, from the Covid world, we want to keep and what we want to abandon as individuals and communities.
There is a great push to bring life back the “way we knew it.” The fantasies about how much better it was to be together in person are attractive, but that fantasy has no traffic jams, no carpools, nor infirmities. We can and must continue to take the good to mitigate the bad. Of course, we shouldn’t also let our fantasies of Zoom erase the memories of technical challenges, internet troubles, and choruses of “UNMUTE!” when we forget to turn on our microphones.
For individuals and those who live in communities with few Jews, there is no question that electronics have enhanced our access to Jewish learning and Jewish practice. For those who live in more established communities, the calculus might be more complicated.
As individuals, the opportunity to take part in Jewish learning is advanced by electronics. I just love the fact that the greatest minds and artists of the Jewish world come to my living room on demand. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the recently deceased Chief Rabbi of England, can speak to me weekly if I just look for him online. I could learn about what Jewish law has to say about abortion and women’s rights by reaching out to the Hadassah Brandeis Institute. If I want to learn about the Constitutional Issues in Israel, I could pull up lectures from Harvard Hillel and hear a lecture by Noah Feldman, a constitutional lawyer, explain in remarkably simple terms the complex issue that’s gripping our communities.
If I do not have time to sit down for a lecture, I can still have MyJewishLearning send daily Daf Yomi, small pieces of Oral Torah study. Maybe I’m not interested in Talmudic study and just want to try out a new Jewish recipe. Everything from The New York Times to 18Doors has myriad Jewish cultural content for me to enjoy. You too can decide how you want to use technology to feel connected to Judaism, the Jewish people, or Jewish current events, be it through words, cartoons, videos, dramas, and more. No matter what your learning style or your learning mood, there is something for you.
If you live in a rural area, the nearest synagogue may be over an hour away. While there is always something to be said for experiencing Judaism face-to-face, why not let technology turn Judaism from something you experience once a month (or once a year) to once a week? For example, you could invite the one or two other Jews in the area to a potluck shabbat dinner and watch a service from around the world.
While some people may worry that live-streaming could subsume local community events, we also have to acknowledge that the internet can be used to meet accessibility challenges. While fewer of us are getting Covid, we may still get the flu, have orthopedic surgery, or need chemotherapy. We may want to find spiritual comfort and intellectual stimulation as we lie around recovering. An unexpected life event may leave us permanently unable to join the community as we once could. Technology opens doors for people who are challenged either physically or just by distance. The internet has allowed us to attend Brisses, B Mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, and shivahs across the world, something many could never imagine being possible a decade ago.
We should be careful to not discount the value of in-person interaction. The convenience a digital life promises is no substitute for the warmth of genuine human connection. That’s why I say, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think it would be beneficial for each individual to ask themselves whether the conveniences of modern life are causing them to compromise on their commitment to Judaism or engage with it more. In a similar vein, each congregation must constantly reevaluate the trade-offs and the enhancements that technology gives them. Sometimes, it can cut community costs, allowing a thinker from Israel to speak to the congregation without paying for their airfare.
However, the discussions in congregations may become heated because there are material burdens to running hybrid events. Organizers have to pay for and supply technology to support both in-person and zoom events, but each event must be analyzed with the tradeoff of how much more access electronics gives us.
Michael Strassfeld’s “Judaism Disrupted” encourages us to use the disruptions of modernity to come up with creative ways of maintaining traditions. We moved from an oral tradition to a written tradition with fears that we would lose the fidelity of our practices. Many times, Jews have had to consider what they felt was important to keep and what needed to fall by the wayside. Today is no different.
For many of us, Jewish learning is all about including as many viewpoints and perspectives as possible, not just the most convenient ones. Technology presents us with a disruption, but one that we should take on in our efforts to further foster welcoming communities. It provides us with the opportunity to completely reset the way we connect with each other. It’s our obligation to take advantage of this opportunity. We have the ability to both preserve and reinvent.