Creating Our “Social Network”

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Rabbi Boris, July/August 2012

In an experience only available to us in this day of Facebook and Twitter, I recently stopped by another small synagogue called Temple Beth Israel for a brief gathering before Shabbat, joined by people from over 15 different countries, all of whom I had never met before. Even though it was hours away from the start of Shabbat in Oregon, one could look around and see the flickering candles which had already been lit by others, marking the entrance of Shabbat in other communities around the world. In an adjoining room, a Torah study class had recently been completed, and in the courtyard, in the past week, a Jewish rock band had played. Standing next to me was a Hasidic Jew and a tall woman with jeans and a rainbow kippah, and right outside the doorway of the synagogue was – Jerusalem.

This odd and surprisingly powerful community exists only in a virtual world called Second Life, and since it was “founded” in 2006, the community has grown to hundreds of members and visitors who stop by for religious services, learning groups and social gatherings. While this community may seem like a laughable invention of the internet age, its diversity and ability to provide access to very real-life learning and connection is actually a fascinating and important model for the changes taking place in the Jewish world and in our very own community. Admittedly, Second Life did not keep my attention for more than a few visits, but for many, this “second life” is an important part of their Jewish life, and provides a very real way to connect with Jewish learning, with Jewish practice and with each other.

We are all part of different communities in our lives, and for many of us the way we stay connected to these communities is not always through face to face contact. Email accounts are now as common as phone numbers, and Facebook has become a popular meeting place to share updates of our lives with those near to us, and those both physically and emotionally farther away. In the past, Jewish communities by necessity were much more connected, and when there was a lifecycle celebration, a death, or any important moment in the community, word of mouth and maybe a poster or two was enough to bring in the crowds. Jewish people stayed connected, not only because everyone lived closer together, but because synagogue life for many was the true center of life.

The TBI community is blessed to be a place where spiritual and social connection and learning happen on all levels of congregational life. Yet we can always do more to provide ways for people to connect with each other and create a community which brings the joy of Jewish life into our homes and into the “rest” of our selves; our interests, daily needs and challenges. Technology and social networking can serve as a starting point.

Over the next few months we will be introducing the new TBI website which will be more accessible and easy to use, with more dynamic content including photo galleries, interest and support groups, videos, blogs, classified ads to share skills and “goods and services,” Facebook-style social networking and in the near future, even podcasting and live streaming of services and community events. The goal is to make everyone in the TBI community find more ways to connect and learn from each other and gain meaning from Jewish tradition, to find more “doorways” to living and celebrating Jewishly. Of course, we hope that the groups and relationships that can be strengthened on the web will serve as a catalyst for real-world connections and action, but it will also allow those who are not physically able to be part of the TBI family and not lose the connection.

One example of this opportunity to remain connected to the TBI community is Kesher (“connection”) a new initiative of TBI to allow those people who have left the area, such as college students and former members, to stay connected with the TBI family. While the details of Kesher are still being worked out, its “home” will be on the TBI website, as a place to share memories, update each other on life cycle events, all while staying informed of current happenings at TBI. If we are truly building a dynamic and life-changing community, then these connections should not end when someone leaves Eugene.

Hillel’s famous advice “Do not separate yourself from the community” is not simply a reminder of our obligation to others, but it is also a call to bring our community into all parts of our lives, to know that true community means to search for and gain strength from all the connections we make with others. Jewish community is prayer and religion, but it is also everything else that’s important in our lives. The more we can do to make Judaism both a lived faith and a true “social network” of support, friendships and action, the more meaningful Judaism will be for all of us.