This speech, by writer/editor/blogger Esther D. Kustanowitz, was delivered at the 2007 General Assembly convened in Nashville by United Jewish Communities as part of the “Next Generation” plenary. At the plenary, a range of young Jewish and Israeli activists, bloggers, an Oscar-winning filmmaker and others described their visions of community building and the power of the collective.
When I moved to New York in 1994, my community centered around my friends from Camp Ramah and the people I met in synagogue. We used e-mail, but mostly we relied on an ancient device known as “the telephone.” A few of us were experimenting with some new-fangled thing called “Instant Messaging.”
Today, you can forward an e-mail, a Web site or a YouTube video to hundreds of people, creating a network based on a shared experience or affiliation. The Jewish world has always operated that way — the community mobilizes to address an issue or to fill a need.
Today’s technology has altered the modes and frequency of connection, and today’s Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, perceiving gaping holes in the community’s agenda, are seeking each other out using the full power of technology. Web sites, blogs and social networking sites are thriving. It’s a grass-roots uprising.
There is a lot of concern over the development of this kind of vast online community network, largely because of the generational technology divide. But what’s clear is that Federation professionals, volunteers, donors, and publications that want to stay relevant to “Generation Tech” need to significantly increase their techno-literacy.
People also perceive the emergence of online life as a threat to in-person relationships and connections. But our online world does not replace our offline life. Expanding our personal and professional connections; cross-pollinating our projects with others, our initiatives emerge strengthened and energized, and new ideas keep us active and inspired, on- and offline.
Today, the “social” in social action, social entrepreneurship and social networking enables everything else. The power of the collective — not of one organization or charismatic leader — enables change. The collective transforms one idea into something more valuable.
Facebook, for example, had a simple concept: to create a Web site that replaced the traditional college “face book,” the directory of new students. The company, recognizing that the product could probably use a few tweaks, encouraged the users’ input. Call it a different kind of tikkun olam: Facebook users fixing the world of Facebook.
A friend recently remarked that Jews, particularly, are in love with Facebook-wondering who their friends know and which of their friends’ friends they’re already friends with. This is because this activity is a new, easy-to-read iteration of our favorite pastime: Jewish geography. (“You know David from camp? I went to college with David!”)
Jews, living in dispersed locations for thousands of years, have learned how to harness the power of the network as a survival instinct. You need a place for Shabbat? Or an in with David’s cousin Murray, the hotshot lawyer? Or maybe, you’ve got a nephew who’s just perfect for me or some other Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel or Leah? Jewish geography. The friend (or relative) of my friend (or relative) is my friend. Or a relative.
This is the power of the network. As Jews create communities online, large and small, political and social, community becomes more true to the word itself: call out the obvious “unity” at the end of the word, and you’re left with “comm,” which I like to think stands for “comm” communication and commitment. This enigmatic “new generation” is not any less committed than the previous one; we’re just communicating that commitment differently. And to be relevant to the new media generation, old-school organizations have to embrace new modes of communication and new models of commitment.
When I was asked to do this session, I was curious how many of us “new generation” types were on Facebook and attending the GA, so I formed an online group — “Going to the GA in Nashville and Under 45” — today, there are over 140 members.
My generation is not emotionally tied to the traditional structures that served as their parents’ main connection to Jewish community, because we don’t have to be. We are creating our own online and offline publications, initiatives and minyanim, in reaction to having examined what does exist and finding that it doesn’t fill our needs. For example, I’m on dozens of mailing lists and read about 50 blogs a day. I read lots offline too, but most of the programs and events I find out about through Facebook, blogs, e-newsletters, or e-mail. I can’t tell you the last time I attended an event that didn’t have a Facebook profile.
Online, I’ve become involved in opportunities I never would have known about otherwise. I am a team member for the Jewlicious Festivals, an celebration of all things Jewish attended by hundreds of college students each year. I’m involved in the ROI Global Summit for Jewish Innovators, an annual Jerusalem gathering of 120 Jewish leaders in my age cohort from around the world. And through my involvement in PresenTense Magazine, a content-laden magazine for Jewish 20- and 30-somethings, I’ve also been able to experience a broad swath of Jewish life in the here and now. I’ve also experienced new permutations of Zionism, through this summer’s PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism.
Today’s Jews in my generation aren’t connecting to Federation the way our parents did. And I know this relationship, or lack thereof, troubles you. So view yourselves through our eyes. Are there campaigns, events or initiatives in your community that do draw participation from our age cohort?
Our generation lives generously, but gives differently: in measure, in method and in means. We need to feel the return on our investments — of both time and money — in our hearts and souls. And for those of us who are single or not parents, the community needs to expand the definition of commitment beyond Hebrew school tuition: just because some of us aren’t engaged to be married doesn’t mean we’re not engaged in pursuing a Jewish life.
Because our ideas, our commitment and our initiatives begin online and bleed into real life, Jewish organizations that seek new, younger members must commit to it not only in mission, but in action, supporting and forming partnerships with younger, innovative initiatives, not hoping to subsume them, but to work together with them.
By managing these kinds of creative partnerships effectively, and mobilizing our global Jewish social network, we will forge a future that is strong, vital, and a source of creative inspiration.