Jewish tradition is based on gatherings of Jews for communal activities in a single space. So it is for families and friends on seder night, community prayer/worship, education in classrooms and between study partners, to give just a few examples. COVID-19 forced Jews to curtail or cancel physical space gatherings and move instead to virtual spaces. Online activities have a number of disadvantages but also some advantages. In light of the developments in recent months during the crisis, consideration should be given to how to best design the Jewish space for the coming years and decades. Of course, the process of rethinking the balance between virtual and physical venues is not unique to the Jewish arena. It is underway in many contexts: schools and universities, the workplace, health care, sports and more. At the same time, the Jewish sphere has special characteristics, including the need for gatherings as the most appropriate way to meet with a dimension of intimacy and meaning, but also for shared rituals with tangible elements (it is impossible to taste bitter herbs from a virtual seder plate or to sit in a digital sukkah).
Based on the experience accumulated to this point, and given the possibility that digital activity will be necessary or even expand in the future, the following are among the considerations that must be borne in mind:
Commitment and Participation
Digital activity does not generate the same commitment as the physical space. It is easy to connect and easy to disconnect, the cost in time and money is low, the investment of time and money is felt less. These two facts are, of course, two sides of the same coin. Gatherings in physical space are harder to organize but produce a greater sense of community. Gatherings in the digital space are easier to organize but produce fairly loose connections. Translating this to the Jewish world, moving from the physical space to the digital can help enlarge the circle of Jewish interest and participation. It makes it easier to invite large audiences to “sample” Jewish life and perhaps find meaning in it. Cyberspace facilitates connections with young people, with those far away, with those who do not feel comfortable in community institutions and those seeking a cautious way to explore before committing for the long term (or who wish to remain occasional samplers). Alongside these advantages are also clear disadvantages, including a community with thin attachment and low levels of emotional investment and commitment.
The damage the pandemic brought upon the Birthright and Masa programs, which have been among the Jewish world’s most important and effective educational and identity building tools in recent decades, is inestimable. You can do a lot of things on Zoom, but a change in consciousness requires an unmediated interpersonal encounter, as happens on a long bus ride and in joint face-to-face activities between Israeli and Diaspora young people.
Balancing the Short and Long Terms
It is necessary to achieve a balance between these advantages and disadvantages that will be the product of two components. One — reality and its dictates. In a world in which social distancing is required, the Jewish community has no alternative but to continue investing in the digital space; it is only there that it will be possible to continue conducting regular activities for large audiences. Only once the world returns to some semblance of normality will it be possible for the Jewish community and its institutions to hold physical space gatherings on the pre-coronavirus scale. Second – modifying the relationship between physical and digital activity in an effort to take advantage of the considerable achievements in the digital arena during the crisis as a lever for future action. The goal of such a readjustment is to balance between the advantages of the tangible space (commitment, intimacy) and those of the digital space (expanded audiences, quick and easy connection). Of course, the optimal track is from digital to tangible. The digital space should be a portal that allows for daily accessible and inclusive connection – but which is also followed (to varying degrees) by connection in the tangible Jewish space which generates greater commitment.