Lost and Found? The Perpetual Search for Community

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November 1, 1999
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Kerry Olitzky

When I was eight years old, my family left Squirrel Hill, one of the last of the colorful transdenominational Jewish enclaves in North America. We moved to St. Petersburg, Florida where – in the early 1960s – most of its local residents, had never even met a Jew. Midway through high school, I decided to become a rabbi. I initially thought the decision emerged out of a desire to study more sacred literature, especially because Jewish resources had become relatively unavailable to me. On reflection, I now realize that what primarily ignited my passion for Judaism was a desire for community – something that continues to drive me. Having been imprinted with the template of a vibrant Jewish community so early in my life, I longed to re-create it, if I could not return to it. That challenge has not receded, even if it has changed, even though I have spent my entire adult life immersed in the Jewish community.

I arrive at my office early each day, and in the quiet of the morning, I boot up my computer. It has become part of my daily ritual, as habitual – and nearly as sacred – as davening shacharit. I review the entries in several discussion groups where I am a subscriber. Then I enter into dialogue with a disparate number of individuals who literally span the globe: friends, family members, and colleagues. In an asynchronous way we schmooze, we joke, we share, we study, we cry, and we learn together – all before I begin my formal day at work. (These conversations also continue throughout the day.) Were I forced to use the telephone, these conversations would be less informative and less intimate.

Perhaps the Internet is not the perfect place to nurture community. But I have yet to find a place that is, particularly for myself, a middle-age baby boomer. My wife and I spend many Sundays looking for a residential area to provide for our eclectic community needs: observant, liberal Jews who adhere to a transdenominational or perhaps even post-denominational Jewish lifestyle. I do not want to re-create the shtetl of my grandparents – even if it were possible to do so. And I certainly do not want to repeat my parents’ mistake of moving to a place that resembles the vacuous community of my adolescence. So I have turned to the Internet as an option, an oasis in the wilderness, remaining there until I can find my way to the Promised Land.

I have come to learn that while the Internet can nurture a relationship, it cannot replace one. But I have discovered how to seize teachable moments when I am listening for them. I have also found that the Internet can approximate some of the functions of minyan, like supporting friends and family in need. The Internet provides a measure of safety for people, allowing some to express themselves in ways they might not in person or over the telephone. I have learned some things about the Internet from my children, who spend much of their late evening time with their friends on e-mail. Having spent summers and vacations with friends in Israel, at synagogue youth conventions, and at camps, they re-create their communities and reconnect with friends through “instant messages.” The all-night diner with the bottomless coffeepot has been replaced by the unlimited access fees of Internet service providers.

While the increased interest in spirituality reflects a yearning for relationship with the Ultimate Other, whom we call God, it is clearly also a search for community. Perhaps it is one and the same, for the Holy One of Blessing is more accessible to many through interaction with others. The surge in adult education is motivated by a desire that transcends the needs of literacy. It is one of the reasons why chevruta study (even online) has gained popularity among traditional as well as nontraditional Jews. People study across the miles. The most notable is the Bavli-Yerushalmi study project that brings Israelis and North Americans together to study electronically (and then face-to-face twice a year). That is the irony of the Internet for those who are critical of its ability to develop and maintain community. (Many are looking for the same thing in adult, classroom-based courses, although few educational planners have yet to realize it.)

An explosion of Jewish educational resources is available on the Internet. But as planners and as consumers, we must be careful to assess what is really Jewish education and what is merely entertainment. What about those salient Jewish values that have fueled Jewish life throughout history and have been somehow lost, or at least obscured, through the Internet? What of kedusha (holiness), the practice of mitzvot (sacred obligations), and the fostering of the I-Thou relationship between people? Can we find a way to reshape these values so that we maintain the integrity of our tradition and, at the same time, respond to the expansive use of the Internet? How can we ensure that these values are enhanced by our conversations on the Internet and not replaced by them?

As for me, I teach through the Internet. I counsel. I offer spiritual guidance. I console. I stay in regular contact with people – and they with me – in ways that were nearly impossible and certainly impractical in the past. And in these relationships, I am mindful of the same values that guide my face-to-face interchanges. I believe that we have to work harder to ensure that these relationships, however abbreviated, are raised to the level of kedusha.

If we maintain these values on the Internet, we will succeed in using the Internet to add sustaining value to contemporary Jewish life, rather than adding the Internet to the list of contemporary activities that threaten to undermine our lives as Jews. Our ancestors did not remain in the land of Israel. Instead, they were forced to journey through the various lands of the Diaspora, filtering the parent culture and absorbing only the elements that were consistent with the eternal verities of the Jewish people.

There are those who will nevertheless argue that the only way to study is for two or more people to sit with a sefer between them as they struggle and learn together. Those who regularly engage in such study have discovered the prescient insight of the rabbis who noted that God’s presence indeed dwells in their midst. But what about those who look to their computer buddies for such transcendent moments? Will the presence of the Almighty be found among them on the Internet? I don’t know. Come study with me. We’ll find out together.

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Rabbi Kerry ("Shia") Olitzky is the Vice President of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He is a new contributing editor of Sh'ma and the author of many books and articles, particularly in the areas of Jewish practice and adult spirituality. His latest book (with Lori Forman) is called Sacred Intentions: Daily Inspiration from Jewish Wisdom (Jewish Lights).

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