Cultural Consumerism and the Antidote of Web-Fueled Global Judaism

Rabbi Juan Mejia
February 21, 2012
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Consumerism, when speaking of manufactured goods, usually implies their creation in a massive scale in Third World countries to be sold in the First World.  This guarantees low prices but also runs the risk of providing low quality and, often, leading to the exploitation of the people who produce them.  Nevertheless, when talking of ideas within the global Jewish world we see a very different kind of consumerism, or expectation thereof, in exactly the opposite direction.  Smaller communities (especially if they are located in the Third World) are expected to be consumers of Judaism and to desperately try to adopt whatever works in Israel or in America or succumb to the particular challenges of size and isolation.  Rates of success of programs and ideas are often pooh-poohed because they cannot meet the standards of the larger congregations in other places.  In the same way that these communities import the tefillin, mezuzot and tallitot they cannot produce, the siddurim that they cannot print, the rabbis they cannot train, it is expected that the Judaism itself that is established in these far off places is a mere reflection or a transplant of a more successful foreign element.  Not surprisingly, this strategy has lead in most cases to the same result of material consumerism: low quality of a generic product, which adds to the challenges of these communities instead of solving their problems.

One would also expect that in a world that is increasingly connected through digital media, this problem of cultural consumerism would be accentuated.  With the overwhelming digital footprint and presence of the American and Israeli communities taking most of the Jewish web, to keep passively accepting these imports would seem as an inevitable and foregone conclusion. And yet, aside from the risk of further ing the uncritical consuming of foreign Judaism, the global village has offered some of these peripheral communities the ability to connect one to the other and by doing so, be able to share content and resources that are rooted in their own situation, context and style.

Before the web, these Jewish communities in the periphery could only relate to one another through vertical models of going through umbrella organizations (set in America or Israel).  Today, similar communities can interact horizontally and directly without the mediation of third parties and find the common denominators that bind them whether it be size, language or affiliation.  Through these connections these small peripheral communities can be empowered to create their own kind of Judaism that is not only rooted and, therefore, more successful in its natural environment, but even able to solve problems that the bigger communities, set and invested in their way of doing things, have not yet found solutions to.  These small communities, connected to each other by the web, are lean, flexible and adaptable, and, thus, sometimes more responsive to change than their larger counterparts in more crowded Jewish ecologies.

I have just spent  five days  in sunny Guadalajara, corroborating the incredible power of the web to connect and create vibrant Jewish communities in unthinkable places.  At the XIIIth Convention of the UJCL (Union of Jewish Communities of Latin America and the Caribbean) held the last week of January in Mexico, several representatives of over sixteen countries met for five days to analyze the challenges of one of the most overlooked areas of the Jewish world.  Central American and Caribbean Jewish communities are usually incredibly small when compared to other places of the Jewish map as well as in comparison to the non-Jewish communities in their countries. From the beginning I was floored by the enthusiasm and the lack of complaining.  These communities are small and they know it, but instead of focusing on their challenges, they were reaching out to each others for solutions.  And the great player in the implementations of these solutions was the web.

The entire conference was livestreamed so that those who could not make it to Guadalajara could follow it (ending in people joining to hear the ideas and the Torah even in the established centers of New York and Jerusalem).  During lunch periods, there was a flurry of laptops and flashdrives exchanging in seconds: curricula, siddurim, resources, videos, presentations; sharing the wealth of the choicest products of the local culture with similar communities.  Twitter and facebook accounts swelled with interaction which, as the convention itself was living proof, would in the future develop into human connections and interactions.  These small communities are using the power of the web to create a Judaism that is custom fit to their situation without having to envy or consume uncritically what is exported to them from the center of the Jewish world.

Naturally, just possessing the right web tools will not bring success.  The vital shift in the creation of a healthy global Judaism does not lie in the means (or the media) but in the ends.  It depends on communities, regardless of where they are or how they are perceived by the outside world, taking account of their local context, developing its uniqueness and then presenting it to the world, not as another product to be consumed forcibly, but as a tool that can be rehashed, bent, and recycled in contexts that can be similar but also unique in significant ways.  Following the market analogy, the successes of these communities are not presented as products to be sold or imposed elsewhere (the consumerist model) but as possibilities freely shared or bartered in this Jewish global village of ours.   Possibilities like the free interaction of communities despite their denominational affiliation, leading to Reform and Conservative communities to work together within one same international umbrella.  This unique (and inspiring) characteristic of the UJLC was achieved, in the words of Rabbi Joshua Kullock -its director- by: “focusing on specific projects, empowering each other for the concrete goal of strengthening Judaism in the region.  We work very hard so everyone feels comfortable and included.  Now, this equilibrium between Conservative and Reform communities, organizations and projects, we have not imported from any other region of the world but rather we have built it ourselves, transforming the region in an example that with will and passion these things are indeed possible.”

Maybe it is time that in the big communities of the world, producers, as it were, of a lot of the Judaism out there, we stopped and listened to the kol demamah dakkah of these peripheral communities which, from the web and the four corners of the world, clearly broadcasts a different way of doing business.

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Rabbi Juan Mejia was born in Bogotá, Colombia. After discovering the Jewish roots of his family, he embarked on a spiritual journey that lead him back to the religion and the people of his ancestors. He holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from the National University of Colombia and a summa cum laude Master´s Degree in Jewish Civilization from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in NY. He plans to devote his life to the Torah education of both Jews and descendants of anusim wherever they may be. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oklahoma City, OK. He was recently appointed as the coordinator for the Southwest for the Jewish non-profit organization Bechol Lashon.

2 Comments

  1. Rabbi Mejia
    A very moving account. I recently finished reading The Abundant Community by Peter Block and John McKnight in which they describe what is possible when communities stop focusing on their needs and the “labels” that have been attributed to them and start acknowledging their gifts and come together in sharing those gifts with each other. It is a powerful reclamation of relationship and connection. Are you familiar with their ideas?

    Posted by
    pearlmattenson
  2. Very inspiring post by Rabbi Mejia. Kudos for all the great work you are doing. I believe we can learn so much from these vibrant small Jewish communities. Through the use of 21C tools they can now have a presence and a say on how to successfully run a real Kehila. Rabbi Kullock’s work is the perfect example of Jewish Connectivity. The key to Jewish survival for large and small communities today is not about Jewish affiliation. It is about connectedness to Judaism and Jewish ideas, not just to Jewish people. This is something that small and marginal Jewish communities had been practicing for a long time.

    Posted by
    nomyszoy
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