Saturday, May 17, 2008

ELITISM AND THE WEB IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

RICHARD SILVERSTEIN, TIKUN OLAM Haaretz's Daphna Berman writes about a fascinating new study by sociologist Chaim Waxman about the nature of youth affiliation with the American Jewish community. Two elements of the report precisely tracked my own ideas on the subject: the alienating tendencies of American Jewish leadership and the impact of the web on Jewish affiliation and identity.

[Waxman] raises some fascinating issues worth considering:

"[American] Jews'. . . engagement in civic activities. . . [has] weakened. Their rate of volunteering for communal causes has also declined, and they are much less likely to join Jewish organizations. Thus, the 2000/2001 National Jewish Population Survey found that there was a decline of close to 20 percent in affiliation with major American Jewish membership organizations between 1990-2000. Another indicator of the weakening bonds of community is in rates of philanthropic giving to Jewish causes. Charity and philanthropy have historically been among the primary manifestations of belonging to the community, and their rates have been declining during the past decade or two.

"Some of the reasons for the decline in communal participation relate to the increasing perception that the communal leadership is elitist, parochial, self-serving, and resistant to innovation and to the active involvement of those who are not members of the "good old boys club," the circle of wealthy, old men who are at the helms of most major Jewish organizations. At least since the 1960s, younger people in the West have been raised to "question authority" and distrust "the Establishment," and they now they do so, sometimes adamantly."

I would slightly broaden Waxman's critique to include a hidebound unwillingness to confront new political and social ideas especially regarding Israel. In addition to a knee-jerk support for intransigent Israeli policies which refuse to recognize the need to finally resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict on terms that will not necessarily be completely to Israel's liking.

Waxman also notes the significant impact of the web on Jewish life, identity and affiliation:

"The increasing significance of cyberspace has probably played a role in contributing to the decline in communal participation, for several reasons. Cyberspace affords the opportunity for one to feel part of a community without actually being affiliated with it. One can participate virtually in a idle variety of community functions without ever coming into face to face contact with any members of the community (as members) or with any of the organizations of the community. The virtual community offers the opportunity to partake in some of the community's offering without the cost of having to tolerate undesirable aspects of communal life, and it appears as a "win-win" alternative. On the other hand, it is quite possible that it is in the nature of cyberspace to undermine group identity, to contribute to 'post-ethnicity.'"

While I appreciate Waxman's sensitivity to the question of cyberspace and its impact on Jewish life, I think his sense of affiliation with the conventional community has given him too narrow a perspective on this issue. He neglects several important considerations: a Jew may be affiliated with the community yet use the web to broaden and deepen Jewish knowledge; a Jew may be alienated from the community, yet use the web to replace communal engagement with a full and legitimate Jewish identity. Waxman assumes that a traditional sense of affiliation is a be-all and end-all of Jewish identity. He assumes that anything less will lead to an overall decline in the quality of Jewish life. I'm not so sure. I wouldn't go so far as to say that cyberspace could ever replace traditional communal life. But it certainly will supplement it and in some cases replace it for the most alienated Jews.

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