Technology Works Best as a Blank Communal Canvas

We are Jewish leaders caught in a paradox. The instruments and modalities we are using to reach people to whom we want to connect are becoming so ensnaring and so encompassing that leaders are becoming fixated on the tools, themselves. In all of our attempts to find outreach strategies that work, we are so hungry for “likes” that we are forgetting what feeds the human soul, including those who do not sit at our tables (the fact that we measure outreach by length of “our” tables as opposed to who is not seated at them bears just as much reconsideration).

Technology works best as a blank communal canvas

Technology, for all its attempts to include and speak the language of others, has become deeply rooted in mono-communication, our own communication, that we are trying to keep up an image of “looking” engaging versus keeping our eye on where the community is and isn’t. We try to successfully bring people to us through our Facebook and Instagram feeds, but we so often come up empty.

And yet there is meaningful work being done in many online communities to unhook us from the notion that we should merely be hooking people in. Take a moment and browse the online shelf of RitualWell.org and access the multitudes of people’s prayers, intentions and holy reconstitutions of Jewish liturgy and life cycle. As a blog post was titled at My Jewish Learning recently, it is not only about the Jewish holidays, but celebrating “the Jewish intervals.” This provokes the question: what is the method behind our media or, perhaps, more Jewishly, what is the meaning?

I am pleased to not only be part of the RitualWell community, but to also belong to an online Jewish young professionals group, Kitchener Waterloo JUnite, that has gone from being curated by a group of dedicated (and, frankly, amazing) volunteers to being entirely open to all members posting and sharing their needs, as per these members’ requests. Recently, mothers have also reached out, sharing their photos and scheduling meet-ups while other young professionals, including singles, have sought out and found new roommates.

Right here, community is unfolding because we have let go of the tools and let people have a stake in – or, perhaps, merely self-define – a blank communal canvas, from which to create their Jewish life and the life of their community. Those amazing volunteers I mentioned will always be resources and welcome supports for our growing Jewish community, though we have fundamentally changed our response to people, by inviting their participation and input directly. This doesn’t mean we don’t have standards or roles or even ethical responsibilities, rather, we all share the journey of making our Jewish community blossom.

For those of us desperately seeking the right way to engage Jewish community members, the ultimate tool of Jewish communal survival, I’m afraid I can’t provide a solution. But I can share an anecdote from our tradition:

As it happens, the architect of the Tabernacle was neither prophet nor priest. Rather, he was descended from the House of Judah,  a house traditionally associated with Jewish leadership and, later, the monarchy. But this man was no monarch. He was a 13-year-old artisan named Bezalel.  And when Moses tried to construct the Tabernacle in a way that was inconsistent with G-d’s instructions, he kindly pointed this out. For this, Moses called him the “Shadow of G-d.” A 13-year-old showing the way forward to the greatest prophet who ever lived.

If this isn’t a model for meaningful social media use, than I don’t know what is.

Devon Spier
Devon Spier is a rabbinical student and spiritual entrepreneur. Over the last decade, she has made her home in the small suburban shtetl of Kitchener-Waterloo, where she supports the leadership of Jewish young professionals, children, new mums and donors so that they may lead in innovative ways that raise up the institutions to which they belong.