Connecting in the Digital Age: Jewish Unity in the Face of Extraordinary Diversity

July 17, 2019

Technology informs so many of the ways we create and strengthen community today. From historical reenactment to flower arranging, there’s a blog network, a Facebook page, or a Whatsapp group for that. We turn to technology to find those who share our interests, and then merrily create exclusive bubbles to fill with shop talk, insider terminology, and tips and tricks. 

Today, the Jewish community faces a new challenge in that we are more blessedly diverse than ever before, but, as a result, the interests that might bind us can be less obvious than they once were. There is no longer just one perceived “insider language” of the Jewish people, and this fact is becoming increasingly clear to us as technology advances. We are more technologically connected than ever, and therefore are simultaneously more aware of one another and more aware of our differences than at any other time in Jewish history. So what do we do in this age of advanced communication and challenged unity? How can Jewish communities draw closer to our rich tradition and also to other Jewish citizens across the globe? And what role might technology play in the ancient, sacred pursuit of Jewish oneness?

This new access to global information allows us to examine how diverse communities have interpreted the same Jewish rituals over time. Until the past century, this information was simply not available to the layperson. Jewish communities often lived in relative isolation from their contemporaries, in different countries or on different continents, developing their own customs, prayer melodies, and cultural norms. Today, we have the opportunity to break open those barriers of knowledge, even if we are not trained scholars, archeologists, or museum curators ourselves. 

How did a Haggadah look in ancient Iran and in medieval France? How did 14th century Jews fashion a wedding ring (spoiler alert: it’s a ring topped with a miniature house), and how did it evolve into the unadorned band we favor today? How were different communities inspired (or deliberately not inspired) by their surrounding cultures when it came to treasured religious symbols and artifacts? These are extraordinary questions, and the answers are at our fingertips, all while we’re waiting for water to boil or in line at the post office.

Absorbing this knowledge, even in tiny bites when we have a spare moment, starts to subtly shape the way we view difference within the Jewish community, whether they are differences of geography or of philosophy and approach. By mining connections in history, we can see the ways our differences have led to meaningful creative innovation, and open our eyes to the ways that diversity enriches Jewish life and worship. When we see the unexpected aspects of our tradition that other Jewish communities have historically chosen to emphasize and illustrate, our own faith and routine practices are expanded. This practice strengthens the muscles of curiosity and wonder, and affects the way we view our increasingly complex nation today.

Exploring contemporary Jewish art and ritual can exercise these same practices of mind. Using technology as a tool, we can challenge ourselves to explore local Jewish artists, who are inspired by religious experiences and memories similar to our own, and then to expand our gaze toward a contemporary artist or maker in Israel, France, or South America. Where does the work of these two artists meet on common ground, and where does it diverge? Years ago, it was an impossible dream to drink in the beauty of our tradition through eyes different from our own, to see new interpretations of ancient themes or brilliant reinventions of Jewish items we use every week. Today, we are blessed to see our daily struggles and triumphs painted in new colors, and unfamiliar landscapes adorned by the same Hebrew letters that many of us learned in school so many years ago. In this way, art is our window to the other pieces of ourselves as one Jewish nation. 

So after our explorations, how do we bring the conceptual ideas of unity to our real lives? By building homes and places of worship that incorporate art and ritual items from across the globe and across religious experiences, we create inclusive, welcoming environments for all members of our communities. Nothing compares to being seen, and making space for diversity in the art, literature, architecture, and general conversation in Jewish homes and synagogues is one way to communicate that difference is not only welcome, but a cherished part of Jewish tradition. By exposing our children to diversity of religious artistic interpretation, we begin to shape a generation that does not see difference as a threat, a challenge, or an impediment to Jewish unity. We begin to build a world where Jewish communities around the globe are pieces of one whole, where difference is seen as a learning opportunity and a reason for celebration. 

Sara Bellin is a non-profit program manager and freelance writer in the Boston area. By day she engages with contemporary challenges in Jewish education, and then pulls up her chair again at home to write articles relating to Jewish lifestyle, identity and values. Bellin lives in Brookline with her husband and two year old son.

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