Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Long Distance Runaround: Pondering the CyBar/CyBat Mitzvah

When I first read this past Sunday’s New York Time’s article on digital B’nai Mitzvah preparation, my first thought was that it was intriguing that this topic would be the lead story in, of all things, the Fashion and Style section. It then occurred to me that the topic’s visibility in the soft news section is a sign of how truly mainstream Judaism has become in American culture. This is what we have been fighting for – to be accepted in secular society. We have done such a good job that a central Jewish-American ritual has become a subject of pop culture. Like all the rest of American lifestyle, our traditions are now morphing into something potentially unrecognizable in this real world made virtual.

The point of the article, as I see it, can be found in this question asked in the fourth paragraph of the piece: “If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune?” That is it in a nutshell. Our communal striving for normalization and acceptance in the Diaspora has essentially led to the eradication of the line between the holy/kadosh and the mundane/hol. Nothing is sacred. Our coming of age ceremony, which is more of a process of becoming then merely a single event, has lost so much of its uniqueness that it can be acquired while the recipient is physically absent. Is this a tragedy? Maybe. What do we do about it? Embrace it.

Reaction to the CyBar/CyBat phenomenon seems to center on it being a reflection of a general decline in the centrality of Jewish communal life in the early 21st century. This is not news – those of us who work in synagogues struggle with this on an almost daily basis. We respond by trying to find new ways to engage our existing synagogue members and families, as well as to reach out to the unaffiliated. We are constantly exploring new models and technologies, and striving to create new visions that will enhance existing institutions. This is as it should be, and this is why we need to see the rise of the digital B’nai Mitzvah as an opportunity for us to expand our community. This requires developing a new paradigm of affiliation and membership. We need to leverage on-line participation, incorporating it into what we do in our brick and mortar facilities. This may take the form of a new synagogue membership category with its own price structure - call it “Virtual” if you will. We should contemplate creating semi-permeable walls that welcome those who are trying to find their own personal niche in the Jewish community. We must dare to think that digital experiences, if handled artfully, can be gateways to synagogue life for the unaffiliated. Face-to-face encounters no longer may be the only, or even primary, means of introduction to the Jewish community.

A Florida Rabbi I know, upon reading the Time’s article commented, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This made me think of Sun-Tzu, the 6th century Chinese author of “The Art of War” who wrote, “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”. We, the inheritors of the tradition passed down to us from Moses to the Great Assembly to our parents need to find the open hands waiting to receive that birthright. Could it be that those we think are the “enemies”, those we accuse of emasculating the Judaism from which we grew, are actually reshaping our heritage, leading us to the next step in a dynamic and flourishing Jewish future?


  1. You are so right on, Peter. Rather than bemoan the reshaping we need to be active participants in it. We need to encourage innovation, change, and experimentation - even if we have concerns about them. I have great faith in Judaism's ability to transcend the crisis, though its end form may not be recognizable to us, should we ever have the opportunity to visit the future. I read an interesting Science Fiction story in Analog recently. It tracks the story of one of many "Diaspora" starships sent out by Jews to colonize the universe. Along the way, things change greatly, though, in the end, some of what was there at the star comes back. I'll be blogging about it this weekend.

  2. A very interesting take on this article. Thanks for helping me to think about this article in another way...

  3. I attended such a bar mitzvah this past Shabbat. For me, the issue was not the use of Skype but of how disengaged the family was from the whole experience.

  4. Susanne - you're absolutely right. Training for a Bar/Bat-Mitzvah from afar, via Skype (or whatever) will not result in a positive Jewish experience and definitely will not engage (or re-engage) a family. I think synagogues need to reach out to the unaffiliated or uninvolved "where they are", helping them find their place in the Jewish community at their own pace. Technology can be an instrument that can be nurturing, only if done as a first step. As Rosenzweig wrote - bringing people in from the periphery to the center.