The Millennial Community

By Efrem Goldberg

A few years ago, I gave an admittedly harsh sermon critical of young people for their lack of participation in community-wide events such as Yom HaShoah commemorations and Yom Ha’atzmaut or Yom Yerushalayim celebrations. I called on them to show up more and be counted and suggested that perhaps at the core of their absence was a self-centered mentality, often coupled with a great sense of entitlement and self-importance, that left young people interested in little else besides posting their latest selfie on Facebook or tracking how many “likes” or followers they had.

Right after davening, a young person who took particular offense to my sermon asked to speak with me. While agreeing that he and his peers for the most part don’t participate in community events and programs, he said my diagnosis was entirely wrong. Millennials care equally about the issues and observances, he submitted; they simply express their concern online rather than in person. They may not attend a physical Yom HaShoah event, but they participate in the observance of Yom HaShoah by posting or reacting to articles and videos online. They may not show up to a Yom Ha’atzmaut program, but they proudly celebrate through social media and with their online community.

Listening with an open mind, I was struck by what he said. Perhaps I was wrong to ascribe negative motives for young people’s absence. Maybe while they were absent in one place, they were, in fact, present in another.

Participating in an online network and community has many positive and important consequences. By definition, an online community is much larger than any local community could ever be. The reach, influence and interconnectivity are extraordinary and have virtually no limits or geographic barriers. Moreover, in the online community everyone has a voice, no matter the age, socio-economic status and educational background—something largely unattainable in the local community. There are individuals who are introverts by nature. Membership in a community online gives them an outlet to express their views and ideas in ways that are comfortable for them.

The young man was right. I have personally seen the opportunities and blessings online communities can bring. Particularly when it comes to millennials, we must consider the online community, how we can reach those using it and how we can use online means to achieve offline goals.

But the young man was also terribly wrong. While the online community is real and significant, it cannot and must not ever replace the actual physical community. Not for millennials or for anyone else.

Commitment to community is a core value of Judaism and of Torah. As early as Creation itself, God observed, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Bereishit 2:18). Man alone is a taker; he is self-centered and self-absorbed. Only in the context of community, in connection with others, does man extend beyond himself and become a giver. Perhaps this is what Hillel had in mind when he said, “Do not separate [yourself] from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). Rambam goes even further by declaring, “Anyone who separates from the community has no portion in the World to Come” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:6).

goldberg2The Internet and social media enable people to be more connected than ever before; however, we must never confuse connection with community. In fact, a plethora of research shows that despite the proliferation of online social networking, people are increasingly lonely and distant from one another offline. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle shows how people who are heavily connected online are more isolated than ever offline, leading to emotional disconnection, mental fatigue and anxiety.

Shlomo HaMelech described the uniqueness of face-to-face interactions when he said, “Kamayim ha’panim la’panim, ken lev ha’adam la’adam, As water reflects a face back to face, so does the heart of man to man” (Mishlei 27:19). He also taught us that “B’rov am hadrat melech, In the multitude of people is the king’s glory,” (Mishlei 14:28), a principle with halachic implications. The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 32b) considers that though we generally perform a mitzvah as early in the day as possible, we don’t blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah during Shacharit and instead wait for Mussaf; this is because “B’rov am hadrat melech,” more people will be present and the community will be larger, lending greater honor to the mitzvah and glory to Hashem.

The importance of community is axiomatic to Jewish life. For a mourner to say Kaddish and be comforted, there must be people who are present and can respond. In order to fulfill the obligation to hear the shofar blown or the megillah read, one must be there to hear it live and in person. For a couple to be blessed with the recitation of sheva berachot at the meals that occur during the week following their wedding, there must be panim chadashot, new faces, guests who physically come to share in their joy.

When a friend is struggling, you can’t e-mail a meal, nor can you cover for a carpool partner via a text or FaceTime a plate of cookies. When a tragedy strikes, typing “no words” on your Facebook feed doesn’t begin to compare with silently sitting next to a mourner in a shivah home. Of course, if barriers like geography make showing up difficult, one should do what he can over the phone or online. But at its core, community means being there and showing up offline, in person.

Milestones and special moments, both happy and sad, cannot be adequately observed in an online community, even with the incredible help of Skype or FaceTime. Holocaust survivors don’t draw strength from those observing Yom HaShoah online. Imagine a wedding where the bride and groom stand all alone under the chuppah with all their friends and family Skyping in or liking the Livestream. That is what happens when millennials—or anyone for that matter—pass on showing up in person and justify it by participating online. When Woody Allen famously said, “Eighty percent of life is showing up,” he wasn’t talking about showing up online.

Our challenge as modern Torah Jews is to welcome the new while holding on to the old. In the modern world, we need dual citizenship in both the community online as well as in our local communities offline. By participating in social media and contributing to the conversation online, communities and their leaders will reach more people and have greater influence promoting Torah values and beliefs. At the same time, millennials for whom digital citizenship is natural, and others who have immigrated there, must remain staunchly committed to participating in and contributing to the local community’s observances, events and rituals.

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi at Boca Raton Synagogue in Florida.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Jewish Action.
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