Renew Year: A Web site for introspection during the High Holidays

The idea is simple: Give people a place where they can be alone to reflect.

By ALLISON HOFFMAN, JERUSALEM POST CORRESPONDENT IN NY
October 3, 2008 00:57
3 minute read.
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Here's a question: How were you affected by a significant experience you had in the past year? And another: Is there something you wish you'd done differently? One more: How have you been impacted by some event that shook the world? These are questions even the most secular Jews might stop to ask themselves in this weekend's run-up to Yom Kippur - and instead of coming from a rabbi or the depths of the collective conscience, they're coming from a new Web site called Renew Year (www.renewyear.com) that aims to be an online listening box for people's regrets, dreams and resolutions The idea is simple: Give people, both Jews and non-Jews, secular and religious, a place where they can be alone, far from the bustle of daily life and of social networking sites like Facebook, to reflect and to leave a record of their thoughts. There's a question for each of the Ten Days of Atonement, unveiled online daily, with e-mail reminders promising a new blank screen waiting for an answer - which will be stored and sent back their authors next Rosh Hashana eve. "It's like a mirror that keeps your reflection for a few seconds," said Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker, who helped develop the site. For many young Jews, especially secular professionals in their 20s and 30s, the holidays often pass in a whirl of set-piece rituals - the shofar blows, the family gets together for apples and honey, you fast and then it's back to daily life. Renew Year - which is backed by Reboot, an American nonprofit that funds arts and cultural projects to engage Jews in their 20s and 30s - aims to provide a spiritual experience that bridges the space between the years. "We always talk in the modern Jewish world about how to have some experience that punctuates your year and punctuates your existence," said Nicola Behrman, a British filmmaker who now lives in Los Angeles. "We've made it very clear that we're doing it at this time of year because it comes from a Jewish experience, but the questions are universal," Behrman said. Behrman said she initially began thinking about the importance of recording reflections after her grandmother passed away, leaving no written record of her day-to-day thoughts and struggles. She and Greenman met at a Reboot conference in May and, with Reboot staffer Amelia Klein, quickly stumbled on the idea for Renew Year, as a way to elicit written diaries from people who might otherwise stop at updating their Facebook status or hashing things out in a quickly forgotten conversation. The Web site replaces disposable reflection with a sense of permanence, promising to lock the answers away on a server, but it also lends a sense of community: Other people out there in the ether are mulling the same questions. Helpful prompts are included to get reticent diarists started: "That my trip to Mexico with my fiance would have been less alienating, that I would have worked harder at my job, that I wouldn't have lost my temper so much," runs one sample response. The site, designed in red, white and black, doesn't look overtly Jewish - something Greenman and Behrman said was intentional. "It is nice that there is the awning of 6,000-ish years of tradition to point us in this direction, but at the root, the reason why it works is that it's the human mindspring," Greenman said. "Things happen to you and you have to figure out why." Experts said that approach may be the key to the eventual success of Renew Year, which is currently in its pilot stage. "People need Jewish invitations which they can turn down," said Steven Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry at Hebrew Union College in New York. "It allows you to sample an authentic Jewish experience without having to stay." Cohen, a consultant to the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, which funds Reboot, said the nonsectarian appeal of the site was also in keeping with current trends in Jewish spiritual life. "Jews today want to be able to cross the boundary between Jews and non-Jews," Cohen said. "It focuses on the personal, and it makes room for individual diversity." While the focus is on personal reflection, the site's founders hope that users will opt to make their reflections public, if only anonymously, to provide a record of what Jews collectively are thinking and worrying about as 5768 fades into 5769 - especially in the midst of the spreading economic collapse. "It sounds so high school, but we always feel like we're the only ones going through what we're experiencing," Behrman said. "But it's really comforting realizing that other people are going through similar things."

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