It’s hard to shoot at a digital synagogue

As Jewish communities around the world are about to celebrate the High Holy Days, and mostly in person, this debate seems more relevant than ever. Let’s get started, online and off.

September 28, 2019 19:39
3 minute read.
It’s hard to shoot at a digital synagogue

John Earnest, accused of killing one and injuring three others while shooting up a synagogue in Poway, Calif., in April 2019, during his preliminary hearing on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in Superior Court San Diego. (photo credit: JOHN GIBBINS/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/TNS)

Traditional Jewish institutions are in crisis, and synagogues perhaps pay the price the most. In the United States, synagogue membership has been in decline for years, and young Jews do not believe that a synagogue plays an important role in their Jewish identity or Jewish life. From virtual communities to digital synagogues, leaders and funders have struggled to find new ways to engage millennials and bring them together to worship.

Yet, these are exactly events – like the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh and the shooting in Poway this past year – that remind one of the importance of congregating in a physical space. The actual presence, a visible Star of David, brought the shooters to these communities. The horrible acts have been driving non-synagogue-goer millennials to visit the sites, mourn together, and commit to visit the synagogues again in the near future to deliver the message of unity, continuity and hope.

As modern antisemitism resurfaces in the US public sphere, young Jews are confronted with the reality that for many haters, physical synagogues equals “the Jews.” While online racism and extremism has been on the rise for quite some time, attacking synagogues in the real world is what is now bringing the world’s Jews together. Young Jews feel compelled to support communities and show the world the power of brick and mortar congregations.

This changing reality can sometimes bring us to the Theatre of the Absurd. It has been reported recently that a man got caught for an attempt to attack a building, thinking, by mistake, that the institution was a synagogue. It belonged, in fact, to another religious affiliation. It is clear that the physical space defines us more than we sometimes think.

Recent events have demonstrated that young millennials do recognize and appreciate the role of synagogues in their Jewish life. It is our responsibility to show them the added value.

First, if one way to fight “modern antisemitism” is by expressing Jewish pride, visiting synagogues and supporting them on a regular basis should be part of the “next generation” narrative. Virtual communities could be an attractive proposition, yet actual synagogues have their unique role in our lives. I was surprised to see, while visiting Pittsburgh a few weeks after the shooting, how quickly things have gone back to normal and how the numbers of young visitors have declined.

Second, recent shooting events showed that such events can happen in any community, regardless of specific affiliations. Modern hatred doesn’t differentiate between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism. The Jewish responses to those events are unprecedented and inclusive. We should develop programs that introduce kids and young adults to synagogues, wherever they might be and whatever they look like.

Third, it is hard to avoid the comparison with the current state of the retail industry. Indeed, while on-line commerce is booming and traditional retail is falling apart, there are many innovative solutions developed by the retail industry to convert a digital platform to a more traditional retail experience. It has been reported, for example, that Nordstrom’s new New York space allows digital customers to use their store to exchange merchandise from other brands in order to create traffic and brand exposure.

The Jewish digital platforms in today’s world are rich and diverse. Yet not enough effort has been invested in connecting the digital user with the physical space. In many circles the “digital space” is being described as an effective alternative in order to keep young Jews engaged with modern Jewish life. It is true that real estate costs and that hectic schedules have moved congregants to find other ways to be part of a Jewish community, whether virtual or not. Yet it is exactly the physical space that reminded us all in recent months the limits of the digital era.

As Jewish communities around the world are about to celebrate the High Holy Days, and mostly in person, this debate seems more relevant than ever. Let’s get started, online and off.

The writer is an international economic law professor, adviser and commentator.

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