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Calling Rabbi Google
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Calling Rabbi Google

The Internet giveth, the Internet taketh away. For example, Facebook can be a great tool for connecting with old friends, finding far-flung people with similar interests, or keeping in touch with kids at school or your folks in Florida.

Or, as Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler explains, Facebook is also a great place for users to stumble (yeah, I said stumble) on an old flame. You know the story: As the advertisement put it so succinctly, “Infidelity? There’s an app for that.”

Or compare two stories that ran in The New York Times this month. The first is about the revival of the Jewish community in Maldado, Indonesia. Descendants of Dutch-Jewish traders sought to recapture their ancestors’ religion and “turned, they said jokingly, to Rabbi Google for answers. They compiled a Torah by printing pages off the Internet. They sought the finer points of davening on YouTube.”

Compare that with last Friday’s story, “Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web,” about how some teens are getting their bar and bat mitzva lessons on line from teachers they may never meet “face to face.”

(I have to interrupt here to share my pet peeve about religion and technology stories. It’s 2010, for goodness sake. Isn’t everybody doing everything on the Web? Stories like these sound newsworthy, until you realize there’s nothing surprising about the fact that any new tool will be quickly adopted by almost any group for whom it’s useful. If the Times had been published 8,000 years ago, you’d probably find an article titled, “Religious groups also finding wheel handy for getting around.”

(But distance learning is no big deal — tutoring is tutoring, whether it’s face to face or through Skype. In fact, it was Orthodox groups that largely pioneered all sorts of digital technology for Torah’s sake, from whole libraries put on searchable CD-ROMs to Mp3 downloads of sermons to iPhone apps for Talmud study.

(End of rant.)

The interesting tension raised but not fully explored in the Times piece was not about the technology per se, but about how it is being used to distance the families and learners even further from a sense of face-to-face Jewish community:

As the article explains, “Many of the families who turn to the Web have been only loosely affiliated with organized Judaism before their children hit bar or bat mitzvah age, when they find that a bricks-and-mortar synagogue will require years of membership and religious school attendance. Typically, the e-rabbis work with children for nine months to a year, often meeting in person for a run-through only the night before the ceremony.”

One mother explains that if not for the convenience of the Web, they wouldn’t have done a bat mitzva at all. “Joining a synagogue? I looked at it, and there would have been no bat mitzvah,” said Shari Steele, the mother of twin girls. “It would not have happened for my family.”

A sign of the times, sure — but old news, really. American-Jewish affiliation was waning before the advent of the Internet, and you can debate whether the Web speeds the process along or actually slows it down by keeping people connected in virtual space.

But the question I have for Ms. Steele and some of the other parents is this: If you don’t intend to be part of a Jewish community, at least in the corporeal sense, why bother with a bat mitzva in the first place?

The piece suggests something, if not new, then certainly worth a few follow-up questions: the bar mitzva divorced from any notion of Jewish belonging. I’m not judging these parents (okay, I am). I’m just curious how they view the bar or bat mitzva itself. As a Jewish swearing-in ceremony? As a sop to nervous grandparents? As a ritual to be endured to justify the party afterward?

Or maybe there’s something more profound at work here — maybe the family hasn’t found a use for Jewish community or its institutions, but they want to make sure the kid understands who she is and where she comes from, so that when and if she does decide to affiliate, she’ll have the proper credentials (even though there’s nothing you have to do to become a bar or bat mitzva except come of age).

It’s too bad that these families have no use for the synagogue, or that the synagogues haven’t made themselves more compelling to families like these. But the idea that a few months of learning of any kind — especially in the seventh grade — will lead to a life-long sense of belonging or identity is a gamble with very long odds.

On-line bar mitzva training is not a cautionary tale about technology. I’m inclined to celebrate those who offer it — for creating an “on-ramp” for the marginally affiliated.

No, it’s not technology that’s the culprit here, but our inability to make Jewish belonging compelling enough for those on the margins.

Sounds like a job for Rabbi Google.

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