An Early Morning with the Lord
Sunday, October 22nd, I woke up early (especially by I-went-to-bed-at-2am standards), packed my bags, and left my friend’s aunt’s apartment in Flat Bush, Brooklyn, to take various trains to Washington Heights. If this is already an alien scenario for you, you’ll learn a lot about Orthodox Jewish culture through this and subsequent posts - so just hold tight (and please keep reading!).
I hadn’t planned to have this morning appointment, otherwise I’d probably have arranged somewhere else to sleep Saturday night. But when you’re friend’s aunt is expecting you at 1am, you do not stand her up!
I was getting on this early subway to see Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speak at a conference hosted by Yeshiva University. This was my first time seeing this Rabbi, whose books line my bookshelf, and work on the weekly Parsha I ready weekly, speak live, and although this was not the planned reason for being in NYC this weekend, made the entire trip worth it.
One of the things I love about Rabbi Sacks’ work is how he intertwines Judaism with psychology, leadership, and society. He regularly quotes the types of books I ready when I’m not reading Jewish works, and I even recently read a piece in which he use a quote that has been my email signature for years. This combination of Torah, psychology, leadership, and engagement with society as a whole strikes all the chords with my nerdy, Jewish self, and I just love his ideas and outlooks on how to live a Torah observant life in this modern age.
He is also undoubtedly one of the Rabbinical giants of this era. He has written an unbelievable collection of works, and his role as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (from 1991 until his retirement in 2013) created mutual respect between British society and their Jewish community, and the Jewish community around the world. This too is something I respect as someone called Bal Teshuva (BT), or one who “returns” to an orthodox lifestyle when not raised as such, I believe strongly in engaging with the world at large, and bridging gaps between races, communities, and ideologies.
So. I was pretty excited to see him speak live.
I met the friend who was kind enough to inform me of this presentation the night before, we took our seats, and, well, as you hopefully already know, I geeked out.
The fact that I saw this inspirational person speak was amazing, But this post isn’t about how excited I was, rather it’s about how valuable I felt his thoughts are.
This conference as a whole focused on how to engage in this current era of technology and media, which although speaking to a Jewish crowd, and focusing on Judaism in this era, there are many ideas that came up that translate well beyond the specific intention of this conference - which, actually, may be the intention of this conference. Here are a couple profound thoughts that stood out to me from Rabbi Sack's session.
“Face to Face vs. Side by Side”
When asked how Rabbi Sacks feels about interfaith dialogue, he was quick to dismiss the benefits. He subsided my initial shock when he went on to elaborate that interfaith dialogue happens between like-minded, open people, in remote locations, with little translation into the day to day life. He reiterated that this face to face interaction does not change peoples minds, open their hearts, or bridge the severe divides that exist in our world currently. He supports not face to face dialogue, but side by side activities - such as interfaith community service activities, or engaging with co-workers, other professionals, and the every day, but different than you, people around you.
"Social media does not build community. It only enhances what already exists."
I would image this idea will get disputed - I certainly disagreed at first. I can think of many “communities” I am in on Facebook where real, quality support is provided, and friendships are formed. Even as far back as the LiveJournal days in high school I’ve connected with people online, and that turned into IRL friendships. But this doesn’t counter Rabbi Sacks’ point: It turned into friendships, not communities. Yes, the days of MiCompBands (shoutout to those of you still in my life 14 years later! And to LiveJournal for still having this content on the site ten years after we stopped updating it…) created an online community that has since been continued by Tim and Sean over at michiganmarching.com - but this is an online community based around a very tight IRL community.
Reluctantly I realized, the same would go for the Jewish groups I am in. It seems like they create community, but in fact it fosters the general unity we already feel, we can now just see profile pictures rather than simply playing Jewish geography from across the world.
I think it’s easy to be fooled to believe our online activities and engagements are building community, yet we can forget to actually build it in person. It’s when this happens that the loneliness of the digital age can really set in.
From the computer to the community
Both of these two points strengthen the work I’ve chosen to engage in, and the direction I hope to continue professionally. As a Recreation Therapist, my job is to help foster these in-person engagements, side by side with my client. I help my client get back into the community their disability isolated them from previously. I also have a strong belief in diversity leadership, a view that a strong leadership team is diverse - not just ethnically or racially, but also with different skills and strengths. We know to think about diversity within skin color, but we may forget that diversity of perspective of a given issue also brings strength to the eventual compromise or team work (this is especially forgotten in our currently polarized political climate). So to, within the Jewish community, as a BT I have a different perspective than my frum from birth, or FFB, (raised orthodox) friends. And the real beauty in side by side engagement is that all of these perspective are important, we just have to take time to listen to and understand them.
In his now-classic 1994 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, meditation guru Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:
We all carry around ideas and images of reality, frequently garnered from other people or from courses we have taken, books we have read, or from television, the radio, newspapers, the culture in general, which give us pictures of how things are and what is occurring. As a result, we often see our thoughts, or someone else’s, instead of seeing what is right in front of us or inside of us. Often, we don’t even bother to look or check how we feel because we think we already know and understand. So we can be closed to the wonder and vitality of fresh encounters. If we are not careful, we can even forget that direct contact is possible. We may lose touch with what is basic and not even know it. We can live in a dream reality of our own making without even a sense of the loss, the gulf, the unnecessary distance we place between ourselves and experience. Not knowing this, we can be all the more impoverished, spiritually and emotionally. But something wonderful and unique can occur when our contact with the world becomes direct.
The accessibility to online communities distracts us from what is real, and gives us a false sense of same-ness. It’s easy to find the similarities between us, and attack the differences from the security of our own home. In a NY Times article shared on my news feed this past week, a professional attacked another professional on his blog. When asked why he didn’t just call the person to discuss their differences, he stated he “doesn’t like conflict.” We can disregard our engagement with people through the computer, forgetting their humanity, and defend ourselves because of the significant divide this technology allows us to feel.
Yet, if this is true, then clearly the online community is not human enough. As Jon Kabat-Zinn and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks agree, we need to step outside and engage in the side-by-side community around us. If not for them, then at the very least for ourselves.
Bridging the Worlds
What, then, is the point of blogging, posting this online content, or social media, when I'm advocating along side these wise peers to engage in person? Rabbi Sacks spoke to that too, saying "When you speak to as large a population as possible, you get closer to the bedrock of humanity." I think this is what I've been seeking, that connection with the foundation. I'm hoping you'll join me as we dig for it - starting here online, but then lets take that work into our own communities - digging for it side by side.