When I was a few months pregnant with my son Kaveh, a friend of mine added me to a Facebook group for new moms. Most of the moms in this group were English-speaking immigrants who lived in Israel, and for someone like me — 25, pregnant, and with virtually no experience with babies — they were sent straight to my computer screen from heaven.
There were several posts a day by moms asking and answering everything from “How do I get my baby to sleep through the night?” to “What does it mean when my 6-month-old’s poop is_________?” You might not find that fascinating, but I sure do! I’ve met several other moms from this group and since most of my close friends don’t have babies yet, I created a new network of friends with fellow moms. I can honestly say that the women in this group taught me a lot of what I know about babies and along with my husband, have helped me through some tough times.
Recently, the posts on this forum have veered from the usual baby-related content to some more controversial posts about religious issues. The post that had the biggest effect on the events that I’ll describe here was a post about religious women who choose to — or choose not to– cover their hair once they get married. Turns out, the women in the group were very passionate about this subject, as illustrated by the emotionally charged comments — over 200 of them in a relatively short period of time. Some women were in favor of covering, some weren’t; some were flabbergasted by the insistence that one’s religiosity is so regularly judged by something so external, while others were frustrated by the fact that not covering one’s hair was even an option for women who supposedly identifies as Orthodox and lives halakhic lives. Some might argue that the conversation got too heated and I, personally, admit to feeling frustrated by a lot of what was said, but in retrospect, this conversation and the conversations that followed were not only healthy and important, but they say something positive about where Orthodoxy is headed.
The moderator of the Facebook group for new moms ultimately deleted the post without much of an explanation, but one can assume that she was potentially worried about hurt feelings or that she deleted the post because it was off topic and irrelevant to the purpose of the group. Some women, myself included, were a bit frustrated by the deletion of this post, however valid, because we’d actually poured our hearts and souls into the conversation. It became clear to me that self-identified religious women were actually interested in debating and discussing religious and halakhic issues with people who had different perspectives.
In order to respect the moderator’s wishes, I created a Facebook group called ‘Halachic/Religious Discussion Group for Women’ so that we could continue this conversation and generate others. Since its creation, less than a week ago, there are well over 100 members and dozens of posts about real issues that affect Jews. The posts range from people seeking specific halachic advice to people whose faith is in crisis, and everything in between. It was decided that all Jews are invited: Orthodox, non-Orthodox, super-frum, dati-light, knowledgeable, frustrated, inspired. People have gotten feisty– and if you know me, you know that I’m one of those who have — and some controversial issues have come up, made people angry, etc. But we’re talking. A lot. Given the facts presented in Seffi Kogen’s recent post, The Endangered Conversation, I’d say that this jabber is quite an accomplishment.
The Jewish community creates organizations for the specific purpose of getting Jews together in a room to tolerate and understand cultural or religious realities that are different from one’s own. At first glance, it doesn’t seem to work very well with a few notable exceptions, at least not in Jerusalem. The National Religious tend to socialize with the National Religious, the Charedim with the Charedim, the non-Orthodox with the non-Orthodox, etc. But apparently, when given an online forum to do so, these conversations are happening– voluntarily and enthusiastically. So what?
I’d like to make the case that various streams of Orthodoxy are not as hell-bent on sticking to themselves as we may have previously assumed. In ‘real life,’ we go to Jewish learning institutions that reflect our own practices, we socialize with people whose observance is similar to our own, and we don’t always challenge ourselves to listen and give the benefit of the doubt to Jews who live differently than we do. It makes sense, and this phenomenon is not unique to Jews. It does, however, affect the Jewish community all over the world and particularly in Israel, it causes tension that manifests itself socially and politically. But when social media offer us the opportunity to listen, question, and challenge from the comfort of our own homes– it seems like most of us are up for it.
It may be because it’s easier to address these issues online rather than doing so face to face and it may not mean that we’re all pluralists at heart– but it does imply that we don’t completely dismiss the practices and beliefs of others and that even if we vehemently disagree with one another, we’re invested in the future of the Jewish people to the extent that we’re open to hearing from, and getting support from, the extended Jewish family. I admit that I may be more passionate than your average person about the potential for social media to change the world but for what it’s worth, my online activities are helping me hone a sense of optimism and perhaps it could do the same for others. I hope that the group will continue to grow and that it’ll foster conversations between different groups of Orthodox women, non-Orthdox women, and so on. God willing, one day, these interactions will be commonplace offline.