Elul In A Time Of Social Media

That I spend a lot of time thinking about community should hardly come as a surprise, since being a congregational rabbi is all about fostering a sense of community. I want the members of my congregation to feel that their synagogue is a second home for them. And, of course, the synagogue itself needs to relate to the larger community as a whole.

When all is said and done, this is my work– my professional responsibility. Yes, of course I teach, and preach, officiate at weddings and funerals, and do all the other things that pulpit rabbis do. That, too, is my work. But it all flows from a larger sense of “belonging” that hopefully is what binds my members to our particular synagogue setting.

All of this should be fairly self-evident, since for as long as synagogues have existed, they have provided their members with that very sense of belonging to something larger than their own immediate family and friends. But what makes the issue infinitely more complicated today than at any other time in history is the fact that “community” as a concept is evolving into something totally other than what it once was. The omnipresence not only of personal computers, but also smartphones, iPads, and every other device that connects us one to the other no matter where we are, is changing both the idea and reality of community.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when being a part of a community meant being in the same place as its other members. You had to physically move yourself in order to attend a meeting, or social event. But today, in its largest sense, the idea of the “global village” connects us -– without leaving the comfort of our homes -– to anywhere and everywhere on this earth where people have an Internet connection and a device to utilize it.

I remember clearly how, when I first started writing for the online edition of The Jewish Week instead of its print edition, I was worried that those who had followed my pieces would lose touch with my writing because they could no longer find me in the paper that was delivered to their homes. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now, not only can my regular readers in New York find my articles, but people around the world can as well. I have received comments and e-mails from readers across the United States, Israel and Europe, and slowly have begun to realize exactly how powerful and awesome a revolution is taking place right before our eyes. All the major organs of print media are grappling with this new reality, as their revenues shrink and they lose market share to online readers and cable news outlets. The recent sale of the Washington Post was a clear harbinger of more such things to come.

All of this is true, and its repercussions for the world of business and commerce are enormous. But what of the spiritual world? How do the development of the global village, and the virtual hyper-connectedness of people no matter how far away they might be from each other physically, affect their spiritual wellbeing, and their sense of community?

For some years now, since the technology behind the internet revolution became ubiquitous, that question has been asked in increasingly creative and compelling ways. Can a homebound person be counted in a minyan if he/she is only present via webcam or Skype? How can online technology be used not only to teach Torah, which is already happening in countless ways, but also to foster a spiritual sensitivity among members of a community or movement? Must a synagogue or community member be physically present at a meeting in order to vote, and if so, why?

These are but a few examples of vital questions that both spiritual leaders and technology experts (and technologically savvy spiritual leaders) will be dealing with for years to come. But the current Hebrew month of Elul brings these and related issues into even sharper focus.

What does t’shuvah (penitence) mean when e-mail and widespread texting have made interpersonal communication so much less personal than it used to be? Does the nearly universal use of social media even allow for deep, soulful communication, when most people who text don’t even spell out complete words? Once upon a time, people actually spoke to each other. They made the effort to physically meet, especially if they had something important to say to each other. Today, when younger people communicate almost exclusively via text message, what does it mean to say “I’m sorry” and convey depth of meaning?

I was struck the other day by a story my daughter told me, of a friend of hers– a young woman– whose boyfriend had broken off their long-term relationship with a text message. Aside from the obvious lack of courage and basic menschlichkeit that such an action signifies, it also reflects a pervasive attitude about what too often passes for social interaction these days.

It seems to me, as a spiritual leader, that if you’ve wronged someone and, in the spirit of Elul, are intending to ask forgiveness, there is no effective substitute– not even a well-written e-mail– for face-to-face communication. And even if writing a note or letter is an appropriate and constructive part of a process of reconciliation, here’s a radical proposal: use a hand-written letter. When someone takes the time, and makes the effort, to actually put pen to paper and write me, for whatever reason, there’s no doubt that it makes a far greater impression on me than simply getting an e-mail. More often than not, those are letters that I am inclined to keep. And I know that the same is true when I actually write a letter to a congregant or friend. People often keep letters. I’m not aware of anyone who’s kept a treasured e-mail, except maybe on a hard disk.

The work of community is multi-textured and difficult, and like so many things in life, doing it well and effectively is that much more difficult. The same is true of t’shuvah, but even more so. It’s hard enough to say “I’m sorry,” and that much harder to say it in a way that penetrates the hurt our wrongdoing may have caused another. And all of this says nothing about the difficulty of saying “I’m sorry” to God, against whom we have also undoubtedly sinned…

It’s Elul. It is the time to be thinking these thoughts, and acting on them.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.