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Social media as generational bridge

There is a wealth of personal stories from our older generations still untouched by social media
Reasons for unfriending someone included being offended by, or simply disagreeing with, their posts.  (Photo: Screenshot)
Reasons for unfriending someone included being offended by, or simply disagreeing with, their posts. (Photo: Screenshot)

One of my favorite parts about using Facebook is connecting with my wife’s 99 year-old grandfather. He doesn’t post especially often, though when he does, he posts like a pro. But he does use Facebook to keep up to date on everything that people in his family are up to.

When we go visit him, he has a printout of all of the articles, photos, and other things we’ve posted since last we’ve seen each other. It helps us jump right into meaningful conversation about topics we might never otherwise think of delving into. (Yes, I imagine we’re likely to talk about this article when I post it on Facebook, too.)

I’m far from alone in connecting with someone from another generation through Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or any number of social media platforms. The idea that social media is for young people has been overstated for years. Personal anecdotes of middle-aged and older adults using social media abound – from awkward comments by parents or children on each other’s posts to the excitement I feel every time I go online and connect with a relative with whom I haven’t spoken in longer than I’d like. Rather than being a mark of generational stratification, social media might in time be seen as a generational bridge.

In the United States since 2011, rates of social media use among Baby Boomers has been expanding rapidly. As of 2013, 73 percent of adults who used the Internet also used social media of some kind, counting adults of all different age groups.

Yet until recently, social media has seldom been seen as a resource for meaningful dialogue between people of different ages. It might happen organically or by chance – but social media has rarely been seen as a means of improving the quality and frequency of interchanges between people of different ages.

Particularly as Baby Boomers approach retirement, the market seems filled with opportunity for such innovation in the way we use technology to connect with people of different ages.

I recently caught up with two people, Andy Siegel and Spencer Balkin, who are new entrants into this should-be market. I have known Siegel since he was fourteen and a star volunteer for an intergenerational program at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington and have only more recently gotten to know Balkin.

Though by day they are college students, both spend most of their time as entrepreneurs, Balkin and Siegel have taken it upon themselves to create a social media platform specifically for intergenerational sharing. They are calling their new company eGenShare. I wanted to know why they would work day and night on the nexus between social media and intergenerational connection.

Siegel shared this thoughtful response with me:

Social networking has not even scratched the surface of what it is capable of doing. What if instead of checking someone’s Instagram to see what they’re eating, or Facebook to see what they’re watching on Youtube, you could get to know what someone experienced throughout their life, things you could actually learn and benefit from? Social networking has the potential to create a living legacy for people of all ages, to write and share life lessons, beliefs, regrets, and experiences with your community, and the people who are most important to you.

Even recognizing Siegel’s need to explain his forthcoming social media platform, his pitch is a compelling one. Given the amount of time people of all ages are coming to spend on social media, wouldn’t it be nice to have a conversation of greater depth and to do so with intentionality?

For the Jewish community, new tools for intergenerational interchange may prove especially important, particularly as a sizeable portion of our American population nears retirement. Isolation among retirees is far too common, and many people live far from their children and grandchildren.

Even if geographically far, it would be nice to feel close – and to have ongoing conversations in new ways. While social media can at times seem to undermine meaningful interchange, it need not do so and might in time become an invaluable tool to connect generations.

Read Start-Up Israel to keep your finger on the pulse of Israeli high-tech and innovation!

About the Author
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies. Josh was is in the 2015 - 2016 cohort of Germanacos Fellows and part of the inaugural group of Sinai and Synapses Fellows from 2013 - 2015. Previously, Josh served as Associate Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey and before that as Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications for the Coexist Foundation. He is a Founding Editor Emeritus of the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a publication that has enabled inter-religious studies to grow into an academic field of its own. He writes for the Huffington Post and Times of Israel. Josh was one of just six finalists worldwide for the $100,000 Coexist Prize and was additionally highlighted by the Coexist Forum as "one of the foremost Jewish and interreligious bloggers in the world." In 2011, the Huffington Post named him one of the "best Jewish voices on Twitter." The Huffington Post also selected two organizations he helped found as exemplary of those which effectively "have taken their positive interfaith message online." He authored one of "15 Blogs from 2015 that Show How Faith Can Be a Force For Good." Josh has been the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Bridge-Builders Leadership Award from the Interfaith Youth Core, the Associates of Jewish Homes and Services for the Aging’s Annette W. and Herbert H. Lichterman Outstanding Programming Award, the Volunteer Hero Award of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the W. MacLean Johnson Fellowship for Action, the Wiener Education Fellowship, and the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Jewish Communal Service. Josh's work was highlighted in chapter of the official report and proceedings of the UNESCO Chairs for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. A sought-after speaker, Josh has given presentations, speeches, and convocations at seminaries, non-profit organizations, and religious groups across the United States and beyond. Last winter, Josh presented about the next generation of religious leadership at the Holy See's 50th Anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate at the United Nations. The prior spring, Josh spoke about social media and interfaith dialogue at an international conference on faith and reconciliation in Kosovo (his one third there). He has also spoken at the Pentagon about religious diversity in March 2013; given a presentation about the prevalence of hate crimes against houses of worship during a White House conference in July 2011 and a follow-up presentation at the White House on the potential for Dharmic communities to enhance religious pluralism nationally in April 2012; an address at the 2010 Eighth Annual Doha Conference, sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Qatar and the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue; and a Closing Address at the Tripartite Forum on Interfaith Cooperation at the United Nations in November 2009. Josh has had articles and interviews featured in newspapers, radio and television broadcasts, academic journals, publications, and blogs in ten languages. These include the Associated Press, National Geographic, Washington Post, German National Radio, Swedish National Radio, The Permanent Observer Mission from the Holy See to the United Nations, public radio's Interfaith Voices, the BBC, Vox, the The Daily Beast, The Sydney Herald, JTA, and the blog of the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Awards. Josh has contributed to edited volumes, including Flourishing in the Later Years: Jewish Pastoral Insights on Senior Pastoral Care, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Questions, Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality, and Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation. Likewise, he has been co-author of a number of academic articles for publications as diverse as Religious Education, Long-Term Living, The Gerontologist, and the Journal of Inter-Religious Studies (a publication he co-founded). Prior to entering rabbinical school, Josh served as an Assistant to the Director of the European Youth Campaign at the Council of Europe and co-Founded Lessons of a Lifetime, a program that improves inter-generational relations through the recording of ethical wills. An alumnus of Amherst College, Josh graduated magna cum laude with majors in history, economics, and Spanish, as well as a certificate in Practical French Language from Université Marc Bloch in Strasbourg, France.
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