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Sally Berkovic
Sally Berkovic

The Metaverse and the Jews

Thanks to stem.T4L for the free photo on Unsplash

VR headset? Tick

Clever [but not too clever and certainly not cute] avatar? Tick

Digital burial plot ready? Tick

Are you ready for the metaverse?

Are Jewish organisations and their funders ready to embrace both the excitement and the uncertainties of the metaverse to help shape the future of Jewish communal life? Could it be a catalyst for a different sort of Jewish life, or is it just a gimmick? In his review of 2021, Bill Gates suggests that within the next three years, most virtual meetings will move from 2D camera image grids to the metaverse, a 3D space with digital avatars. No more jam doughnuts for colleagues at the office Hannukah party? No more matzah crumbs at the pre-Passover model seder at the children’s Hebrew school? No more dancing with the Sefer Torah on Simchat Torah– not for men, and certainly not for women? Seriously?

Scholars write about the material culture – the physical, tangible objects reflecting Jewish life, and the immaterial culture – the songs, languages, rituals shaping Jewish experience. In the metaverse, what will happen to our material culture? How do we capture the transience of ephemerality? While there are more than 600 billion web pages on the searchable Internet Archive for specific Jewish-related interests, the National Library of Israel continues to build on its holdings of 5 million artefacts and is ramping up its digitisation programme. With foresight, it initiated a project to collect ephemera focused on the Jewish communal response to the pandemic and together with Yad Hanadiv, has just launched a lucrative international competition to find new ways to engage with culture and heritage drawing on technological innovation.

As CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, I am acutely aware of the impact of the pandemic on heritage institutions that were largely closed to the public. Most are still feeling the impact of a lack of international visitors. However, for staff in many museums and libraries, the pandemic offered unfettered time to digitise more materials, research and audit the collections, consider potential new exhibitions and rise to the challenge of quickly adapting their educational programmes for online audiences.  Armchair tourism was the mode of travel and as Ruth Gruber noted on Jewish Heritage Europe, there was a huge range of online touring opportunities surveying Jewish heritage sites across the globe.

All this in the context of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent rebranding of Facebook as Meta as he explained his recent Founder’s Letter. He is excited about the future… as we move beyond what’s possible today, beyond the constraints of screens, beyond the limits of distance and physics, and towards a future where everyone can be present with each other, create new opportunities and experience new things.

But can this vision sustain the future of Jewish life… and death? Putting aside the black humour shared by Israelis that ‘meta’ means ‘dead’ in Hebrew, could I rely on the metaverse for my tombstone, thus avoiding a big expense IRL?

The web is buzzing with wonderful Jewish content, but who is measuring its impact?  How can leaders and funders work together to help Jewish communities harness the content to engage more participants in more meaningful Jewish life? What sort of investment is needed in digital infrastructure? There is, of course, a huge difference between the ability to access digitized materials, attend online lectures or participate in a zoom Shabbat service and the evolving, quasi-fantasy metaverse experience. We need to avoid the trap of thinking that fancy equipment, impressive software and futuristic gadgets are the solution. They are merely tools. What we really need are superb teachers and visionary thinkers who can use the technology wisely to transform the nature of Jewish education and engagement for diverse audiences.

While the technology can bedazzle, it’s not always clear whose interests are being protected and whose lives are being exploited. For example, projects to create virtual reality experiences of Auschwitz are in development. One is described as the ‘powerful, controversial use of the most advanced immersive technology, an experience in real-time, interactive VR with powerful narrative content and strong emotional engagement.’  As the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, I baulk at the endeavour – it feels immoral and amoral, but am I wrong?

I felt uncomfortable when the holograms of Holocaust survivors were first launched. Now they are regarded as a critical educational tool and the controversy about them has largely dissipated. The latest ‘sensation’ is 97-year-old Lily Ebert who has gone viral on TikTok talking to her 17-year-old great-grandson about her Holocaust experiences. In an era of short attention spans, Lily is personalising the Holocaust for millions of viewers. Will this reduce antisemitism? Unlikely, but that’s probably too much to ask. What will antisemitism – indeed all forms of xenophobia – look like in the metaverse? The cowardice of anonymity allows it to fester on social media and cyber-terrorism is an increasing threat to Jewish communities. How do we protect virtual communities and keep them out of danger? What does danger even mean in this confluence of digital and physical realities?

If we want to strengthen Jewish communal life and ensure Jewish cultural heritage is accessible for future generations, are we at risk of missing a trick? The impact of non-fungible tokens [NFT] on the contemporary art world is fascinating– do funders have a role in supporting Jewish museums to take risks acquiring such art? Is there an art collector willing to take a gamble on Jewish artists in the NFT space? Presciently, Rebecca Dinar has just asked some interesting questions about the relevance and adaptability of NFTs to sustain Jewish life.

Who should be at the vanguard of supporting these digital advances when it comes to Jewish heritage and culture? Will virtual rabbi-avatars recreate the lost worlds of Jewish experience? Will the gaming social entrepreneurs use cryptocurrencies to buy virtual synagogues or build community centres to host concerts and educational programmes? How do we find the ‘sweet spot’ between grave ethical concerns and pragmatism? How do we protect the rights of the individual against the demands of the digital revolution? I don’t have the answers, but we need a meaningful global Jewish conversation to begin to answer the questions.

In the meantime, I’ve been refining my avatar, ensuring it’s ready for launch. I still abide by the motto of my Girl Scout youth – Be Prepared.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic's latest publication, Death Duties, focusses on her involvement with the Chevra Kadisha, and will be available in January 2022. It can be pre-ordered by contacting Sally via her website. https://sallyberkovic.com/ Her book, Under My Hat is available on Amazon.com and fishburnbooks.co.uk Reflecting on Orthodoxy and feminism, this 2019 edition includes a new, 75-page introductory essay reviewing the extraordinary changes in Orthodox women’s lives since the book was first published in 1997. She is the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.
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