i-Faith – Judaism in the Playlist of Young Jews’ Beliefs

Once upon a time, record companies dictated the terms of the relationship to their audiences. If you wanted a song, you had to buy the whole album. An album came with certain packaging that you had to pay for, too. If you wanted to discover new music, you could subscribe to record-company mailing lists or mail-order systems (remember Columbia House—12 albums for a penny!). And if you copied music from your friends, well let’s face it, the whole tape-to-tape copying was pretty inefficient and cumbersome.

Once upon a time, religious institutions dictated the terms of tradition to their constituencies. If you wanted to be part of a community, you had to accept the whole theological package (at least on the outside).

But then came technology, the Internet, new media, and file sharing. Napster suddenly enabled people to upload and swap songs with amazing speed and freedom, allowing individuals to get the songs they wanted without paying for all the packaging and other songs they did not like!

The record companies cried “foul!” and called young people “thieves!” They went to court (and still do) trying to use their power (lawyers on staff) to control and intimidate young people back into line with their ordained-from-on-high policies and terms. And in time, they shut down Napster. Which in turn spawned more highly untraceable and less enforceable systems like Gnuttela, eMule, BitTorrent and more. The record companies quickly went from being venerated institutions of culture and valued content to becoming viewed as the enemy—power-hungry, control-coveting, old, outdated oligarchs that needed to be taught a lesson by the masses. And rather than record companies fostering culture, it became part of the music-lover’s culture to hate the record companies.

But then came iTunes. Apple had an idea.

Apple said, “Maybe young people are not thieves. Maybe they are not driven by a desire to selfishly take without respecting the source of what they take, but rather wish to take on their own terms and at fair prices.”

“What if,” Apple wondered, “these ‘bandits’ were allowed to buy one song at a time, rather than having to buy a whole album along with packaging that they apparently do not crave? What if rather than having to follow the institution’s leads as far as music taste, a person who liked one song could then find their way to similar songs that match their tastes across many different record labels? What if persons who shared musical tastes could find each other, and then grow from their interactions with each other to form natural communities, and discover and enrich their tastes in a more social and authentic manner?”

In other words, Apple built a music-sales model based not on control and ownership of the listener-base, but rather upon social relevance and individual tastes and passion.

The response has been unmistakably clear: iTunes is now the largest reseller of music in the world, selling 25% of all music in the US (more than any other US music retailer, including Wal-Mart), and 70% of all digital music globally.

Returning to the world of faith, or “i-Faith,” we find that what happened to the record companies is now happening to religious institutions, including our schools.

Once upon a time, religious institutions dictated the terms of tradition to their constituencies. If you wanted to be part of a community, you had to accept the whole theological package (at least on the outside). An affiliation came with certain rules and roles that you had to adhere to. If you wanted to explore Jewish values, you did so via your local synagogue, rabbi, youth groups, and religious schools. And if you wanted to explore religious values with friends from outside your immediate community, well let’s face it, the scope of opportunity for diverse exploration beyond your immediate Jewish universe was pretty limited.

But then came technology, the Internet, new media, and file sharing. The Internet suddenly allowed our kids to explore other faiths and values (and a world of sex and sensationalism) with amazing ease and freedom, enabling our children to ask the questions they were curious about whether we approved of their questions or not.

And while rabbis and teachers and parents can cry “foul!” and wish for the days when adults set the terms of what kids would talk about at what age (after all, until the Internet the most radical thing you could do was go to the library or buy an adult magazine), those days are past.

Today, every religion, value, temptation, and pleasure is on the table before our kids. And the question is: In a world where our kids can choose anything, why would they still choose Judaism?

My organization, In-Reach, runs a clinically supervised online peer-counseling system called TheLockers.net. We refer to TheLockers.net as a Personal Discovery Portal for Jewish teens. It is a place where rather than promoting a specific ‘brand’ of Judaism, we begin the conversation by simply asking visiting Jewish teens: “What is your question?”

And then we let other teens answer.

What ensues is a fascinating interaction on an organic level between young Jews of all denominations and backgrounds, with kids with zero Jewish education (but fierce Jewish pride) from the middle of the American Bible Belt sharing ideas and questions with kids from top Jewish day schools in New York, Toronto, or Israel.

Every word posted by teens is pre-screened by a trained facilitator according to a rigorous clinical methodology developed in consultation with Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski and Dr. David Pelcovitz (who supervises the program today). And most fascinating is that the number one topic of conversation on TheLockers.net is morality and faith.

Over the past seven years, we have heard from over 10,000 Jewish teens as they discuss their lives’ most intimate and personal questions, ranging from family matters to social matters to self-esteem to partying to academic issues and, of course, to faith. We have been the proverbial fly on the wall as Jewish teen culture unfolds before us in real time.

And we have watched the world of brand-based Judaism, where people defined themselves by the Jewish institutions they affiliated with, melt away.

Like record companies, major Jewish institutions (the OU, JTS, UAHC) remain essential and valuable. They are the number-one producers of Jewish content, and they “own the library” of Jewish legacy content, particularly that of 20th century North American Judaism.

But young people (and many adults, too) have stopped listening to them in order to define their Judaism. Today’s young Jews do not feel a need to define themselves according to a particular religious brand. Rather, they share ideas and questions as they bubble up from within across organically formed communities in cyberspace, be it on Facebook, MySpace, or TheLockers.net or any of MTV.com’s or AOL.com’s hundreds of teen message boards. And they build a playlist of faith in real time.

Young Jews are less concerned about the quantity of observances they might share with each other and other faiths, and more concerned about the authenticity and relevance of practiced rituals as they relate to real life—in a broad and meaningful manner.

The i-Faith world has enabled our youth to explore religion as “individual songs” or values, and to follow threads of values horizontally across many Jewish (and non-Jewish) schools of thought, rather than the older vertical model that treated individual Jews within a particular column of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform).

Today, young Jews form community with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Americans, Asians, African Americans, etc, binding themselves by a sense of shared values among faiths and cultures, rather than by clinging to the self-perceived “rightness” of their birth-given religious identity.

The challenge before us is clear, and it was presented to us by King Solomon in the book of Proverbs: to engage each child according to his or her individual nature. Just like iTunes. If the values we are teaching are not relevant to our children on a personal and social basis within a global community, we are going to lose our audience in numbers we have never seen to date.

What does this mean?

It means no longer teaching Jewish studies as a subject (“Bible,” “Talmud,” “Mishnah,” “Prophets,” etc.), but rather teaching them as a roadmap of life, which is what our Torah was meant to be.

When we teach Jewish studies as “subjects,” our kids will drop those subjects once they get to college, where such studies will become an elective topic of limited relevance to the high-pressured academic and social realities before them.

We know so much about the psychological and emotional and social stages of adolescent development, and are blessed with many revered and respected Jewish clinical experts who are also scholars of our texts.

Imagine mapping out the four years of high school based upon the four stages of adolescent development that are unique to each of those years of life. And now imagine mapping our rich heritage of religious texts to those stages. Rather than teaching Jewish studies as subjects, we should be teaching our texts as roadmaps of life, rich in timeless values and precious insights for coping with the greatest challenges of both personal and societal development.

Imagine a class in the 9th grade, with all its adolescent challenges of self-esteem and a search for identity, where the classes in Jewish studies were a weave of components from Torah (the story of Joseph, or young Judah!), Talmud (the story of Amram Chasidah), and our endless books of Jewish thought and philosophy. Imagine a class in 12th grade which dealt with the questions of the role of a person within the greater society now before the high school senior, as our Jewish heritage is uniquely rich in its sensitivity to Tikkun Olam and our responsibility to the greater world we are a part of.

And imagine taking the incredible elements from our Talmud on mathematics and the sciences, which include discoveries that are only being rediscovered in modern times, and preparing these components as addendums to the science and math classes in our schools, to be referenced by any teacher, even a non-Jewish teacher. Imagine the sense of pride a Jewish teen would feel to hear his or her non-Jewish teacher present, with wonder, how ancient Jewish scholars pioneered or were aware of groundbreaking ideas of physics, geometry, algebra, and the humanities.

It is time for us to teach Judaism as it could be and once was, as a rich and profound dynasty of timeless values and relevant wisdom. Given such an approach, our children would not ‘drop’ these subjects once they go forward to seek their fortunes in college and thereafter. Because their Jewish education will have been their best friend and Spiritual GPS through the formative years of their life. And in a world of i-Faith, Judaism will earn a permanent place in the playlist of young Jews’ lives.

Rabbi Shu is the CEO and Founder of In-Reach, a trans-denominational new-media youth organization that provides guidance to Jewish teens across North America through the online Jewish Discovery Portal, TheLockers.net, and conducts cutting-edge multimedia workshops on best-practices for today’s parents, teachers, and community leaders. He can be reached at Shu@In-Reach.com.

Shu Eliovson
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Spring 2010