How Effective Is Virtual Activism?
06/18/08
Staff Writer
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My son, Aryeh, is 14 and like most kids his age, he finds Facebook vital to his existence. The social networking part is great — he is in near-constant touch with friends and relatives from both near and far, who constantly update each other on seemingly every aspect of their lives. But Facebook also provides something else for this high school student whose consciousness is blossoming — an opportunity to learn about and be involved with dozens of social justice and political causes. Aryeh has 719 Facebook friends; from kids he sees every day to cousins living in Australia, with whom this is the only contact. He is also signed on to dozens of  “causes,” about half of them Jewish, ranging from Stop Global Warming to Jews for Zionism, the Koby Mandell Foundation and Support Israel. “Facebook’s causes are a great way to spread awareness about things you believe in, and a great way to raise money,” he says. “Being online is super-important to kids my age. It connects us together.” Stop Global Warming has nearly 1.89 million Facebook members, from which it has raised $23,690. Support Israel has 38,613 members and has raised almost $1,200 for the Jewish National Fund. So while Facebook may represent a tiny sliver of what JNF raises, it also reflects that online connections and networking have become essential to the social and community justice work of teens and young adults. “If I were funded beyond belief, I would have a Facebook Officer creating groups and events about everything important to our constituent groups,” says Amir Cohen, chief executive officer of Jewish Family & Life, an educational media company, which publishes Babaganewz, JVibe, Shm’a and JBooks.org. “The Internet is essential; it is a catalyst by a factor of a lot,” he says. “I’m on Facebook myself, because now it’s like a job requirement.” Even as nonprofit and social justice groups, along with savvy political campaigns like Sen. Barack Obama’s, invest serious funding and attention in their online presence, Jewish organizations, for the most part, have not. “The Jewish establishment is very behind on this,” says Tahl Raz, editor of Jewcy.com, an online Jewish magazine. “I’m going from conference to conference, they’re kind of ‘what’s this World Wide Web thing, maybe it will pass,’” he says. “They don’t have the presence, aren’t utilizing the technologies and when they are, are getting [fleeced] by fourth-rate technology vendors because they don’t know how to use it,” Raz says. According to Rabbi Andrew Bachman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope and a founder of Brooklyn Jews, an innovative group to attract unaffiliated Jews, “the sought-after social activist Jews are mostly using the Internet for non-Jewish causes.” There are a few Jewish groups, though, working to use the technology to tap into their potential activist-constituents. American Jewish World Service, the international development group, is a “cause” and has a “fan group” on Facebook, on which it has posted YouTube videos featuring its president, Ruth Messinger, and others, highlighting the need for involvement in Darfur and other issues. (See interview with Messinger on page 28). “We’re doing a lot of online advocacy right now,” says Hadassah Max, the group’s associate director of communications. In a month’s time, through Facebook and its e-mail database, AJWS collected 10,000 signatures on an open letter asking President George W. Bush to boycott the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing this summer, to protest China’s backing of the Sudanese government, according to Max. But AJWS isn’t sure if young people are being disproportionately attracted by the online efforts. While Facebook started out as a college social networking application, Max points out, the average age of its users has recently risen as people in their 30s sign up. “Obviously online is where people are, so we use online mechanisms to reach them. But we’re increasingly finding that it’s not just young people online. It’s everyone.” Some online efforts are specifically targeting young Jews. Gabbi Baker, 17, is a rising senior at the Richland Northeast High School in Columbia, S.C., and a teen leader in her local B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO) chapter. She’s a big fan of My2CentsForChange.org, a cleverly animated portal started by BBYO to give teens a place to connect around presidential politics. “To me it’s just a place for teenagers who are not eligible to vote to get online and voice their opinion on things where they might not have a voice by voting, on things like poverty,” says Baker. “It’s great to see so many people getting online. You can really see what teens all across the United States are thinking and that they want to make change,” she says. “It really makes you feel like you have a voice.” Virtual activism is a reality in teens’ lives, because their other commitments preclude more in-person involvement, Baker says. “I am way overscheduled and I don’t always have five hours a week to dedicate to community service. This gives me a chance to talk about my opinion in other ways. I’m constantly on Facebook; I check my e-mail every five minutes. I have an iPhone and a laptop at home. My phone is basically my life,” she says. “In some sense I’ve become dependent on having that online network. So much of my life is on my computer now.” That total involvement in life online is leading some to question the real-world utility of virtual activism. “Most days, I feel like Internet activity, especially blogging, serves as a substitute for real action. Someone gets upset about something, they post 1,000 words about it on their blog and they feel like they’ve done some thing,” says Douglas Rushkoff, who coined the term Open Source Judaism in his book “Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism” (Crown). As people sit riveted to their screens, for news, for recreation, and for connecting socially — and at a time when pro-Israel rallies in New York are populated with school and camp groups bussed in to the event, rather than with individuals drawn to the cause — it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine thousands of young Americans taking to the streets to protest social and political inequities today. Is this virtual activism in some way sapping, rather than feeding, the energy of real-world activism? “I don’t know that it’s so old school to think that the street means something,” Rushkoff says. “For as many real-life, in-the-street gatherings that have been enabled by online efforts, I feel just as much in potential energy has been extracted from real-world activism and community-making.” According to Rushkoff, “It ends up roughly a wash.” “As kids who are raised more exclusively in the digital space come into their own, will they see digital activism as a full substitute for real activism? In the end, it’s not clear yet. It’s just a matter of bridging these two worlds and not letting the world of the Internet disconnect completely from real life.” Rabbi Bachman, who has (according to his Facebook status update) been immersing himself in the works of the late media theorist Neil Postman, says that he is unsure that all of the new-media access points are really deepening the connection of young people to Jewish activism and commitment. “Postman makes the point that all new tools, from the printing press or the clock to the computer and the Internet just increase volume, and don’t necessarily raise the quality or deepen people’s experiences,” he says. For the first time, his synagogue is now trying to virtually connect its 25 high school seniors who are about to go off to college to their new campus Hillels. “We invited them to stay connected. We’ll see the degree to which we can keep Jewishly connected with these kids. It’s too soon to say if it will be successful.” Much about the value and potential of connecting young people online — to activism, to spiritual communities, to anything of lasting meaning — remains to be seen, says Rabbi Bachman. “When it comes to getting really excited about how these things might grow the Jewish community, I think that younger people, who are the primary inventors of this, need to take it further. “As a Jewish community we’ve not even begun to fully realize our potential” in terms of virtual activism, he says. Online connectivity “has been a great tool, but whether it will radically transform the Jewish community remains to be seen.”

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