(The following article was originally published in Haaretz, and is republished here with permission of the author)
The weekend after Rosh Hashanah, a TV show called “Shavuah Sof” (“Endweek”) ran a skit in which one of the show’s hosts complained that he had been overloaded with so many “Happy New Year” text messages that his phone continued buzzing for days. “If you really want to wish me a happy new year,” he concluded, “call. Let me hear your voice.”
Only a few years ago, one may still have received a few cards in the mail. But as our electronic address has taken the place of our physical one, expecting cards is expecting too much. Rootlessness – the high-frequency relocating of the present day – has become the norm for many of us, especially those who have been empowered by technology to travel in pursuit of opportunities without the fear of losing touch with those we love.
Few holidays are as reflective of our times, therefore, as the seven days in which we are commanded to sit in booths: Sukkot, the holiday of the ingathering of the autumn harvest, takes on new meaning today, with much of the world open to our temporary residencies, thanks to near-universal acceptance of Jews, and the power of information technologies.
Borders are open to us, and with debit cards, search engines and GPS-enabled maps at our disposal, we can find our way around most anywhere with ease, and pay our way in local currency. All this has increased the mobility of the average member of the first digital generation – especially the highly educated and opportunity-minded we have by the dozen.
What is remarkable is that Jewish culture, too, has been liberated from the restrictions of time and space. “In the past year I’ve traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the U.K.,” recalls David Abitbol, the Jerusalem-based founder of Jewlicious.com, an engine of young Jewish culture around the world. “I’ve been to Canada, and on both coasts of the United States. In all cases, I based my itineraries on availability of Internet access. I was able to continue working wherever I was.”
From a day-to-day communal point of view, however, the fruits of this change have been varied. “Increased travel has, at least for those Jewishly identified, resulted in more Jews becoming familiar with Jews and Jewish communities abroad,” says Prof. Chaim I. Waxman, a sociologist with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. “It has also resulted in some Jews being less personally involved in their home community, because they are increasingly away from it.”
This is a paradoxical effect of the digital age – a nearness when far, but a distance even when close. Yes, the Jews were historically known for wandering. Some traveled in search of opportunity, but the majority did so under threat of persecution. Either way, the wanderings of yesteryear were for a much longer term. Up until a half century ago, when one waved farewell from a ship, it was often with little expectation of seeing those left behind again. Once one arrived in a safe community, one’s life was built around its institutions: A Jew who arrived in Pittsburgh or Petah Tivka could see her grandkids grow up a short ride away, and would dedicate her time and money to building communal institutions.
This is certainly not the case today. Thanks to near-ubiquitous digital access, even when we fly off to Thailand, we’re no more than a Skype call away. And if we find ourselves in Pittsburgh, online social networks enable us to connect more quickly with people we share interests with for a short period of time.
And yet these flash connections rarely are as close as those of yesteryear – leaving us with the challenge, as our society becomes defined by the “first digitals’” frequent choice of “sukkot” over permanent dwellings, of adapting our community institutions for highly mobile members.
Our communal institutions – from the State of Israel to our local federations and synagogues – were built for the static life, distinguishing between “locals,” who are dues-paying members, and “visitors,” a smaller group that temporarily accesses services.
But the relative numbers have flipped, leaving us wondering, as the digital age increases our wandering and the relative numbers of “locals” lessens and “visitors” increases, whom are our physically bound institutions meant to serve? What communal institutions are necessary in a world defined by nomadic wandering?
Some organizations have found innovative ways to meet the new demand. Chabad has created a global network of way-stations where wandering Jews can stop for a bite – a gas station for the Jewish body and soul. These nodes are, ideally, financially supported by locals who are inspired by their impact, with strong international backing. But Chabad’s model does not depend on the obligation of those it serves most directly.
As such, with our world moving toward greater mobility, we might reflect in our temporary dwellings as to how we may better build institutions to address the needs of the near-strangers among us. That is, how do we adapt local institutions to the steady flow of visitors who have no intention of staying put? And can we create global institutions that provide services that aren’t bound by physical limitations?
Two directions may serve as a good springboard for further thought. Our tradition maintains the practice of ushpizin, a hosting of strangers parallel to the ethos of hospitality practiced by Bedouin and other nomadic societies. Second, we may learn from the wisdom of the regalim, the thrice-annual pilgrimages that defined the holidays of ancient Israel, and which inspired a sense of unity in a dispersed population through face-to-face contact. Because, no matter the power of social networking and mobile communication technologies, sometimes a text message isn’t enough to prove how much you care.
Ariel Beery is the founder and co-director of the PresenTense Group, which equips social ventures and communities for the information age.