Lessons from the Information Age
“Kids, why did you argue so much about going to Temple today?" Uncle Russell asked us one year after Rosh Hashanah services. After thirty seconds of stale silence, my cousin Samantha said, “We didn't want to go. Temple's boring.” Uncle Russell responded, bellowing, “We go because there are six million Jews who cannot; our people who were brutally murdered in cold blood!” I asked my Uncle if the Holocaust was really the reason to be Jewish today. He looked perplexed but replied confidently, “Well, it works for me!”
Asserting our Jewish identities in terms of past oppression has become a central component of Jewish identity, one that threatens to take the place of the pursuit of Judaism’s essence. The future of both Jewish and Zionist strength lies not in the negative default of reparation for past injustices suffered, a concept that does not resonate with my generation, but rather in the positive assertion of our collective identity and purpose.
Because of the diversity of approaches to our religion, and the often diametrically opposed world-views held within the Jewish community, Judaism faces a challenge: creating a cogent collective Jewish identity that inspires a reinvigorated, 21st-century sense of ‘am ehad (one nation). We can do this by constructing a malleable framework, bounded but loose enough to allow for creative personal exploration within a larger realm of Jewish collective consciousness.
To build this architecture, the Jewish community might learn from the open source approach to software, where software’s source code is available to all to edit and customize, and to create “derived works” (those built on the backs of previous programs). The collective strength of mass participation and collaboration creates synergies that exponentially increase both the speed and avenues of software development.
Applying open source principles to the search for positive assertions of Jewish identity facilitates a sorely needed evolution of our collective consciousness. We must gather input from a diverse community of Jews to develop the “source code” for the Jewish People. These tools then build on one another through time, using input from around the Jewish community. If open source software is any indicator, then with this increased accessibility, we as Jewish individuals will take more ownership over our collective identity. The number of active participants in the creation of that identity will increase, making both Judaism and Jewish community more accessible and relevant to the average Jew. The vibrant Jewish community of ideas will transcend existing boundaries, bringing Jews closer together and moving us forward in our quest to discover our collective purpose and realize our potential.
The Jewish community should use its resources to foster projects that focus on positive assertions of Judaism and facilitate the growth of the Jewish People. For example, I have been working for the past three years on the TAMID Israel Investment Group. Rather than dictating to students why they should care about Israel or the Jewish people, we have created a framework through which business students can explore, on their own terms, their relationship with Israel. We call it “open source advocacy.” Just as the community of open source software engineers has the latitude to edit software architecture according to their needs, Tamid’s student participants shape the way the program progresses. We created the framework, and they choose the speakers and sectors of the Israeli economy that appeal to their interests. And just as we have seen with wildly successful open source platforms like Linux or Mozilla, Tamid’s strength is found in the diversity of the community, interacting on one common platform, in one common language.
Consider Hayerukim (The Green Ones), an organization started at the University of Michigan Hillel. This organization is a group of students dedicated to environmental activism from a Jewish perspective. On the surface, nothing that they do is particularly “Jewish” in terms of ritual or rote religion, but Hayerukim is, in fact, very Jewish. The organization’s founders have used the latitude granted by the U. Michigan Hillel, which encourages exploration and Jewish leadership, to create a group that brings both observant and non-observant students together around a common interest. Though they do not spend each meeting discussing Jewish laws pertaining to the environment, Jewish concepts of environmental consciousness pervade their actions. These students work on projects that affect environmental awareness both specifically within the Jewish community and the greater campus community.
In my experience searching for financial and organizational support for Tamid, it is far easier to get Jewish community leaders’ attention by crying “anti-Semitism!” or “Divestment resolutions are being proposed!” than by presenting a forward-looking, positive concept that has sparked enormous interest from young Jews on campus. This response to threat and fear is the same mindset that has led us to be so reliant upon the atrocities of the Holocaust to define our identity as a people. Suffering is a unifying factor that galvanizes communities of Jews around the world, and one that has long distracted us from creating a unifying, positive Jewish identity.
Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael (the Jewish People and the State of Israel) are not here simply to survive. We know there is a deeper, more compelling and eternal reason than victimhood for us to have a State of Israel today, and for our children to learn Jewish values and history. Together we can locate the answers to these questions and build the architecture for shaping Jewish identity. By opening up the resources of the Jewish community to individuals and organizations who embrace the principle of collective input, we will see an explosion of new leaders, ideas and programs that seek to define Judaism and Zionism in positive terms for this and future generations.