The Day Facebook Took Over Jewish Education

David Bryfman

Facebook is possibly the most significant advancement in Jewish education in several decades. In 2011 one needs Facebook almost more than anything else if your desire is to offer the highest quality, most relevant Jewish education to the largest number of learners. Probably unbeknown to its founder, who grew up in White Plains, had a Bar Mitzvah and describes himself as an atheist, Facebook has indeed become the utility, at least in Jewish education that Mark Zuckerberg had always claimed it to be.

TIME MAGAZINE: Why do you describe Facebook as a “social utility” rather than a “social network?”

Zuckerberg: I think there’s confusion around what the point of social networks is. A lot of different companies characterized as social networks have different goals — some serve the function of business networking, some are media portals. What we’re trying to do is just make it really efficient for people to communicate, get information and share information. We always try to emphasize the utility component.

“The Future of Facebook” By Laura Locke, Time Magazine, Tuesday, Jul. 17, 2007 

Although it is also great for playing Jewish geography, in Jewish education Facebook is not just a social network. It has indeed become a social utility – something that Jewish education and Jewish educators today cannot thrive without.

1. Falling in a Forest

If Jewish education falls in forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

A dominant theme in Jewish education is that of recruiting more learners, a topic worthy of discussion long before the onset of the financial crisis. It makes sense that if we are offering a product that is both worthwhile and meaningful then we want more people to be engaged with it. It also makes sense that they can only be engaged with it if they know it exists.

In today’s world people wanting to know about something turn first and foremost to the internet – and most Jewish organizations have been pretty good at creating their websites. But while a few years ago it may have been good enough for an organization to have a website, today utilizing ones social networks has become an essential way for people to find your website.

Besides the technology, there is actually nothing new about this. Human beings have always been a social species. As Jews, we too have also been adept at communicating with one another whether through email, fax, telephone, mail, telegram, trumpet blaring, or smoke signals. The role of Facebook in the arena of marketing and recruitment for  Jewish education can simply not afford to be ignored.

2.  Friends Forever

By now almost all of us who are on Facebook have received at least one friend request from that “blast from the past.” Depending on who they are the request might elicit a different type of response. A smile, a chuckle, a frown – depending on what image they conjure up for you. You may even ask yourself the question as to, “why they want to be my friend?” or “why now?” You may choose to ignore the request, but most likely you choose to accept their offer of friendship, and then might curiously search through their profile (especially their photographs) to see what they’ve been up to for all of these years.

This scenario, now being played out millions of times all around the world, has redefined the term “friend” and also by extension “community.” Of course we all understand that one has many types of friends and belongs to many different communities – and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with terms changing over the course of time.

But now, fast forward a few years from now, or even a few decades. Imagine sitting back in front of your computer in the year 2030 looking back over your Facebook profile. And assuming that you haven’t erased any of your friends (actually very few people do) look at what you can now see about your life’s journey; a virtual diary cataloguing the most important people in your life over many years. Your relationships with these people may no longer be as deep as it once was, , but whereas once they would have disappeared completely from your radar, these people are indeed your friends forever.

Now take this one step further and imagine that you are organizing a class reunion for your 8th grade Hebrew School or your CIT group at summer camp, or trying to raise money from alumni for the new building that your old Jewish school so desperately needs. Although the technology might be relatively new, it doesn’t require a huge leap to contemplate what the power of social networking for alumni relations will be in the not so distant future. And so we see that the very future of Jewish learning and its institutions might depend on the bonds that we establish today with our learners and their families.

3. Learning from everyone

Pirkei Avoth certainly got it right when it asks, “Who is wise?” and then answered “the person who learns from everyone?” What I’m sure that the authors of this text didn’t quite understand is the extent of the “everyone” in the 21st century.

To be the most knowledgeable human being that you can be, you don’t need to know everything, but as Thomas Friedman suggests, you need to know how to access everything. The same is true for Jewish educators. In today’s world the wisdom of the masses is too powerful to ignore. In order to have the most recent knowledge, the most relevant ideas, the most cutting-edge pedagogy one must be an active social networker. The internet has become the Jewish responsa of the 21st century. In itself this does not suggest that the role of learned scholars and rabbis, and the sacredness of Jewish texts has diminished. But the lack of a leadership who is fluent in social media, and an inability to have all of our sacred texts made freely accessible on-line will be our failure as a 21st century Jewish community.

I understand that change, especially innovation, is often disruptive. Social media at the very least, challenges the hierarchical nature of the Jewish people. In a world where all voices have a potential for power, where all people can assume leadership roles, and in a Wikipedia era where all texts can hold intrinsic value, our roles as Jewish educators is continually being challenged. It is only threatening if we refuse to accept and utilize social media in everything that we do. Jewish education will only continue to be a formidable force if it recognizes the utility of Facebook, the wisdom of the crowd, and the as of yet still untapped potential of social media.

Social networking is the powerful force upon which Jewish learning rests. In a few years time something new might have taken the place of Facebook. But whatever it is it will only be more powerful, more extensive and more influential. For Jewish education to succeed in the 21st century there is no greater resource than that of social networking – something that as a people we have been fluent in for thousands of years.

David Bryfman is the director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership and Teen Engagement.