From Place to Space: I Live in a Virtual Community

I live in a virtual Jewish community:

My life-cycle rabbi is in Columbus, Ohio.

My education rabbi is in Los Angeles.

My close friends are in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, St. Louis and Charlotte.

I am enrolled in a Jewish professional graduate school in Boston, my family is in the Southeast, and I intern at a Jewish non-profit headquartered in Charlottesville, Va.

Thats why I need a network that works where I worka place I like to call “Charstonashingtonatloges.”

(Remember this AT&T ad?)

This is how my community works:

I study Jewish texts with my rabbi on the phone.

I keep in touch with my friends through constant texting, playing in a fantasy football league, talking on the phone while driving, reading Gmail and Twitter status updates and viewing new pictures as they are posted on Facebook or Google’s Picasa.

For work, I use a VOIP (voice over IP) phone with a Charlottesville area code to take calls, and a combination of Google Docs, Wikispaces, Ning, Jing, Skype, Delicious and other Web 2.0 tools to coordinate my work with my colleagues.

When one of my friends gets married, I am there in suit and tie, and our rabbi whom we know from college flies in to be with us for the weekend to officiate, dance, talk and reconnect.

I am extremely lucky. My community is amazing. The community I feel closest to only exists in its connections among its members. While we face serious geographical challenges, physical space or proximity is just not as important as the right people or the best connections.

This is a trend that Jewish communal leaders need to understand exists and is very real for many in my generation. We are becoming increasingly globally oriented and are no longer willing to compromise quality of friendships or experiences just because we may be far away.

We are in constant pursuit of personal meaning, and where we find it is where we will be. Social media not only allows me to create community when we’re not physically together, it empowers me to continue to add to it nationally and globally.

Many of the newest and most innovative Jewish start-up organizations are prospering, having transcended the idea of physical space. JDub Records creates a Jewish space on your car’s stereo, Storahtelling takes the tradition of Jewish storytelling into nightclubs and Reboot helps launch Jewish-themed creative projects into the public sphere.

Moishe House, a start-up creating physical places for young Jews to gather and create community, recognizes the need for a physical space but creates it by leasing living rooms, rather than building all-out community centers.

The Jewish community having long ago moved into the suburbs to build beautiful synagogues and create long-standing institutions, however, is very invested in physical space. And for good reason. In these spaces is where much of the Jewish activities, traditions and culture exist. But these building-centered Jewish organizations might benefit by dipping their toes into the water by creating new spaces outside the synagogue building.

For example, the Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston brings synagogue activities into the homes of young Jews and into other spaces in the community.

Shabbat Connections at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA, funded by the Legacy Heritage Innovation Grant, creates small havurot within a Charlottesville congregation, and encourages groups of families to meet in one another’s homes once a month for Shabbat experiences.

As we happen upon Sukkot, a holiday that reminds us of our wandering ways and encourages us to build temporary houses, it is important to remember that the most important place for Judaism is the one place that we take with us wherever we go: our neshama, the place inside us all.

With all the new technologies flying around us, we should take a step back to see how they help each of us connect with our communitiesboth physical and virtualand with ourselves. The communication revolution is here, and its transforming not only the way we talk, but the way we relate to everything around us.

To some, social media means loss of face-to-face connection. To me, social media is the saving grace of my life in Charstonashingtonatloges, the virtual, and in Boston, the physical. It is the tool that enriches my connections and makes my face-to-face time all the more meaningful.

Do you have examples of programs in your community that are redefining traditional space boundaries? Please share them in the comments section.

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