If social media gives everyone a voice, who speaks for Judaism

For generations it was clear who set the Jewish agenda and trends: a group of older men in a boardroom backed by major funders and philanthropists.

This packaged Judaism wasn’t unique to the Jewish people. Trends — be they in the automobile or clothing industry — were for generations set by major retail establishments with the funding necessary to access advertising and reach the masses. Similarly, the news we read came largely from the New York Times.

The world has changed.

The model of the all-knowing leader and the passive constituent has come to an end, and in its stead is a “me model” of the empowered consumer who demands to be heard by the ranks. And those without ready access to leadership do have tools at their fingertips to share their opinions — on the web, through blogs, social media or other electronic means. This leads to an information glut, a fusion of data-driven, fact-rooted opinions combined with endless rumors, misinformation and questionable variations on the truth, which we all have to navigate.

Who decides the Jewish present? Who will decide the Jewish future? When you have “the voice of the individual in dialogue with the voice of mainstream organizations,” as Jewish educator and author Erica Brown puts it, who wins?

Brown says decisions are made by those who can fund them (or get the funding for them). Well-established philanthropic organizations or funders will likely always determine the Jewish agenda “because of the dollars they put behind particular issues,” she reasons. The issues, however, could shift.

Alan Edelman, a Jewish communal professional and philanthropist for more than three decades, takes this idea a step further. In his role as associate executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, he says he sees an increase in philanthropic giving. However, those dollars are not being funneled toward traditional Jewish objectives or streams.

“In the past, the only way to give to Israel was through Israel Bonds, Jewish National Fund or the federation. Now, there are so many NGOs in Israel that relate to people’s interests: religious pluralism, democracy in Israel, settlers in the West Bank. The same way Jews are choosing to express Judaism in new ways that are meaningful to them — and not always the traditional way — it’s the same thing when it comes to philanthropy,” he says.

How can legacy organizations and philanthropists meet the changing needs of their constituents and funders in the new social marketplace of ideas? As always, says Brown, individuals express their Jewish identity through a variety of means: culture, food, social networks, religious institutions, etc.

“People define Jewish identity, and then others gravitate to it,” Brown says. She charges organizations with creating an “open space for a structured Jewish conversation.”

The Times of Israel believes it has done that. More than 4,000 people have used it as a platform for expressing their ideas over the past three years, according to op-ed and blogs editor Miriam Herschlag.

“That is a critical mass saying how we want to talk with each other and where we want to meet up,” Herschlag says. “Two years ago, we averaged eight blog posts a day. Today, there are around 35 every day, and that number is really growing.”

Herschlag describes the blogger acceptance criteria as “extremely open,” something that worries Brown, who feels that such a site should have “higher-level filters” to help readers differentiate between expert and nonexpert voices.

Edelman, too, is concerned.

“It has always been two Jews, three opinions. But we are in a world, unfortunately, where people take sides too strongly and have forgotten the grain in the middle. … It has created a negative discourse,” he says.

Herschlag acknowledges this tension but says the value outweighs the worry. The Times of Israel has successfully allowed the establishment to “make meaningful contact” with its constituents in an “unprecedented” way. For example, prospective leaders have been able to float to the top much sooner, and in a way that has never happened before.

A blog by Bethany Mandel, “Why you won’t see my name on a Freundel-related suit,” published Jan. 20 shortly after Washington, D.C., Rabbi Barry Freundel was charged with voyeurism, led to Mandel’s being asked to sit on a Rabbinical Council of America panel to review conversion policies.

“She wrote this treatise on how conversions happen and what shouldn’t happen, and it was from the popularity of that piece that she was invited to be on the panel,” says Herschlag.

Moreover, organizational leaders can get a zeitgeist on what is important to their constituent base by keeping an eye out for blogs with similar themes or by seeing which blogs are shared widest.

“Those who understand how to communicate in this noisy environment can really be effective,” Herschlag says.

William Daroff, vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, sits somewhere in the middle. A self-proclaimed “social media evangelist,” Daroff sees social media platforms as “the great democratizers.”

“It is a way that Jewish leaders can be less like the Sanhedrin — unapproachable by mere mortals — but rather 140 characters away. Social media opens doors for regular folks who aren’t blessed to live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan … to interact and engage with Jewish leadership in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago,” says Daroff.

He acknowledges there could be “some guy in his underwear in his parents’ basement who has designed a website that is more colorful, helpful and user-friendly” than the federation’s website and who makes his message easier to relate to. And  that might not be a bad thing, because “there are times that Jewish leaders get things wrong and a random person in his basement gets things right, and hopefully the marketplace of ideas will settle that.”

Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer based in Overland Park, Kansas. This essay originally appeared at eJewishPhilanthropy.com.