Facebook’s Virtual Shul

By | Jan 23, 2019
Jewish World, Winter Issue 2019

When Akiva Weisinger started the Facebook group “God Save Us From Your Opinion: A Place For Serious Discussion of Judaism” in 2014, he viewed it as a place for “me and a couple of friends to discuss Judaism,” the 27-year-old teacher recalls. But with time, it kept growing, becoming “not just me and a couple of Modern Orthodox friends, but this whole big Jewish community online.” Within a year, GSUFYO, as it is commonly abbreviated, had about 3,000 members, and today the group has nearly 20,000. GSUFYO is now a major fixture within what is known as Jewbook: A portmanteau of “Jewish” and “Facebook,” it’s a term used to collectively categorize Facebook groups that are of Jewish interest.

Jewbook likely derived its name as an off-shoot of “Leftbook,” or left-wing Facebook, a collection of politically left-leaning and social justice-oriented groups. When Jewish issues came up in these groups, “a lot of left-wing people specifically were not finding spaces that [were] receptive to Jewish concerns among the left,” says Weisinger. “People wanted to find a left-wing Jewish space where they could talk about being Jewish without having to hear about the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

Helena Thompson-Cohen, a member and modmin (the Facebook term for a moderator or administrator) of a number of Jewbook groups, also points to Leftbook as the model. She suggests that the collective Jewbook term emulates a syntactic template common within Leftbook: “___book, ___posting.” Names such as “Jewbook Torontoposting” (for Jews in Toronto) or “Jewbook Shidduchposting” (for Jews who want to talk about dating) were an easy way to show what your group was about. “After that caught on, Jewbook was just how everybody referred to these groups,” says Thompson-Cohen. “Even if Jewbook wasn’t in the title.”

In Jewbook groups, discussions range from issues of identity to theology to practice. There are groups for recipes, music and even matchmaking Jewish singles. They can have playful names such as “sounds goyish but ok,” a group dedicated to making fun of kitschy consumerism and ignorant media, as well as more serious ones such as “Jewish Studies on Facebook,” where scholars can discuss their research and employment opportunities. It is impossible to say how large Jewbook communities are. Membership in active groups ranges from under 100 to tens of thousands. The overlap in membership from one group to another and the constant generation of new groups while others become defunct make the magnitude of this phenomenon hard to calculate.

Thompson-Cohen discovered Jewbook about two years ago and has since become a fixture in the community. “It was a really great resource for me,” she says. “For a long time, because of moving around a lot for college and my husband going to grad school, I wasn’t living in a place long enough to develop good relationships with real-life Jewish communities. It was nice to be able to log on to Facebook and talk to a bunch of Jews.”

Matt Sienkiewicz, a communications professor at Boston College who has studied Jewbook, says these communities are places for people to work through their complex and sometimes disparate identities. “It’s become harder and harder in some ways to imagine yourself as part of a community when it has so much diversity within it in terms of religious practice, genetic background, regional living and those sorts of things,” he says. “At least for young people, Facebook is a way of re-establishing this broader, imagined community even when a lot of traditional aspects have faded.” Facebook groups also provide a home for Jews who feel like they might not fit in with a traditional local community. Or as Weisinger puts it, “Jewish communities and institutions have largely failed to include millennials, so they’re creating their own communities in response.” Examples include Orthodox Jews who dislike Trump, Jews who are critical of Israel and Jews who identify as LGBTQ. “The people that I’ve seen who are the most involved in my Facebook group and other Facebook groups haven’t found a place in the Jewish community thus far,” says Weisinger. “They feel really invested in the communities that they’re a part of and really want them to succeed because those are the places where they have found a home.”

Jewbook is not always hospitable. This past summer, a controversy ignited when 23-year-old Jewbooker Nylah Burton shared her opinion piece about the problems of white Jews not viewing themselves as white, in a group called “sounds like your ‘intersectionality’ doesn’t include Jews but ok.” Debate in the post’s comments section quickly descended into racist and derogatory remarks, leading Burton and other Jews of color to take a break from Jewbook, which in turn inspired a temporary shutdown of many Jewbook groups—now known as “Jewbook Blackout”—in solidarity.

Since its revival, Jewbook remains largely unaffiliated, though some groups are designated for members who identify with a specific denomination. “It might be going a step too far, but it’s in the right direction to say that these pages are stand-ins for what would have been Reform or Conservative shuls not that long ago,” Sienkiewicz says. “People are using them to stand in for old institutions. That’s fine when you’re young and healthy, but I wonder if these things can play that role when you’re older and have more practical real-life needs.”

Thompson-Cohen is confident that they can, citing times when people have used Jewbook to coordinate bringing food to the sick or making a minyan. “Especially for large metropolitan areas, you do have access to this wider network of Jews,” she says. “There are meet-ups for all kinds of different reasons.” She adds that Jewbookers from around the world also find ways to meet each other when traveling. “I know that there’s always going to be a place at my Shabbat table for anybody who passes through Seattle.”

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