Faces of Change
Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit JTA.org.
Dec. 11, 2006
NEW YORK--Jewish life on campus has a changing face because of Facebook.com.
Students and organizations are taking advantage of the social networking site launched in 2004 that allows users to make a profile, create and join numerous groups, and post messages to other members and groups.
"It's already had a direct effect on the expectations that Hillel is putting into its resources," said Hillel's Simon Amiel, who is charged with overseeing the Jewish campus organization's outreach fellows.
"Ten years ago, 15 years ago, the goal was to get students in the building," he explained, adding "that's still a nice goal for us... but it's far more of an important goal to say there are 500 students having a Jewish experience every week, inside the building or out."
Facebook's ability to create ad-hoc communities is seen as its greatest strength. When an Iranian-American student was Tasered by campus police at the University of California Los Angeles, thousands of students registered their protest within days by joining groups created to complain about the incident.
Jewish students and groups on Facebook are taking similar advantage of the site's possibilities. A Jewish group was launched recently to gather right-wing Israel advocates to protest a book-signing by former President Carter on the same day in New York City. Another group is called "American Jews Against Israel."
Along the way, Jewish students are finding new ways to associate with each other and new aspects of their identities.
Janice Hussain is a junior at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and the daughter of Indian and Jewish parents, and until she started using Facebook, she didn't know there were many other Jews of a similar ethnicity.
"At Brandeis, if I wanted to meet someone who was Asian and Jewish, or Indian or half-Indian, I couldn't," she said.
So this semester Hussain launched a group called "Asian and Jewish," inviting a handful of people at Brandeis who were of Asian and Jewish descent. Before she knew it the group reached 90 members from various campuses.
Now that she's had success online, Hussain is considering new endeavors for Jewish life on her campus, with which she's had little involvement thus far.
"I was actually thinking of maybe starting a club at Brandeis for Jews that are not fully Ashkenazi, or Jews of color, and to have an event or maybe have a lecture," she said.
Hussain's experience in finding common heritage on Facebook is far from unique for Jews of mixed descent.
"What seems to be coming up over and over again is a place for students that are from a mixed-parentage family," Amiel said, noting that Facebook's self-starting nature allows Jewish students to "make connections that are more organic."
On Facebook, most of the traditional categories for Judaism and religious activity in general are far less popular than alternative expressions of identity. Several groups are titled "I don't roll on Shabbos," after a line in the cult movie The Big Lebowski.
Hundreds of students belong to these groups, and most of them belong to hundreds of other groups that express their Jewish identities.
While statistics are not available for the site, an informal survey of multiple campuses has shown consistently that most Jewish students will call themselves "Jewish" or some manifestation thereof in the "Religious Views" box only about 10 percent of the time.
At Indiana University, even the Hillel president, Joanna Blotner, doesn't call herself "Jewish" on her profile.
"It's because you don't want to actively make yourself part of the minority," she explained. "It's probably the same reason a lot of gays and lesbians don't identify themselves."
It's a trend that Jewish officials can't explain.
"Of any place, being on Facebook is one of the most safe places to identify as Jewish," Amiel said.
At the same time, traditional Jewish institutions have employed the site as well, finding Facebook to be far more effective than e-mail in getting students to attend their events.
"People, in my experience, are more likely to attend an event if they are personally invited," said Alex Freedman, president of the Jewish Student Union at Washington University, in St. Louis, Mo. "The group and event invitation serves that function on a grand scale--it allows the word to be spread better among a target audience quicker than any other medium."
"Meanwhile, Facebook's implementation of a new feature called "News Feeds" allows students to see the groups or events their friends are joining.
"All of a sudden, people no longer had to be individually invited to a group or to an event. They could see what their friends were doing," said Andy Ratto, Washington University Hillel's Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow. "This has been extremely useful because people might be rather unlikely to go to an event where they didn't know anyone who would be there, but all of a sudden people would find out about an event because their friends were going to it, and then they would want to come, too."
While those results aren't the expectation for Hillel events at a given campus, the function still makes a difference, Freedman said.
It "saves us a lot of phone calls, a lot of fliers and a lot of time," he said.