by Vale Levin –
Two of my students approached me one day to tell me about a discussion they had seen on YouTube. In the video, a teenager challenged their mother to imagine who a person was based solely on their Instagram profile. The mother had to decipher their likes and interests, livelihood, who they live with, social circles, musical preferences and hobbies. In the video, the teenager explains that the mother must do all this with a 30 second time limit. In that time, she quickly analyzes the photos that have been uploaded and manages to interpret that the woman she is looking at has many friends from a variety of fields, likely plays hockey in a club, attends a private school, has a boyfriend or very close male friend she likes. She also determined that the woman has a varied musical taste, and is trying to learn to play the ukulele. All this is translated by the mother through images and representation in just 30 seconds. A life in 30 seconds. However, that is not the life of the young woman described in her own words, it’s the one based on the images she has decided to show on a social network.
In an age in which we are completely surrounded by technology and social networks keep us constantly connected, I must ask myself, how do the children and adolescents of today share their Jewish lives? Are their full identities reflected in their social networks, or do they hide themselves behind an avatar? Furthermore, in the case of students who are deeply embedded in Jewish life, from formal to informal education, is their Jewish identity something they share in their networks?
One of the many central concepts of Judaism is our alliance, the covenant, between us and God that dates back to the time of the forefathers. In fact, the Jewish people are considered linked to God through a series of alliances that specifically distinguish us as God’s chosen people. Abraham makes a covenant with God. Then, Moses, chosen by God, leads the Israelites from slavery out of Egypt. He then receives the commandments at Mount Sinai, where most fundamental rules of the covenant between the People of Israel and God are established. These covenantal moments are recurring moments in which identity is both given and built. There were no social networks, no profiles to define a person, or social identities to build, but an identity was indeed built.
Our students, on the other hand, no longer live in an era where identity can be forced upon them by the old covenants. They are citizens of a nation-state, with its own culture and identities, while also a part of a separate people with its own culture and identity. They are forced to constantly define themselves. At times, they do not know where they came from, and at other times, their background and identity is so defined that they do not have anywhere to go with their own identity. They can feel lost and overwhelmed. The old covenantal identity is not enough for them.
In traditional school settings, years have been spent considering the impact of social networks and whether they would be beneficial or harmful to educational processes, not to mention the concerns regarding invasion of privacy for our students. Much of the focus appears to be on the negative superficial elements of social media. However, our students speak, use, and live through their social networks in a unique manner that allows for identity clarification. These applications have become a way for defining yourself, showing what you do and don’t like. As adults less comfortable with social media, we think several times before uploading a photo with a Magen David for fear of acceptance. Our students, on the other hand, have already defined what they want to show, and have determined the image they want to project, who they show it to, and what connections they make. These children and adolescents are pioneers in identity, leaders in trendsetting and active participants in defining their identity profile.
Personally, when talking to my students, I don’t think they are judgmental for thinking that an identity profile can be formed through images in 30 seconds. I think they are curious, creative, and gifted with an imagination that gives them the ability to see that identity has no limits. Watching them build their identity through social media, I learn something through my students: that Jewish identity, and Judaism, can be as broad, open and diverse as they wish to define it.