Proximity Matters

Proximity Matters

Proximity matters now more than ever before, and proximity matters less than ever before.

That is, increasingly we are or will only be able to spend time in person with those who live physically close to us. We will be doing a lot less travel to those far away. And, moreover – at least in my personal experience – we will be seeking tight knit, small, nurturing communities. Both because they feel good (which we need right now and for the foreseeable future), and because it will be the only types of gatherings we’ll feel safe in for a while.

But, at the same time, proximity no longer matters that much. While some of us have spent years with technology like Zoom and its cousins, now teleconferencing has been quickly mainstreamed. Young or old, more and more people, particularly in the Jewish world, now have a basic facility and comfort using it. As we have seen in the past few weeks, this has opened up our professional worlds, with many of our organizations offering educational seminars to far wider audiences that we normally would on a regular basis. But this has also opened up our personal worlds as well. There seems to be a new trend of actually “attending” one’s high school or college reunion – because we don’t need to travel to get there. Where you once would never have attended your great Tante Minna’s yarzheit, today, as your extended family gathers online, you may actually join.

Some of us are thriving on the proximity. For some of us, the closeness that we’re experiencing – or at least once we are allowed to gather in small local groups – this closeness is what we seek. Some of us will want to keep this experience of hunkering down with the few people we truly want to be with.

And, at the same time, others of us will (or already do) feel totally cooped up and constrained. We feel that our horizons – literal and metaphorical – have shrunk, and we can’t wait to connect with a much wider network, and gain access to the breadth that the world has to offer.

What does this mean for Jewish education? What does it mean for our ability or desire to connect with and learn from Jews around the world?

For the people who want to “hunker down,” educationally we may want to push them ever so slightly. One way to think about this is not to push to build new connections, but rather to strengthen existing ones.

For example, on the organizational level, can our organizations reach out to alumni? At the Jewish Agency, this may look like reaching out to participants of past programs, like “partnership together” or to shlichim, and to build on those already existing relationships. If the last 10 years were about expanding social networks, I imagine that the coming years should be about strengthening social networks. Or, to use more apt language, to strengthen our personal connections, despite being in an era of distancing.

There are also major new opportunities for family education, literally for those who are most proximate to us. Would it be possible to build an educational, peoplehood program that helps disconnected family members reconnect (not only through yarzheits)? I can imagine connecting with family members who I haven’t seen in years. Family Education is an underdeveloped field – and this may be the time to invest in it.

For the people who are feeling stir crazy and wishing for a more expansive world, we will want to think about how to help them make those connections in a meaningful way, in particular when travel may not be regularly possible or desirable. And though we’re certainly seeing a lot of large group Zoom calls and meetings, these calls do not come close to approximating the experience of meeting a stranger at a coffee shop, or on a bus, or in a foreign country. Meaning, the expansiveness that I would seek would be one in which there is also a certain level of real connectedness or intimacy. How can we create a sense of connectedness, without physical presence?

Can we build new frameworks to learn together one-on-one, using our age-old tradition of chavruta? Or are there online “global meet-up” technologies we can leverage? Can schools, adult-learning organizations, etc. deepen their online educational work by having much smaller group learning, rather than large group learning? Chevrutot or small groups can include taking your “partner” on a virtual tour of your neighborhood, speaking Hebrew, or learning a text. What are the ways that we can use virtual spaces to create both a sense of randomness, bumping into someone new, but also a sense of intimacy (as happens during real travel). Certainly, whatever the content or platform, we need to start thinking about how this can be done on a large scale, to reach many people.

Finally — whether we’re focusing on those who are close to us or those who are distant, those who want to hunker down or those who are stir crazy — I want to recall the words of the great Michael Rosenak. He pointed to the difference between “Interaction” and “Dialogue.”

Though this isn’t new, the Covid pandemic has reminded me just how important Rosenak’s words are. What we want to create are educational experiences that allow for real dialogue, not just interaction. And particularly in a time when we can so easily fall into “Interactions” through the many online activities and content, whether we are focused on smaller local communities or larger global connections, we will need to constantly remind ourselves of the need for true connection and dialogue.

This piece was written based on Abi Dauber Sterne’s participation in a panel discussion hosted by Reut Institute’s on the future of Jewish peoplehood education.


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