Like any religion, Judaism has its periods of innovation and return to tradition. But today, the institutions and frameworks of North American Judaism are struggling to recruit and retain younger members. Some commentators argue that Jewish life in the current era is on the decline. But beyond these frameworks a vibrant music scene, a burgeoning arts community, and contemporary publications indicate that Jewish life is very much alive and flourishing.
Perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than on the Web. While conducting research for an experimental course on the Judaism of 20-somethings, Chava Weissler, the Philip and Muriel Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Department of Religion Studies, landed in a place that was oddly both familiar and foreign – the 3-D online world of Second Life. Created as a massively multi-player online role-playing game, Second Life boasts a vibrant Judaic community that is virtually thriving.
This other world is allowing Weissler, along with undergraduate research assistant Dustin McCrae, to observe how religious rituals are carried out online. Anchored by a home synagogue, user-generated communities allow members around the world to host religious ceremonies, light Sabbath candles, plan events, conduct Hebrew classes and create personal relationships with others without leaving their desktop.
Under her nom d’avatar Taybe Abramovic, Weissler has immersed herself in robust virtual Jewish neighborhoods and befriended members, known as avatars, to better understand how religious life is carried out in the present era. She’s hoping to glean how people maintain the relationship between their Jewish life in Second Life, and that of their real life.
“You don’t really know who they are in real life,” says Weissler. In fact, she says, some people behind the avatars aren’t actually Jewish. “Research has found that this is one of the characteristics of the venues that appeals to young Jewish people – they want to go to places where the population is mixed. Many young people don’t want to have exclusively Jewish experiences.”
Under her nom d’avatar Taybe Abramovic, Weissler has immersed herself in robust virtual Jewish neighborhoods and befriended members, known as avatars, to better understand how religious life is carried out in the present era.
In observing this crossover from real life to Second Life Weissler has discovered that the virtual world can provide privacy and comfort for people looking to further explore the Jewish religion, as it can be easier to teleport into Second Life than walk into a synagogue. Weissler has also encountered people hindered by disabilities in real life, for which the Second Life candle lighting is the only means to practice a sacred religious tradition. One Orthodox woman Weissler has studied allows her avatar to engage in practices not permitted in her real-life community.
But, as Weissler has found, Jewish life in the virtual world is also not immune from real-world intolerance. Observant Jews who abstain from using the computer on Saturday sometimes find that their space has been covered in swastikas when they were offline.
Weissler’s research dovetails with her interest in the Jewish renewal movement – a group of North American Jews rethinking innovative ways of practicing Judaism “outside the box.” “These groups don’t necessarily look to institutional authorities for how they practice Judaism,” says Weissler. “Second Life is interesting in that regard as well. Many Christian churches have official Second Life sims (sites), but the Jewish sims spring from a more grassroots creativity. Jewish “residents” of Second Life create what they’d like, from a synagogue to a replica of the ancient Jerusalem to a ‘Hogwartz Yeshiva.’ It’s more than a presence – it’s an organic community.”