Diverse is perhaps the best word to describe describe the unusual mix of individuals who gathered together at the annual Nefesh B'Nefesh International Jewish Bloggers Convention in Jerusalem last week.
As applause to a particular question from the audience rocked the auditorium, I was suddenly struck with just how different we all were - not just a bunch of Jews on the same page, as I assumed.
Men dressed in traditional ultra orthodox garb, modern women in tightshort dresses and high heels, radical settlers carrying multiple automatic weapons, extreme left-wing Liberals (with a capital "L"), young professionals in their 20s, retirees in their 60s; all congregated at a conference whose declared purpose was "Uniting the Jewish Community through Social Media".
The evening's panel was a reflection of the diversity of the attendees:
David Kelsey / Jewcy (News and Media), spoke about the importance of the Liberal voice and independent investigative journalism in Jewish community.
Yonasan (Jonathan) Rosenblum / The Jerusalem Post (Religion) addressed his neo conservative bent, as well as the religious issues around blogging, specifically the dangers of lashon hara (the evil tongue) to another?s reputation.
Orit Arfa / L.A. Jewish Journal (Community) discussed Jewish bloggers and the influence they have on friends, acquaintances as well as the rest of the world.
Tova Serkin / JGooders (Philanthropy) lectured on the ease generating a buzz over new philanthropic projects thanks, to Social Media.
The panel respectfully presented their differing ideas of social medial and the way it affects the Jewish community.
The audience - whose diverse viewpoints were as varied as the panel - used the Q&A session as a means to question & debate with the panel and each other as Danielle Sheldon of Jewlicious skillfully managed the impassioned crowd in a diplomatic manner.
After a much heated debate, a lone meek female voice from the audience asked one of the last and what turned out to be the most poignant question: "How can this [diverse] conference be about uniting the Jewish Community through Social Media?"
The resounding applause was as deafening in its response as it was totally misplaced.
The question, really, was how are all these different people and opinions an expression of unity of any kind?
The applause was a yearning of the people for a common theme. To me, it simply proved just how much they had missed the concept behind the conference.
Jewish history began with twelve distinctly different tribes that left Egypt and formed a covenant with G-d at Mt. Sinai.
It continued with the Tana'im of the Mishna like Hillel and Shamai who passionately debated the interpretation of the law, and continued the tradition of the Amora'im in the Talmud like Rava and Abaya who deliberated over the minutiae of it.
Ours may be a tradition of One G-d; while some may argue there is clarity about what exactly he said, no one, not even the greatest Gedolei HaDor (rabbinical leaders of the generation), would dare argue the fact that there have always been many opinions about what G-d meant.
Jewish unity has been based on the legitimacy of argument, debate and differences; in fact some would go so far as to say that it is the foundation of our community ? the ability to agree, disagree or Teiku, as it is know in Talmudic literature.
Growing up, my father would often tell the story of a king who lived in harmony with the local Jewish inhabitants, until one day, a new adviser came into town.
The adviser convinced the king that a great empire was one with no conflict, or differences among the people. He then persuaded the king to convert all the inhabitance, including the Jews, to the religion of the state within ninety days.
The local Jewish community was devastated. After three days of discussions by the community leaders, a carpet maker declared he had concocted a plan to resolve the situation. With the support of the women in the community, who helped him make the carpets, he would cancel the decree, but they would not reveal any more details.
"A carpet maker and some women? That is what is going to save the community?" the disgruntled leader skeptically remarked. "What about dignitaries? What about diplomacy? How would a carpet maker get an audience with the king?"
But the carpet maker and women diligently worked day and night, preparing to execute their mysterious scheme.
On the eve before the decree was to go into effect, the carpet maker secured an audience with the king, his evil advisor and the rest of the community.
"I have brought your highness two gifts..." the carpet maker began, and with all the typical Jewish chutzpah in the world, her continued "... but on one condition. You must choose only ONE of the gifts ? that is which is more favorable in your eyes."
He then proceeded to unroll one of the largest most beautiful solid crimson red carpets the court had ever seen. The court, as well as the king, was impressed by the handiwork, yet curious about the other gift the carpet maker is willing to risk his life for.
The carpet maker then unrolled the second rug. An audible gasp rose from every member of the court. The rug was hand died and tied, with intricate, delicate, detailed, pictures painstakingly woven into the fabric in multiple colors, utilizing the rarest of golden, silver and copper threads on the same crimson red background; A true work of art, stunning in its beauty and magnificence, clearly more valuable than the other carpet.
Furious the king raged "Of course you know which carpet I would choose, why would you insult my ability to differentiate between the two?"
Without flinching, the carpet maker respectfully replied, "Your honor, my king, the second carpet is your kingdom as it is today, rich with diversity, knowledge and capabilities. The first carpet is what your kingdom will be, should you listen to the words of your adviser... all that is unique, all that is different, all that is special, will disappear."
The deafening silence of the court reigned as the words sank home and the king annulled the decree.
Social Media is about the expression of a diversity of opinions. Unity and diversity go hand in hand in making a carpet; alone each thread is just that, a tiny strand of weak fibers. But bound together as one, they become something majestic, something capable of withstanding generations of being trampled, while their pictures remain, telling the story of their creation.
This is Social Media today. This was the power of the Jbloggers' conference last week. The ability to pull together members from every part of the Jewish community, no matter how diverse and divided it might be and engage in dialog, not violence; this is the beauty of our community. This is the secret of our unity. This is the value of Social Media in helping to facilitate this interaction.
If one looks at the multitude of ethnic conflicts around the world; the fights between the Shia and the Sunni Muslims or Fatah and Hamas and the way those conflicts consistently lead to the impoverishment of those communities; one slowly realizes just how powerful our tradition of dialog and discussion is.
With all our differences, how many times have we come into violent conflict with each other in over 2000 years of exile? Just think; what would have happened to our community around the world if we didn't have a rich tradition of discourse?
This Unity through Diversity is something to be proud of. Our millennia old ability to respectfully disagree and to clarify our difference through communication is a skill to should be shared. Social Media is the means to encourage people to talk, listen and engage in conversation - as opposed to "take it to the streets".
The process of dialog, discussion and debate are the foundation cornerstones of Jewish learning. They have always been the basis for building our communities and traditions. Social Media expands the walls of the Beit HaMedrash (House of Learning/House of Stories) to encompass everyone.
So next time you hear a discussion that encompasses ideas and concepts that conflict with yours, don't see it as an exhibit of a lack of Unity. See it simply as another knot in this carpet we are weaving together and unifies us as one.
With the coming New Year ahead of us - I urge you all - make a resolution, make a neder (a religious vow), become involved, engage in discussion through the new Biet HaMedrash that Social Media has built ? you might not like all that you hear ? the world might not like what you have to say - but by participating in it you not only enrich your self - you make the world a richer place by encouraging people to share and debate ideas as a means to improve the world at large for us all.
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