Update Jan. 13 to reflect Sarah’s reasoning as to why she did not wish to be identified.
Jennifer Lang Jay’s Facebook group, Judaica Thrifting, went live on Dec. 8 and has already gained more than 900 members. The online group lets Jews across the country sell and trade menorahs, Kiddush cups, Jewish artwork and the like.
Jay, 31, a Washington-area professional organizer, found that her clients’ old Shabbat candlesticks and seder plates no longer brought them joy. Rather than suggest her clients donate or throw out the religious items, she took them home for safekeeping.
That was no long-term solution, so she texted friends and family to find new homes for the old Judaica. Soon there were too many texts and people and items for her to manage.
So, she began the Facebook group.
There are dozens of Jewish interest groups on Facebook that appeal to millennials like Jay. They have names like “Doing this to bagels is incredibly offensive to my people,” “Jewbook Challahposting” and “Sounds ashkenormative but ok,” which play on millennial humor and memes. And while many of these groups are places to share light-hearted jokes, users, who call the collective online space “Jewbook,” say it’s a safe haven from online anti-Semitism.
Jay once posted a picture of her cat, Shmueli, on a pet-lovers Facebook page. Someone took note of her cat’s name and an Israeli flag in her profile picture and typed below Shmueli’s photo, “Zionist scum.”
Now, she sticks to Jewish pet groups.
Room to vent
For Washington-area Jewish millennials, “DC Jew Crew” provides an online space where people can find kosher-keeping roommates, High Holiday tickets and Jewish event calendars. With 3,000 members, it’s the largest group of its kind in the area.
Aaron Tessler and his friends Corey Robins, Ben Silver and Gideon Wolf founded the group in 2015 during a drive to Virginia Beach. They had all recently moved to Washington and realized that the area was missing something like Jew Crew.
Updated JAn. 10
“We did it [right then] in the car and invited a 100 or so people [and] it kind of ballooned from there,” Tessler says.
This is the only Jewbook group that Tessler belongs to. The others are too political for his taste.
But for those who want to debate, whether about politics or food, there is a group with a Jewish twist on the subject.
“I have a delight in terrible food crimes,” says Ben Haas, a member of “Doing this to bagels is incredibly offensive to my people.” Haas, who lives in Odenton, Md., and commutes to Washington for work, loves the page where members post pictures of oddly flavored bagels, spreads they find disgusting and, occasionally, other foods.
Haas says he holds an unpopular opinion within the group — namely, that blueberry bagels are good. Where else can one defend the choice to eat a blueberry bagel with lox and cream cheese while simultaneously deriding the way people in Seattle slice their bagels, he says.
Haas hasn’t been able to find a Jewish community of his own. But Jewish Facebook groups provide him with a community where he doesn’t need to explain his Jewish sense of humor.
“It’s nice to know that I could reach and find people who know about this lesser known part of my identity. There’s a set of built-in inside jokes that I can share with these people,” he says.
Jewbook grew out of socialist and social justice-oriented Facebook groups, according to a 2018 article in New Voices, a Jewish college student publication. Jewish members grew tired of having to explain why a particular post was anti-Semitic and having to defend Israel, writer Lev Gringauz explained. So, they left and founded their own groups.
Many of these Jewish groups lean to the left. That makes Facebook user Yitzhak Shlomo uncomfortable. Shlomo, who asked to be identified by his Hebrew name so his synagogue would not recognize him, says many Jewbook posts disrespect Israel and thus are anti-Semitic.
Arguments with other users led to his banning from some groups. And since members of his liberal synagogue don’t share his views, he needed a place with like-minded people.
“I don’t have a thousand synagogues to choose from, but I have a thousand online groups to choose from,” he says. “I’m not isolated. I’m not the only one who feels this way. And there’s sort of a support system where you can vent.”
He’s now a member of the “Union for Performative Judaism,” “Sounds Goyish But Okay” and “I’m not like those Jews,” which more closely reflect his views.
Being online lets him debate on topics he cares about without the risk of being ostracized from his synagogue.
A new type of community
Other groups focus on other areas that members say get ignored in mainstream Jewish conversation: how Ashkenazim are considered the default Jews in America, what it’s like being a Jew of color in America, the place of LGBT Jews within the religious community, being in an interfaith relationship and coming from an interfaith family.
That’s a lesson Sarah, an admin of “Deassimilation Education,” realized when she went online. Sarah, an Arlington resident, asked that her last name not be used to avoid being identified by Nazis, as she is a prominent Jewbook user and fears for her safety.
“Jewbook really helped me understand a lot of different Jews I hadn’t [understood] before, like folks who didn’t go to Hillel or synagogue,” she says. “It really opened my mind [and made me] a lot less judgmental.”
Her group brings Jews together to educate each other about their own experiences. And it’s helped her widen her social circle beyond the internet. She met her boyfriend through Jewbook. She had just created a ritual to do on the final night of Chanukah when her
now-partner posted in a group looking for ideas to commemorate the night.
They friended each other over Facebook and chatted, but it wasn’t until an attempted first meet-up (that did not work out) and she came across his profile on a Jewish dating group on Facebook that she decided to make a move.
“He responded [to my message] and we started chatting and we got closer and closer. He came to visit me in March and we started a real relationship. We’ve been seeing each other a lot,” she says.
And they’re not the only people to have met this way. Sarah says she knows several other couples who also met through Jewbook.
It’s a huge community and diverse in many ways, but it being exclusively Jewish means that everyone has the same kind of background, Nathan Rosen says.
“I think everybody in marginalized communities needs a safe space,” says Rosen, a Pikesville resident. In Jewbook groups, everyone has a similar background so you don’t need to explain why you’ wear tzitzit, won’t reply on Shabbat or why certain foods are considered Jewish.
“I can understand what they’re talking about. They can understand what I’m talking about. I can kvetch about how my favorite deli closed down and I can’t get my
favorite matzah ball soup. People understand that,” he says.
In a time when many synagogues are worried about declining membership, especially among millennials, these Jewbook groups offer a free, online space where people have the freedom to explore and experiment with their Judaism. Those who cannot afford to belong to or live far away from a synagogue or JCC can still find a community, and those who grew up with very little connection to Judaism can learn.
It’s a new kind of Jewish community. And it’s one that deserves wider recognition, Sarah says. Lots of institutions think that if people aren’t going to synagogue or JCCs, they aren’t engaging in Jewish life at all.
That isn’t necessarily true.
If someone isn’t showing up to the organized Jewish community, “that doesn’t mean they aren’t engaging with Judaism,” she says. “There’s a lot more going on Jewishly that a lot of people in big institutions don’t know about.”