Back to Stories & Articles

An Antidote to Social (Media) Distancing

“Are we friends?” a friend of mine asked excitedly. I was totally confused by her question. How was it not obvious to her? “Of course!” I answered. She dismissed my response. “Oh. No. Not like in real life,” she said, “On Facebook.”

And that was my first introduction to social media. I signed up for Facebook and was immediately hooked. Before long I was racking up friends like points in a video game.

I didn’t stay in touch with my first Facebook friend except for the fact that we remained friends on Facebook. She and I haven’t spoken since we graduated, but I saw her wedding photos and pictures of her fabulous vacation. I “liked” when she announced a new job and wrote happy birthday messages on her wall for years.

Truthfully, though, my real friend had become a friend in name only. I don’t even really know who she is anymore. I can just recognize her “brand.”

At the beginning of the social media movement, it really felt like these websites helped us to efficiently maintain relationships across distances and increasingly disparate and busy schedules. In retrospect, it feels inevitable and obvious that the priority of virtual social encounters over investing in relationships IRL would eventually erode our true connections to one another. There is something inherently dehumanizing about quantifying our social interactions through the number of views or likes or followers.

We were social distancing long before the pandemic.

Social media networks aren’t all bad though. In fact, in many ways, they can provide an important access point to a world a person might not be able to be a part of without them. They allow us to make connections with people who have similar interests no matter how niche those interests are. Some accounts produce incredible educational content (something that we are working on at BJ right now)—offering bite-sized, concise information in a few slides or a short video. There are many other examples of how social media can make a positive impact on our lives. But it is not a comprehensive substitute for substantive relationships.

Ultimately, apps like Facebook, Instagram, and Tiktok are closer to an internet-age version of public access television than they are to replicating actual community. They simply can’t replace the kinds of relationships that human beings have relied on for millennia because social media isn’t about relationships. It is about content.

In its prescient wisdom, Jewish tradition provides several ancient antidotes to this modern phenomenon. There are structures within Jewish practice and philosophy that preemptively protect us from this kind of self-isolation or superficial interactions. This idea is embedded in one of our most foundational concepts. The word mitzvah, which we normally translate as “commandment” or perhaps informally as “good deed,” is related to an aramaic word meaning “to join or connect.” It simultaneously connotes responsibility and reward. The more we show up in our obligations to perform sacred acts rooted in kindness with one another, the more we feel a deep sense of connection to each other.

Perhaps the greatest Jewish remedy for the erosion of community stems from one of our most important mitzvot—celebrating Shabbat together. There is something healing and holy about regularly immersing yourself in the presence of Jewish community. Feeling the melodies wash over you during services, cultivating an inner stillness, stretching your intellect through Torah study, and then, yes, schmoozing over tuna salad and cookies at kiddush. Before long, strangers become friends—as opposed to the social media trend of friends becoming strangers.

On this Shabbat, I hope that you have the opportunity to disconnect from the onslaught of infinite content you carry in the palm of your hand and to nurture your social networks beyond the virtual world.


Shabbat Shalom,