Like most people above the age of 15, I downloaded TikTok because I was curious — and clueless. I was intrigued by the new streaming platform that seems to have captivated youth everywhere. TikTok certainly has a culture; the app has a mix of short funny videos, storytimes, and dances. I love TikTok, primarily, because it makes me laugh. It is one of the few apps on my phone I could look through for hours because every content creater brings a unique prespective.
After joining the app, I quickly discovered the #Jewish category. (For context: You can search TikTok by hashtags. Often hashtags are popular challenges, storytime videos, dance trends, and even specific identities.)
Jewish TikTok is a community made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of videos. The Jewish teens of TikTok have bonded through their excitement for Hanukkah, jokes about nice Jewish boys, and shared Jewish history. There is even an entire Jewish girl anthem about an affinity for Jewish summer camp, teen tours, and Jewish geography. From just scrolling through, it’s clear that the Jewish community of TikTok has created friendship and community in a world where it can feel isolating to be young and Jewish.
Of course, TikTok, like all social media platforms, has an anti-Semitism problem. You do not need to look very hard on the app to find unchecked Holocaust “humor” and anti-Semitism. One search of the hashtag #heil and you are in a community filled with neo-Nazis. Seeing hate directed at Jewish people is always painful, but TikTok, unfortunately, reflects the current reality of social media. More often than not, hate speech is the norm — and social media companies are doing very little to stop it. TikTok has a way to report harassment and bullying, and has hired content moderators to filter out truly hateful content. However, these policies seem to be failing; “jokes” at the expense of Jews often end up in my feed.
But the Jewish teens on TikTok have used the platform to resist hate, and in doing so, they are demonstrating unabashed Jewish pride. One avid Jewish TikTok user, Joseph Ochberg (@lilhochy16), told me, “It is the most amazing thing to see the Jewish community on apps [like] TikTok come together to defeat hate.” These teens are defeating hate because they refuse to be silenced. They have made the conscious choice to counter neo-Nazis through the creation of community. In deciding to thrive, they are telling the world that Jewish voices won’t be silenced.
In some sense, Jewish TikTok has become a reflection of the larger Jewish community: bound together by intense pride and a need to survive.
Lately, many Jewish adults I know seem disillusioned with young Jews. They believe —incorrectly in my opinion! — that Generation Z Jews have given up on their Jewish identity. To be fair, I understand their reasoning: A sizeable portion of Jewish teens identify as agnostic or atheist; we are less likely to join synagogues as young adults; college Hillel membership is down; the 2013 Pew Research study on American Jews found we are less likely to marry someone Jewish, if we marry at all. A new article comes out at least once a week, usually by a baby boomer, about how young Jews feel disillusioned with Jewish institutions and even their own identity. At times, it seems the organized Jewish world has formally declared that traditional Judaism will die with my generation.
But the young Jews of TikTok are refuting this idea with every seemingly innoucuous video they post. In talking to Jewish teens on TikTok, they expressed a deep connection to their Jewish identity and a desire to expand that connection. Chemlah Macneil (@masterofpuns) told me, “Jewish TikTok makes me feel connected to other Jews around the world. It also gives me the opportunity to show who I am and make others laugh.” Lana Torres (@garlicbabie) shared similar sentiments, explaining, “TikTok shows me how our experiences as Jewish teens unite us.”
TikTok’s #Jewish feed is filled with classic Jewish humor and young Jews turning stereotypes on their head. They are doing tours of Jewish day schools to the tune of Hava Nagila and educating others about Jewish stereotypes through humor. Jewish TikTok is one of the only places on the internet made by and for Jewish teens.
Gen Z is the smartphone generation. We were born into a world of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Young Jews are tapping into their Jewish identity in the way we’ve tapped into our entire worlds: through social media.
On TikTok, Gen Z teens are expressing a sentiment that Jews for generations have shared: a desire to feel connected to a greater Jewish community. The generations before us sought out communities with Jewish day schools, local synagogues, and Jewish youth groups. They searched for neighborhoods with a high concentration of Jews. Jewish TikTok is simply our generation’s modern-day shtetl — it is our way of finding a community.
Our generation will not engage with Jewish culture in the same way those who came before us did, but that does not mean we do not want to engage with our identity. Young Jews feel incredibly Jewish — we are just waiting for the institutions around us to catch up to our needs. Okay, Jewish Boomer? It is time to adapt.
Header Image: Anastasiia_New/iStock/Getty Images.