Besides anticipation for the forthcoming dank-ass memes, I didn’t feel much when I watched Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg being questioned about a massive data leak that was recently uncovered. I was fully aware that Zuckerberg is a shande who stole land from Native Hawai’ians, and that the Cambridge Analytica scandal was a Black Mirror-level dystopian incident.
Still, I would never — could never — delete my Facebook account in protest.
It feels odd to say this, but Facebook is at the center of one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever had the privilege to be part of. And a unique online community called Jewbook is the cause of it all.
I became a member of the community last year, when a friend from Hillel added me to a Jewish political group on Facebook. From there, I started making friends and joining more intimate, laid-back communities. A universe consisting of hundreds of these private Facebook groups, Jewbook is more than just kvetching about anti-Semitism and politics. It’s an unimaginably interactive space, where many members think of each other as “surrogate siblings.” And it’s a life-giving source of emotional support and friendship. Where else could I find people who would stay on the phone with me for hours while I cried about a breakup, even though they’ve never seen me in person? Who else but my Jewbook friends will send me obscenely large amounts of ice cream and homemade rugelach on my birthday?
Speaking of surrogate siblings, I haven’t seen my own siblings in over two years. My mother is abusive, and she doesn’t allow me or my grandmothers to see them. I can’t express how deeply sad and angry this makes me; nothing will ever heal that wound.
But Jewbook is a place where I’ve chosen a loving family that supports me through romantic problems, traumatic memories, and identity crises. Now, I have a whole team of brothers and sisters.
And I’m not the only one making meaningful connections and getting support. One Jewbooker is attending Harvard because our community raised the money for her tuition deposit. I even know people who have met their partners and spouses through these groups.
If this seems weird to you, it’s because our society denigrates online relationships. In a post-Catfish world, we often scoff at people who truly care for people they met on the internet. We call them naïve and say they should prioritize “IRL” (in real life) friendships. It pisses me off to hear this, as if it is impossible for platonic and romantic love to develop in nontraditional spaces. As for me, I can honestly say that the relationships I’ve formed through Jewbook have been the most fulfilling of my life — and nothing feels more real.
Of course, every Jewbooker would prefer to be close to their friends, but it’s difficult, if not impossible. Some of us live in the same city. Together, we get drunk and look at nice paintings every week. Some of us have never met and we make the best of it. If possible, we visit each other, sometimes crossing an ocean to do so. The love is worth the travel time and costs.
Jewbook is also a place where people can be educated about Jewish issues and history. The level of engagement I experience in Jewbook sometimes makes it feel like an online synagogue. Jewish community and religious leaders are making a huge mistake if they don’t pay close attention to the Jewbook phenomenon. My friend Ariel thinks that “being able to bring a bunch of people in their 20s-40s together as a Jewish community has something that I feel has been lacking in the Jewish community itself.” Another truth is painfully clear: People are flocking here because they’re seeking something they feel our formal institutions lack — acceptance.
The forum lacks both the anxiety and the (often) exorbitant fees of synagogue membership. Especially for under-represented groups like Romani Jews, LGBT Jews, converts, and black Jews, the fear of not being accepted can be a powerful deterrent to entering more formal spaces. This fear is mitigated through the medium of Facebook, where the stakes are lower and diversity is the rule, not the exception.
Many of my friends have said that this is the first Jewish space where they felt a complete sense of belonging. Personally, this was the first place where I felt free to be myself. I’m black, and sometimes people in traditional Jewish spaces can make me feel like an intruder, or worse, like I’m invisible. I know other Jews of Color and patrilineal Jews often feel the same.
Don’t get me wrong; because internalized misogyny and white supremacy is inescapable, microaggressions and racism still occur in Jewbook spaces. But I’ve always felt supported here, knowing that I have people who will stick up for me.
People who are part of Jewbook are not only seeking a deeper connection to their Judaism, but they’re seeking deeper connections to each other and to the diaspora. I have one friend who partially credits Jewbook for helping her make the decision to make aliyah to Israel. Another Jewbooker felt that the community helped him learn more about his background. “Even though I didn’t know shit about my own culture and heritage aside from Rosh Hashanah and Pesach,” he told me, “Jewbook helped me rediscover my roots.”
As a larger society, we need to start having cultural conversations about the very real benefit that online platforms like Facebook offer to under-represented populations. Yes, Facebook needs to increase transparency, but a boycott of Facebook would be counter-productive to social justice. In a world where people face increasing isolation and anxiety over current events, spaces like Jewbook are necessary tools. It’s vital for people to be able to safely organize around a shared goal. It’s crucial for people to make connections over shared experiences.
Of course there are hate groups on Facebook, too. But more so than that, there are some beautiful, world-changing things happening here, right under your nose (er, fingertips). Like it or hate it, the Facebook app is the perfect medium for these cultural conversations to take place. The ability to make private groups is key, but so is the ability to post live videos, write large portions of text, and have cohesive threaded conversations that last over the course of days.
It sucks, but giving our data to companies in exchange for the use of their platforms is kind of the deal. While I’m not comfortable with my information being leaked and recklessly sold, I look at the joy that Jewbook has given me and I partially accept this reality.
So, in the wake of this scandal, I’ll be changing my settings to make my information more private. I’ll be more careful about the things I post online. But Facebook isn’t going anywhere. I love being Jewish too much.
Nylah Burton lives in Denver, Colorado and works as a writer and sexual assault prevention advocate. You can follow her on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk.