June 5, 2012

More on Community and the Cloud

Filed under: Judaism, Personal Blog — marcstober @ 10:04 am

Is it ironic that I decided to go in person a “conference” about the “cloud”?

First, a personal bit: I like going to in-person, out of town conferences or meetings from time to time, and would like to do so far more than I actually do. While the cost of travel to learn some specific things are hard to justify either to myself or an employer, there is some hard-to-quantify change in perspective. I inevitably come home, not so much with new facts about the core subject, but with a new outlook that ends up proving very valuable. While I end up missing home by time I get back, I also find myself envying the people who get to do this stuff all the time (usually as evidenced by their live tweets about it).

So, attending the Jewish Futures Conference was as much as anything else about giving myself permission to go. I’m past thinking in terms of “maybe when I grow up I’ll get to…” because I’m already grown up. No one was going to “send” to me this so I just had to be entrepreneurial, get past my anxieties and go myself. And, it was manageable; it basically meant paying for a night in a hotel and an Amtrak ticket, and taking a couple days off work. Not cheap, but a lot cheaper than starting over in a second career (or technically, a return to my first career) in Jewish education just in the hope that somebody would spend $500 to “send” me to a conference!

The interesting thing was that not only did I not learn a lot of hard facts, but the conference was in and of itself pretty shallow. No one was going home equipped to fully cloudify (?) their organizations the next day. This is an important data point, though: there are a lot of people and leading organizations who think they need to start learning about the “cloud,” but they don’t quite know what they are going to do with it yet, and how it will affect their existing organization. It’s easy to be discouraged, working on your computer, thinking that “establishment” is ignoring you. On the other hand, these organizations were clearly looking for something from us, even if they aren’t ready to starting building it out, Silicon Valley style, like a “cloud” startup that’s just got it’s first big round of VC money. I literally found myself sitting beside the executive director of a 100+ year old organization trying to reinvent itself, who said she had recently been looking at the Open Siddur Project in her efforts to develop an online curriculum!

I had some other interesting conversations. In the first half, during Rabbi Laura Baum’s talk, I tweeted my table’s “idols” that they wanted to smash. The ideas of getting rid of hierarchy, membership, affliation was common them. I also met some folks who had been involved in online Jewish community even before me, in the early days of Shamash–we’re all waking in their footsteps.

I think everyone is worried about money. Before what my friends in finance call the “global financial crisis,” there were at least some organizations in the community that seemed permanent. Now nothing really seems solid. I’m not sure money to fund cloud projects is going to come from organizations just trying to survive, unless it will help their survival.

After dinner, I was sitting a table with two men who were second career Jewish professionals; one a rabbi and one a cantor. Sometimes I wonder if I am on that path, spending my free time going to events like this! 🙂 But for the foreseeable future, I like the independence that comes from being able to work on these issues without affecting my livelihood.

I also had discussion about “enhancing” rather than replacing existing community. This is exactly why I am drawn to projects like working with Jewish texts, which seems a natural fit for a digital cloud, and to communities that surround such projects; or to online communities that surround real-life communities as the “oneg all week.” Discussion of this would have actually made the conference deeper. While Rabbi Laura Baum and Patrick Aleph’s online synagogues are certainly interesting, the most profound changes will come from how people mix their on- and off-line community, and the extent to which those communities do and don’t inform each other–“bricks and clicks.”

After the event, I was fortunate (since NYC is a pretty lonely place when you have nothing else to do!) to be invited to a reunion over drinks of JESNA Lainer Interns alumni (or as I knew 17 years ago it, “Israel Interns”). It was some more interesting discussion with some people who care about these issues. Which ultimately is what they day was all about.

Finally, I’m glad I left New York City for Boston. Multiple mentions of Boston-area institutions like Brandeis, Harvard, and even a strangely interjected picture of Barry Schrage showed me that even if the Yankees, UJA-Federation, or JTS win in terms of numbers, the Red Sox, CJP, and Hebrew College have something special all their own!