This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.
(JTA) — At the SAR High School, an Orthodox Jewish day school in Riverdale, New York, teens participate in anti-harassment training every fall. Students listen carefully as faculty list the dangers of TikTok, the potential social isolation resulting from excessive social media use, and the negative implicit messaging — both Jewish and otherwise — that often pervades these platforms.
Yet for many Jewish teens and young adults, social media provides the opposite effect by furnishing them with a voice, community and alternate avenues for exploring identity.
Olivia Fertig, a student at the Orthodox Ramaz High School in Manhattan, acknowledges that social media might tempt her to one-up someone with a better post or photo, but she also feels connected to the people whose posts she comments on or likes. “Social media allows me to interact with other Jews and come across Jewish content which teaches me more about how other Jews live,” she said.
Despite the risks involved, 35% of teens use YouTube, Tiktok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook “almost constantly.” Movies and podcasts from Jewish community leaders warn of the dangers of social media “overuse” and its ravaging effects on teen mental health and cognition. “Teen mental health is plummeting, and social media is a major contributing cause,” the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt told Congress in 2022, citing adolescent mood disorders, self-harm and suicide rates.
But for some observant Jewish teens, social media provides the connection for them to be their authentic selves and learn from others.
Ilana Gadish, a member of the Judaic faculty at SAR High School, highlights the benefits of social media. “When teens, especially Jewish teens, are struggling with personal issues — whether it’s Jewish identity, sexuality, gender identity, relationships or complicated relationships that might be possibly dangerous — social media has so many accounts out there that help teens and adults navigate spaces where people can feel connected to others that aren’t in their life going through the same thing as them,” she said, while acknowledging that social media shouldn’t be the only way young people connect.
For teen content creators like Tali, who asked that only her first name be used to protect her safety and her family from antisemitism, TikTok helps her explore Jewish identity without the constraints of her real-world Orthodox community. As a self-described “practicing, religious” teen, she creates mainly Jewish content with an overarching aim of exploring sensitive Jewish issues that might otherwise remain unspoken. Specifically, she focuses on the place of women in Orthodox Judaism and seeks to raise awareness of sexual assault in Orthodox Jewish communities.
In one video, she highlighted the case of a student who had been the victim of sexual abuse, whose identity was kept anonymous. The video provided explicit support for the victim and showed “her that she wasn’t alone.” The video, which has 30,000 views on TikTok, led to a partnership between Tali and Za’akah, an organization that fights child sex abuse in the Orthodox community.
“Learning about Judaism online gives you everyone’s perspective on it, not just your school’s or your community’s,” Tali said. TikTok introduced her to “topics that are considered taboo and generally not taught in school, like the laws of sex in Judaism etc.”
This openness may be perceived as dangerous by various community leaders but also as liberating by young social media users. “Social media gives me the freedom to express it [Judaism] however I want without restrictions from community or school etc.,” Tali said. “In certain circles you will be ostracized for voicing certain opinions.” On TikTok she is able to find a peer group that is accepting of her views.
TikTok also gives her the opportunity to learn about a diverse range of Jews, including Rabbi Seth Goldstein, a Reform rabbi whose popular TikTok videos explain Judaism through pop culture. His beliefs differ from her Modern Orthodox upbringing and allow her to gain a better understanding of his liberal denomination.
Some haredi Orthodox communities, including a number of Hasidic movements, have called for its members to disconnect from social media entirely. In the summer of 2022, two rallies organized by Orthodox rabbis specifically urged Jewish women and teens to rid themselves of these platforms, saying they encourage impure thoughts and gossip.
And some teens, even among the less insular Modern Orthodox, share this pessimistic view of social media. Jacob Prager, a sophomore at SAR High School, does not have a smartphone and does not use social media. “For the people who say that social media brings them happiness that can actually be dangerous because that’s the only way that you seek to find confirmation and love,” he said. He used to have an Instagram account for school but gave it up when he started getting addicted and didn’t have time to do things he enjoys, like crossword puzzles. “Now that I don’t use it as much I think my mental health is so much better and I’m able to do stuff that I really love,” he said.
Yet other teens say the good of social media outweighs the negative effects.
A recent study found that a majority of teens, like Tali, credit social media for “deepening connections” rather than fracturing them. Rachel SJ, an LGBTQ actor and content creator who asked to be referred to by their professional name, uses social media to make purposeful bonds with other Jewish creators on these platforms. “There’s something really wonderful about having a wider trans Jewish community, we’re able to share resources, get each other’s more niche jokes, and learn from each other,” they said.
Rather than suppressing Jewish and other identities, social media provides a unique set of tools for self-expression and authenticity for Rachel and other members of Jewish Tiktok.
As a nonbinary practicing Jew, Rachel also uses their account to make connections and interact with a much wider audience than would be possible on a local level. “I have made so many incredible connections through Jewish TikTok, it almost feels undervaluing to call them just ‘connections,’” Rachel said. “Many of them have become friends, confidants, and support.”
Rachel met @amaditalks, another Jewish creator who uses ze as a pronoun, through TikTok. “I really appreciate the compassion and humor ze brings to our conversations beyond content, but also about what’s going on in the world and our lives,” they said.
Rachel says these connections would not have been possible in any single community or real-world location. “Sure shared experiences/culture/belief/values etc brought us together but we don’t live in the same place, we very likely wouldn’t have ever met,” they said. “These community members are able to look to each other to talk through it, get input, respond, and stand up together.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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