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Jewish Geography Zoom Racing 

07/29/2020 11:30:33 AM


One of the more interesting Jewish communal innovations to come out of this pandemic period is an Internet game show called “Jewish Geography Zoom Racing.” The show, which is broadcast on Facebook Live, was the brainchild of Micah Hart, a social and digital marketer based in Atlanta. The show operates on the principle that when two or more Jews get together, the subject very often turns to who knows whose Jewish relatives and friends and from where.

The contestants on Jewish Geography Zoom Racing gather on a Zoom call, during which Micah shares a name of “the chosen one” for the episode. To win the game, the contestants work their contacts to try to get this person on the call. They can’t use social media or Google, just direct connections to people they can text, call or private message with a vague request to jump on a Zoom call not knowing what awaits.

Why is our Jewish geography game so strong? One reason is that the Jewish people have always been a small community that has managed to make a big impact. Zoom Racing contestant Jon Adam Ross describes the game as highlighting, “This unique tightness of the Jewish community and the relationships we have.”

To give a real-life example of Jewish geography in action, I’ll share a snippet of the very first conversation I had with my husband, Dan. When I mentioned that I grew up in Great Neck, he asked me if I knew one of his friends from Law School. It turned out that I not only knew him, but I shared my Bat Mitzvah service with him. When Dan told me that he graduated from Brandeis, which is practically the epicenter of Jewish geography, I rattled off a list of several friends of mine who also attended Brandeis around the same time.

 Later on, we would discover that we were connected through nine other mutual friends on Facebook. It’s a wonder that we hadn’t met sooner – although we did eventually discover that we had attended the same Shabbat lunch at a mutual friend’s apartment several years earlier.

Jewish traditions are naturally intertwined with social connections and networking. We turn to each other in our times of joy and our times of pain. We pray together in a minyan of at least ten people and gather for a festive meal after celebrating a wedding or a newborn baby.. Even our mourning rituals suggest a weeklong period of shiva, during which we visit those who have lost loved ones, surrounding them with companionship so that they do not have to be alone in their grief.

Of course, these gatherings are made all the more difficult during this time of social distance. As the Jewish people tend to do, however, we have shown our resilience and have found new ways to make them happen. Zoom has helped us to accomplish this feat.

The one positive element to come out of all this is that we are able to be with our loved ones across the country and even across the world. How many of you were able to join with far-flung relatives at virtual seders earlier this year? Over the course of the pandemic, I have attended a virtual bris in Washington DC, a shiva minyan in Phoenix, and a Bat Mitzvah in Miami, all the while reconnecting with friends, family, and colleagues who I haven’t seen in person in years. I’m not going to pretend that this is a perfect substitute for an in person gathering, but it certainly comes with its own set of unexpected benefits.

This week’s Torah portion gives us another explanation for our ability to excel at Jewish geography and to establish connections as a people – even when we are far apart. To set the context for this parshah, after wandering in the desert for forty years, the group of Israelites that is set to enter the Promised Land looks very different from the group that left Egypt. And yet, they have thrived under Moses’ leadership – growing families, receiving Torah, building houses of prayer, developing trust, and learning from their mistakes. 

Moshe knows he is not going to lead his people into the land of Israel. He knows that a change is needed. He also knows that his leadership style is no longer conducive to bringing the Jewish people forward. So in Parshat D’varim, the first portion in the final book of the Torah, Moses begins his farewell speech to the Israelites and appoints new leadership to guide the Israelites on the rest of their journey.

In Deuteronomy 1:9-13, Moses explains:

“Adonai Your God has multiplied you, and behold you are this day as the stars of the sky for multitude. Adonai, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are, and bless you, as God has promised you. How can I alone bear your encumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? Take wise men of understanding and well known according to your tribes, and I will make them heads over you.”

So here, the population has grown to the point where it is too much for a singular leader to manage. Moses appoints Joshua as his primary successor, but recognizes that various sub-communities – in this case, tribes – each require their own governance. Most importantly, Moses wants these leaders to be wise, understanding, and well-known so that each individual Israelite can feel like they belong within the growing community. Each person will have representation by someone that they trust and know. They are able to build meaningful relationships within the context of the growing Jewish population.

With this initial blueprint for leadership, the Jewish people blossomed yet still continue to change. Eventually, tribal leaders gave way to judges, which were later replaced by Kings. After the destruction of the second temple – which, incidentally, we commemorate this week with the observance of Tisha B’av, we were exiled into the Diaspora. From there, the center of Jewish community moved into the synagogue.

Today, we are divided into movements, synagogues, schools, and camps. In this increasingly globalized world, the centralization of the Jewish community is getting harder to maintain.  COVID-19 is also thrusting another change upon us as well, especially as more and more Jewish communal events are moving online.

Jewish Geography Zoom Racing shows us the importance of maintaining our centralized Jewish communities even amidst the accessibility of Jewish life online. Our smaller communities within the larger community – in the Israelites’ case, tribes – are our way of maintaining the deep connections that are so inherent in Jewish culture. During the game, the host provides various clues to help the contestants identify “The Chosen One.” These clues range from hometown, current town, college, camp, synagogue they grew up at, and more. Because of the closeness of the Jewish community, the contestants seem to always know someone who knows someone who can connect them to at least one of these networks sometimes identifying The Chosen One in as little as six minutes as one contestant impressively did last week.

There is even proof that these connections are sustainable across the generations. On a recent episode, The Chosen One was identified because her daughter went to the URJ’s Camp Harlam with the daughter of a woman who got on the call because of her connection to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh. While I haven’t personally known any of the Chosen Ones or the contestants, I have seen familiar faces, friends, and colleagues be called upon to assist in the search process in nearly every episode I’ve watched. That in itself showcases just how small the Jewish world is!

Times and models for Jewish communal life are changing, as they did for Moses in this week’s Torah portion. While we don’t have a specific blueprint for where the future will take us, Jewish Geography Zoom Racing has illustrated the fact that our people continue to make and find connections across the globe, despite the challenges of social distancing. That itself is a huge victory. To see the magic happen yourself, look up Campfires and Colorwars online and check out the broadcast schedule. Better yet, keep expanding your own network in both the Jewish community and beyond, finding the little threads that connect all of us in a colorful web. 

Shabbat Shalom!


Thu, June 30 2022 1 Tammuz 5782