Whether you love it or hate it, you probably cannot resist using it. Over the past year, the Facebook group J-Seek has become the ‘go to’ destination for the diverse needs of the Melbourne Jewish community. The significance of J-Seek’s success extends far beyond the obvious and should not be underestimated.

J-Seek’s inception and proliferation reflects the strength and character of the Melbourne Jewish community and at the same time challenges our traditional Jewish communal infrastructure. Can we embrace new ways to engage and handle the speed of change required? Are we doing all we can to nurture our community-minded youth?

J-Seek was born out of a single question. The founder, Leeor Chabat needed assistance with a legal document he required for a developing start-up. Leeor surmised that many people in the community would be able to provide him with the relevant assistance but he did not have a quick and easy avenue to access the right experts. Leeor wondered why there was nowhere for people to easily ask questions or seek assistance from the vast array of Jewish community resources. “Surely there’s a way.” Leeor recounted.

During Shabbat dinner in August 2015, at age 18, Leeor thought a Facebook group may be the simplest and most cost effective way to answer his query and likely many other people’s queries. After dinner, Leeor sent a WhatsApp message to a friend asking him what he thought about his latest idea. His friend replied that it could work.

That night, encouraged by nothing more than his own self-assurance and his friend’s support, Leeor drafted basic rules for his imminent Facebook group. Leeor understood that even in the free cyber world of Facebook, people need structure to prevent chaos.

The next day Leeor invited 500 of his Facebook friends to join his new Facebook group. They in turn invited their friends and so the cycle continued. At the end of the first week, 3,300 people joined J-Seek. Now, just over one year later, J-Seek Victoria has in excess of 11,000 members. According to Leeor, several communal leaders believe that J-Seek Victoria is the single biggest spontaneous Jewish Facebook group in the Southern Hemisphere.

Through J-Seek we have helped each other to find home help, repairmen, partners for a game of Bridge, promote not-for-profit events, call for volunteers, suggest holiday destinations and even offered to make chicken soup for someone in need and host strangers on Rosh Hashanah.

As many who have used J-Seek knows, there have been several negative conversation threads. Fierce debates ensued over what constitutes ‘appropriate’ posts and the use of ‘appropriate’ wording. Robust disagreement in our community is not new and therefore does not overshadow the positives of what has been achieved.

J-Seek’s success can be measured by its widespread use. In Leeor’s view, J-Seek is successful because “it was made for the community by the community and continues to develop and evolve through communal empowerment.” Shortly after J-Seek launched, Leeor quickly recognized that the rules hastily written after Shabbat dinner, desperately needed refining. Rather than consult only one or two people and present a finished set of new rules, Leeor opted for a thoroughly consultative approach. He posted a survey containing proposed rule amendments. Users of the page were asked to provide feedback on the proposed changes as well as suggestions for additional rules. In doing so, Leeor enabled the community of J-Seek users to develop and refine J-Seek’s structure.

J-Seek is operated with the use of voluntary time only. Leeor does not seek to profit from facilitating communal connections. “I want to ensure that we keep looking out for each other in all ways that are important to us.” While studying at University, working part-time and developing new business ideas, Leeor allocates at least 1-2 hours per day administering the backend of J-Seek, ensuring posts comply with the rules and even advising those who turn to him through private messages, seeking advice or help.

Leeor’s motivation in establishing and managing J-Seek is in itself testament to the strong values espoused within our community. Apart from Leeor’s initial requirement to find a legal document, Leeor sought to connect our community.

Leeor is not unique. Our schools, youth movements, shuls and plethora of education programs have produced a generation of Jewish graduates with a strong commitment to community and social action. J-Seek is one of several initiatives created and managed by school and university graduates. (eg. Zooz, Flying Fox, Young AICC). The depth of commitment to our community amongst Millennials and Gen Ys, is coupled with a ‘can do’ attitude where anything is possible. And if it’s possible, it needs to be started in a very immediate timeframe. J-Seek was born literally from one day to the next.

In Melbourne’s Jewish community, we have successfully cultivated a start-up nation culture in the communal space – we have a thriving start-up community amongst our youth.

J-Seek has shown us that we need to be open to looking at the world through a new lens. For many, J-Seek has become more than a mere Facebook group; it has evolved into their virtual Jewish community centre. Perhaps the absence of physical walls and the traditional list of organization acronyms, has rendered J-Seek more attractive to a broader range of people in our community than is the case with conventional infrastructure. We love our new online communal space so much that over the last year we have seen the emergence of a variety of spin-offs started by others including, J-Safe, J-Med, J-Arts.

Questions often arise regarding J-Seek’s long term sustainability as its founder’s ability to devote so much voluntary time to J-Seek’s management is unlikely to continue indefinitely. This question does not apply only to J-Seek and therefore should be considered in the broader context of whether we, as a community, are doing enough to nurture our community innovators. What sort of support should we be providing, financial or otherwise? At what stage of development should communal funding be provided? How do we secure long term engagement of the innovators? How, if at all, do we integrate the initiatives and the people behind them into our current communal structures?

Lets use the J-Seek experience as a catalyst to start the important conversation about how we can re-imagine our community and assess whether we are doing enough to welcome and develop our communal future.

Article by Author/s
Simone Szalmuk-Singer
Simone is Chief Executive Officer and Director of the Erdi Foundation, an Australian philanthropic foundation immensely proud of its Jewish heritage committed to strengthening community life and addressing disadvantage in Australia and Israel. Simone is a member of the Advisory Board of GlobalJewry.org - an international organisation focused on providing a platform to foster unity, support and celebration of Jewish heritage. She is Co-Vice President of Jewish Care Victoria, the largest Jewish services provider in Victoria and most importantly she is a co-founder of Jewish Women of Words.

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