Pittsburgh native starts Facebook mitzvah experiment

Pittsburgh native starts Facebook mitzvah experiment

Sarah Gross Fife
Sarah Gross Fife

You might say Sarah Gross Fife’s spiritual journey took a new turn thanks to a deck of cards.  

It was those cards — “Mitzvah Cards,” not playing cards — which inspired the Pittsburgh native and Sydney, Australia, resident to begin a global experiment on Facebook to examine a new mitzvah every week.

Now, as the High Holy Days begin, Fife’s Facebook group — “Mitzvah-a-Week 5774,” which she launched in late August — has reached more than 700 people from the United States, Australia, Great Britain, Israel, Spain, China and Thailand.

The group uses “Mitzvah Cards,” a colorful 52-card deck designed by Rabbi Goldie Milgram, to inspire discussion and practice of the mitzvot. On each card is printed a mitzvah in English, Hebrew and transliteration, an explanation of the commandment and its source in Jewish text.

“My plan is, as of Shabbat this Saturday, I will draw the first card from the deck [for example, the one describing the prohibition against lashon hara,

[gossip],” Fife said in a late night interview via Skype from her home in Sydney. “The idea is people can then say, ‘sure I will try a week of honoring this mitzvah,’ or ‘I disagree,’ or start a conversation about lashon hara in contemporary society, how it affects us.”

And every week for a year, she will draw a new card, launching a new round of cyber discussion on each commandment.

More than a means for studying the mitzvot, Fife couched the group as a way for Jews — affiliated and unaffili-ated alike — to identify with their faith.

“It’s really an opportunity for people to examine their Judaism and to be part of a Jewish community that connects each week,” she said.

Fife, 35, got the idea for the experiment, when, after a year of “doing a dance” about her own role in Jewish life, she decided to attend a Jewish Renewal Kallah this past July in New Hampshire.

There, she took a class with Milgram, an author, educator and Renewal rabbi, who used her Mitzvah Cards as a learning tool.

The participants separated the deck into three piles: mitzvot they were already living, mitzvot they were interested in trying, and mitzvot that didn’t interest them and with which they may even disagree.

The exercise piqued Fife’s interest. “When we left the class, I was interested in carrying it further,” she said.

First, she tried it within her circle of friends, and then others expressed an interest.

Finally, she decided to turn the mitzvah card project into a Facebook group.

“This seemed like a low-touch way of inviting people,” she said. “They can always opt out if they want to, or they can stick with the discussion, or they can try it themselves.”

Mitzvah-a-Week will soon find its way to Twitter, she added, using the hashtag “#mitzvahaweek.”

Fife and her husband, Tim, moved to Sydney eight years ago and have since decided to make it their home.

Before leaving Pittsburgh, though, Fife, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, worked as a special assistant to then-Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey and as director of operations for the Richard Florida Creativity Group. She also served as a volunteer in many capacities for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and several other Jewish agencies, including the Chronicle.

Mitzvah-a-Week 5774 dovetails with Fife’s work in the Australian Jewish community. She is serving as president of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney — a Progressive congregation, and she recently joined the executive committee of the Union for Progressive Judaism in Australia. (Another former Pittsburgher, Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky, chairs the UPJ’s rabbinic council.)

In both capacities, Fife is interested in exploring the synagogue model — its role in the future of Judaism — as well as other models that could draw unaffiliated Jews to their faith.

“I’m really interested in what the future of Judaism looks like if the synagogue is not the center of the Jewish community,” she said.

She echoed American Jewish University Professor Ron Wolfson who touts the philosophy of “relational Judaism” — connection over commitment.

Wolfson notes that the Internet has ravaged the old “programmatic engagement” model Jewish communities have used to engage their people.

“Hundreds of websites feature rich Jewish content for free,” Wolfson wrote in a recent column for JTA. “Why pay to join a congregation when I can watch live streaming video of worship services, arrange for a bar or bat mitzvah tutor online and have the ceremony in my backyard with a rent-a-rabbi? Why join a JCC when I can go to a fitness center and easily find a cheaper preschool? Why give to a centralized federation when I can direct my giving to causes that resonate with me?”

The answer, he posits, is to build caring communities of relationships within the old institutions.

Fife agrees.

“If someone comes in [to the synagogue] for the first time, or even the 10th time,” she said, “it’s about building a relationship with that person, making him [or her] feel a part of something rather than sending him a membership packet.”

Likewise, she is emphasizing connection over commitment in her Facebook group.

“There’s nothing in particular I’m asking people to commit to” through her Facebook group, Fife said. “At the end, it’s purely the purpose of connecting with people and being in the community. As a person who likes being part of a tribe, part of a community, we only have what we create.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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