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.”