In honor of Labor Day, often accepted as the end of summer, it seems appropriate to reflect on a summer phenomenon of the Jewish Upper West Side in Manhattan.
The gathering of troves of young Jews at the Great Lawn of Central Park in Manhattan on Saturday afternoons is in many ways like a non-virtual Facebook, except without alerts of your friends in common. Like social networking sites, it is ideal for maintaining connections with those you don't see often.
Other people have written about the trend, but I want to highlight two specific qualities of it. They've written that lots of Jews, mostly in their 20s and 30s, can be found there schmoozing during the warmer months. They congregate because many activities, like going shopping or using technology, are restricted on Shabbat for religious Jews but hanging out is allowed. Additionally, since people know that others will be at the centrally located Great Lawn, it becomes the de facto destination for seeing fellow young Jews on Shabbat, even those who do not hold by Shabbat restrictions. What I want to highlight about this phenomenon is its ease for building connections and how restrictions can facilitate communal connections.
The phenomenon allows for maintaining contacts. The setting is highly-conducive to two- or 10-minute conversations -- ask the other person how he is doing, for updates on what was in flux last time you spoke and offer news on mutual acquaintances. When you run out of topics, you can talk about the other people around, stare at the softball players, or keep walking if no one else you know has come by for you to talk to. Conveniently, people don't expect a deep conversation so walking away after talking for only a minute is not considered rude, which makes it easy to walk up to someone you don't know well.
Like Facebook, however, you need connections to beget more connections. As someone currently with few Upper West Side connections, a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the Great Lawn found me doggedly following my lunch buddies until I saw a friend of a high school friend whom I've met a few times. Suddenly by finding someone I know just well enough to chitchat with, I was able to join the mélange of socializing. As happens with networking, the 15-minute interaction that ensued gained me an invitation for lunch the following week, where I met eight other people. Two weeks later while walking in the park, I ran into a girl whom I had met at lunch. She introduced me to her friend and we chatted for a couple minutes ... and my network expands.
Expanding networks has become essential. My generation is the social media generation, and not just because it grew as we did. We were taught the American Dream -- work hard and you will reap rewards -- only to find out post-college that who you know is often more important than what you know, especially in this economy. To get ahead, many people have replaced hard work with hard networking, so meeting a lot of people and making dozens of loose connections to extend your network is a necessity.
The Great Lawn is great for that. Most people run in limited social circles -- they see the same people at work, go out with the same friends, are invited to events with the same people and, even when they decide to branch out, are still limited to their friends' friends, who often are only in tangential circles. The Great Lawn, however, attracts over a hundred young Jews each summer Shabbat afternoon from a wide variety of social circles.
Even synagogues with open membership policies aren't as wide-ranging. They divide down religious and social lines; the Great Lawn welcomes all. Wandering with friends on a recent Shabbat afternoon, we stopped to talk with a Orthodox couple my friend knows from Chabad, another friend's students from a Conservative Day School, a colleague's Jewish a cappella group-mate, someone from a friend's college Hillel, people from my public high school, and a musician my friend knew from a gig. It was quite a varied collection of people!
In recent years, networking has evolved into isolated rooms, sitting at computers. The phenomenon of Shabbat afternoons at the Great Lawn is an example of modern social networking; social in that it is face-to-face, outside enjoying great weather. It is a reminder that networking doesn't have to occur on online platforms, you just need to find places where people congregate. The Great Lawn, like social networking sites, brings you into contact with hundreds of people. While it doesn't alert you of your friends in common nor tell you more than enough about the other person through their posted profile, meeting someone in person provides something that connecting online might take months to accomplish -- a real human connection. The human connection, in addition to letting you see past a façade that someone may choose to post, builds trust and, as the term suggests, real connection.
On Shabbat, for religious people, all the modern technology we can't live without during the week is forbidden. As a social generation, we refuse to go an entire day without our social networking, and thus establish Shabbat-acceptable alternatives. And the alternative is in many ways superior to what it replaces.
This whole phenomenon, of course, is possible because of the intersection of an available convenient public space, a desire for social gathering, the realization of mass attendance, and the communal mandated downtime of Shabbat restrictions. The openness of the space makes it easy to make new contacts and interact with even loose connections, while the restrictions of Shabbat force people away from their computers to facilitate stronger human connections.