When Akiva Weisinger first invited me to join his newly-minted Facebook group–the marvelously named “God Save Us From Your Opinion: A Place For Serious Discussion of Judaism”–back in August of 2014, I was definitely skeptical.
The group, now commonly abbreviated as GSUFYO, professed to be a serious forum for conversations about Judaism, and I remember messaging Weisinger to voice my doubts. I suspected that the group would be like most on Facebook, with a couple of active core members dominating the conversation, while everyone else faded awkwardly into the woodwork.
Weisinger, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, promised this group would be different. So I cautiously agreed to give it a shot.
These days, barely a year after its inception, GSUFYO has swollen to a robust 2,940 members, and shows no signs of slowing down. Weisinger acknowledges that the group has taken on a life of its own: “It’s not my group. I just founded it, and try to facilitate it.” At any time, you can probably find at least half a dozen threads with active conversations. Threads reach 100 comments on almost a daily basis. There is even a hashtag (#slowthread) that is used to limit how quickly people can reply, in order to keep conversations more focused, and give latecomers a better chance to catch up. Plenty of threads have no such restrictions, however, and comments pile up fast enough to make your phone implode if you leave notifications on.
What, then, is the secret to GSUFYO’s popularity? Why is this Facebook group different from all other Facebook groups?
In my estimation, there are two primary reasons. First, there is the astonishing diversity of its member base. People from all over the world are part of GSUFYO, from all walks of Jewish life, and even some who are not Jewish at all, but enjoy Jewish culture for one reason or another. There are users of all ages, backgrounds, traditions, races, worldviews, sexual orientations, and levels of education. And many of these people are willing to talk about their experiences in profoundly personal ways. “People have shared stories about their controversial religious practices, conversions, sexual orientation, marriages, and miscarriages,” said Esther Aiello, who, at the ripe old age of 18, is the youngest of the group’s moderating team.
Of course, all the diversity in the world wouldn’t prevent the Facebook collective from descending into chaos if it weren’t for the painstaking moderation provided by Weisinger and his crack team of compatriots. A huge effort is made to ensure that civility governs the conversation, rather than the sarcasm and vitriol that are seemingly inescapable in most online forums. The group’s cover photo is the classic Bart Simpson meme where he’s writing the same line over and over on a chalkboard, with the line modified to read “Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah” (“Common decency precedes Torah,” a popular rabbinic saying). Hate speech of any kind–whether sexist, homophobic, anti-atheist, or anti-religious–is a bannable offense, but only after offenders are warned to tone down their rhetoric, other moderators are consulted, a vote is taken, and short-term bans prove insufficient.
As a result of such careful curation, the GSUFYO community has become a place where people can come together and discuss sensitive Jewishly-inflected topics in a safe space. It’s also respectable enough that true experts are often members and will participate in the discussions. “The other day,” recounted Weisinger, “someone asked a question about Rav Kook [the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine] and Yehudah Mirsky and Bezalel Naor, two of the foremost experts on Rav Kook, got tagged in and answered. I didn’t envision that [back when I started the group].”
And despite the group’s title, it’s not all serious, intellectual discussion all the time. One of the most popular threads, with over 300 comments, was in response to the question: “Who is your biblical crush?” (Mine is Jonathan, son of King Saul. Swoon.) Another one asked people to comment with their favorite Jewish jokes. Still other threads have encouraged members to get to know each other, by asking them to introduce themselves or comment with their specialized areas of expertise, which ranged from engineering to neurology to Jewish history to Harry Potter (that last one was mine).
What’s next for this little group? Is it the future of Jews talking Judaism? No one knows. Weisinger just hopes that it will continue to keep people listening to each other and hearing different viewpoints. For instance: “Someone asked a question about transsexuality in halacha,” he told me, “and people were quoting authorities working through the complexities of the issue, when one guy said something like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this was such a complex issue. I just assumed it was assur [forbidden]. This has been eye opening.’”