“It’s like Uber, but for God.”
That’s how Tablet magazine’s Liel Leibovitz described Tablet’s new initiative called “The Tent.” This is a digital space for anyone to register to build a relationship with a clergy member of their own religion or other tradition, ask questions, listen to thought-provoking talks and workshops and to enter into a “tent” creed, if he so chooses.
It’s a bit of a strange mission for a Jewish online magazine, decidedly outside the journalistic sphere. Why do Leibovitz and other Tablet staff devote their precious time and resources to working as spiritual matchmakers for hundreds of strangers?
Leibovitz told me: “Working in this space, covering religion as journalists, not only our own religious tradition, but also interacting and reporting on others, we noticed this curious dichotomy: on the one hand , more and more people seem desperate for spiritual and emotional needs. responses to real and eternal human needs and desires; that’s why we’re seeing such an increase from self-help books to meditation apps. On the other hand, we see fewer and fewer people looking for answers in traditional spaces like churches, synagogues and mosques.
“There’s this big chasm because the needs are eternal, but for a whole host of reasons it’s a lot more complicated to hear the traditional answers or the traditional sources.”
This, he said, is the rare problem that technology could solve head-on.
Tablet is running the site for a limited time, between March 18 and April 16, due to the fortuitous overlap of four major American religious holidays: the Hindu holiday of Holi, followed by Ramadan, Passover and Easter.
The timing is also fortuitous because the faith of so many Americans has been significantly challenged during the pandemic.
Writing for the City Journal in late December, Steven Malanga compared how, while other times of crisis had bolstered Americans’ faith, the COVID-19 era had the opposite effect. Why? Malanga explained: “The absence for long periods of in-person religious observation, propelled in part by government closures of churches by politicians who viewed them as ‘non-essential’ institutions – unlike pharmacies, supermarkets and even to liquor stores in many places.The substitute for church attendance has become “Zoom” Masses and other virtual celebrations.
He continued: “Rather than comfort, religious observance has sometimes become a reminder of the gravity of the times. Even after the shutdowns ended, many religious leaders enforced rules on social distancing, mask use and attendance limits that eroded the experience, disillusioning worshipers.
Discussing The Tent, Leibovitz acknowledged, “The ideal remains in-person interaction in the real world. There is no substitute for being with other people, and there never will be. He went on to explain that for those who for some reason have given up on religious observance or have never been religious at all, this is where they can start.
Liebovitz and the team running The Tent believe the need to be connected with faith is acute. He said to me, “So many people feel so much stress, fear, anxiety, and they stand on their side of the river, and they look across the river, and it looks really green. and green and beautiful, because it gives them something like tradition, a connection to something their family has been doing for generations, community.
“All of these values that they increasingly understand are not only beautiful, but also essential to human survival.”
In The New York Times, of all places, the fact that religion is essential was acknowledged last week. Dr. Ilana Horwitz wrote about recent findings from a study she conducted on more than 3,000 teenagers over a decade. His finds?
American men are dropping out of college in alarming numbers. A slew of articles over the past year portray a generation of men who feel lost, detached and bereft of male role models. This sense of hopelessness is particularly acute among working-class men, less than one in five of whom complete college.
Yet one group defies the odds: boys from working-class families who grow up religious.
Why were these religious boys doing better? Horwitz suggests that religious faith combats the overwhelming feelings of hopelessness that tormented the non-religious teenagers in his survey.
Back to Liebovitz’s tent analogy: how can this platform be a force for social good? Research like that conducted by Horwitz explains the life-altering benefits of faith in academic, emotional, and social life. So how can a person unconnected to the faith or a religious leader reap the benefits of a faithful life? It’s not as simple as walking into a place of worship and asking to speak to the director in 2022.
Enter the tent.
“How about introducing you to this friendly person who will answer your questions, at your pace,” Liebovitz said. “It’s literally Uber, but for God. The destination is up to you.
What is the end goal, what constitutes success when this project ends in mid-April?
Liebovitz paraphrased a famous Talmudic precept: “Even he who saves a soul saves the whole world.”
He continued, “If even one person felt bewildered and confused and was able, through the connections they made on this platform, to gain a sense of clarity, purpose and meaning and move on with their own trip, whatever that might mean to her, so it was a huge success.
“And if we can do that for more than a couple of people, and we can help those people find not only bona fide leaders, but each other and form real communities (that are) really focused and centered on real values and traditions, and in doing so, amplifying the voices of our most intelligent and thoughtful believers, then I think we would have done a very beautiful thing.
Bethany Mandel is a staff writer for the Deseret News and editor of the “Heroes of Liberty” children’s book series.