In his bestselling book, the Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell sought to explain how social epidemics spread. According to Gladwell, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.”
Gladwell suggests that every social epidemic needs three types of people: (i) connectors, who know just about everyone; (ii) mavens, who learn about and expose others to new types of information; and (iii) salesmen, who are mesmerizing in personality and are persuasive in nature.
Theology and faith aside, religious movements are a type of social epidemic. I doubt that anyone has undertaken an analysis of the Karaite Jewish world to determine whether at present any of these three types of people exist within our communities, but the internet has certainly made the spread of religious, social epidemics easier.
Some might say that the modern Karaite rebirth has been made possible by the Internet. I myself received most of my Karaite Jewish education in a Yahoo Group in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At that time, the main source for Karaite learning was the Karaite Korner and its founder was actively involved in that Yahoo Group.
So, here is what the Internet tells us about the state of the Karaite movement:
As of the time of writing, Facebook currently has several groups overtly dedicated to Karaite thought and at least one group dedicated to biblical principles to which Karaites adhere. For example, there is a group simply called Karaites (495 members) and another named European Karaite Judaism (73 members). There are at least two groups focusing on Karaism in North America: American Karaite Judaism (233 members) and North American Association of Qaraim (78 members). And finally there is a group named Biblical Calendar Observations (59 members), which is a resource for those who (like observant Karaites) “wish to follow the biblical calendar and begin the month and year according to [New Moon and Aviv] observations in the land of Israel.” (We’ve previously published a Karaite Fact Card on the New Moon, and I plan to do one on the Aviv in the coming months.)
Today, there is a Yahoo Group called Tanakh Biblical Judaism and Related Topics (146 members). There is also the Karaite Korner News Group (9142 members), which receives updates from the Karaite Korner.
Karaite Jewish University:
Finally, this year the Karaite Jewish University, an online educational institution, expects to graduate its fourth class of students, with a conversion for some graduates scheduled to occur later this year in California. Just five-and-a-half years ago, in 2007, Karaites welcomed our first known converts in over 500 years. It was reported widely throughout the Jewish world.
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With all this positivity, some perspective is needed. First, the number of members in online groups greatly overstate where we are today. Not everyone in these groups considers himself or herself to be a Karaite. Many are not even Jewish. And some consider themselves Karaites, but their actual observance (to say nothing of their belief system) is inconsistent with Karaism. There is, further, significant overlap in the membership of these groups.
Second, there still is only one Karaite Jewish synagogue in the United States. One is the loneliest number. If Karaite Judaism is to spread, it needs to establish more synagogues – or at the very least open up learning centers throughout the world. Of course, congregations are not created out of thin air or out of online groups. Congregations are created when people come together (in person) to pray and study and sing and eat and celebrate life cycle events.
Perhaps, we can all take some comfort in a program sponsored by the Karaite community in Israel. Those Karaites have launched an intensive course for individuals wishing to lead Karaite synagogues or otherwise receive a strong foundation in Karaite Judaism. The course currently has 12 students, five of whom hope to receive the Karaite equivalent of semikha.
Maybe somewhere among these 12 students or somewhere on the web is a connector, a maven and a salesman.