Synagogues and New Technology
10/14/2010 - 15:51
Rabbi Jason Miller

Yoram Samets, of Jvillage Network in Burlington, Vermont, wrote an interesting essay for the eJewishPhilanthropy blog titled "Purposeful and Passionate: Synagogues in the Age of Facebook."

Ultimately, I think he was being too delicate with synagogues by letting them know that it's okay to move slowly in adapting to new technology. He writes that "synagogues lagging behind cultural change is nothing new. In fact, there are those who would say synagogues should operate from a thoughtful, process-driven perspective and adopt change slowly. In essence, I would agree with that. The challenge is all in the balance."

I agree that synagogues need to maintain balance and be sure of themselves as they transition to new technology (social media, Web 2.0, online learning, etc.), but I'm for pushing them to move quicker. They're very good at "slow." The successful results will come when the synagogues pick up the pace.

Whenever I talk to synagogue leaders and rabbis about the adoption of new technologies, I encourage them to "just do it," rather than waiting to go through the normal (read: slow) process within the institution. By the time a committee is formulated and it meets six times to decide if the synagogue should have a blog, the youth group should have an official Facebook presence, and the rabbi should be tweeting, we'll already be on to the next "Big Thing." Four years ago, I led a Webinar for Darim Online to teach rabbis how to start blogging. Some of them said they would need to get permission from the board first. Rather than going through the red tape, I encouraged these rabbis to just start a blog and post some of their thoughts regarding the weekly Torah portion. Some of those rabbis have thanked me in the ensuing years for pushing them to open their "Torah" up to a borderless audience on the Web. They soon realized that in the 21st century, their wisdom shouldn't only be disseminated to their synagogue membership and no further.

There are so many opportunities for synagogues to capture through social media. If rabbis wait for young people to come in the front door, they'll be waiting a long time. Networking is outreach and outreach is networking. I've been asked to officiate at the wedding of a young couple while chatting on Facebook late at night with the groom, a former high school student of mine. Synagogues should be jumping at the opportunities for innovative approaches to community building, scholarship, and engagement. I think Phillip Brodsky's novel idea of a Social Sermon through the use of social media is a great concept that synagogues should adopt. Synagogues need to be pushed, not coddled, into the Age of Facebook.

Back to the Samets article. He writes, "Synagogues have the same opportunity of using technology to build a bridge between the synagogue experience and today’s culture. Technology needs to be an outward-looking tool for greater connectedness for the community. While there are a number of creative synagogues doing remarkable outreach and engaging more members, too few synagogues have been able to emulate their example and create an operational model that will lead them and their communities to a stronger future... Technology is only a tool. And when used to its maximum benefit, it is a tool that enhances our purpose, our mission, and our movement."

In these fast-moving technology-driven times, Samets comes up with four P's that synagogues must look to in order to reclaim our Jewish movement in today's American culture: "Purpose, Passion, People, Projects – the rest is all detail... And through the process you will find out the power of the potential of connectedness in the community, in the synagogue and online."

Lisa Colton, of Darim, blogging at her organization's JewPoint0, writes about the Jewish New Media Fund. Essentially, three of the nation’s largest Jewish foundations – the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – announced recently that their newly created endeavor, the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, will help energize the community to focus on the need for new media innovations, and to help bring them to life. I hope synagogues take note (and full advantage) of this great opportunity.

Technology isn't going to slow down for anyone... not even synagogues!

Comments

Jason - Thanks for putting your foot on the gas. And for sharing The Social Sermon idea. I think one challenge is that congregations can't figure out how these tools are going to help them do anything better. It's just hard to change, so why change? The key is to show how it will help congregations be better, do more, do things more efficiently, make real impact. When enough can really answer that question, we will be able to articulate the opportunity cost of moving slowly. (Charles, I love those questions! Want to blog about it on JewPoint0?)
Great points, we started our page two years ago and the anyalytics of the page views are twice as much as the static website. Members engage in the the social media site all the time. Take a look. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/shomreitorahsynagogue
No administrator or rabbi will ever get fired, or demoted, for the crime of moving slowly on communications. But the question has to be asked: what is the opportunity cost of moving slowly? And who shall we hold responsible for imposing it?

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