During my years in rabbinical school,… Oh, wait, I have to check something on Facebook for a second… Do you mind waiting?... Okay, I’m back. So, where was I? Right – during rabbinical school, a frequent topic in our Professional Development classes was how to keep a healthy boundary between the personal and the professional (and, clearly I’m on the edge).
We often discussed the challenges of getting phone calls at home that were not quite of the “emergency” nature, and how to politely ask the congregant to call us in the office on Monday morning.
Even in the days of my seminary training, which started a mere twelve years ago, we barely touched the topic of how to handle cell-phone calls (they were still too new) that may arrive at all hours. With all the discussion about running into congregants at the supermarket, or out to dinner, or at the gym, we could never have anticipated the role of social media networks like Facebook in our rabbinates, and the unique possibilities for congregant communication that they would eventually offer.
I began a personal blog in February of 2007, and I purposely kept it pretty private. I did not include my full name, nor any identifying information. When I spoke about my congregation or my professional experiences, I didn’t mention the name of the synagogue or its exact location. Facebook was starting to really explode around that time, and I felt a real quandary: given my concern about my blog, would I “friend” my congregants? And what about my students and youth group members? Should I have two separate accounts – one for Marci Bellows and one for Rabbi Bellows - as some of my colleagues did? Or should I “put it all out there” and celebrate the opportunity to be a real person (albeit always appropriate for all audiences) who also happens to be a rabbi?
In discussions with a number of colleagues who were also active in social media (blogs, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare), we debated this issue often. For years, I was extremely careful about whom I “friended” on Facebook, and I diligently kept track of a number of security and privacy settings.
On the other hand, many of my colleagues accepted all friend requests and were very active online. They viewed their Facebook friendships and their Twitter accounts as additional ways to reach out to their congregants, and even to the Jewish people at large. Over time, I slowly came to see the value in thinking this way, and I eased up many of my privacy settings that I had set up for congregants.
When I started at my current pulpit in the summer of 2009, I decided that I was going to allow my community to be my “friend” on Facebook, and therefore allow them to see my various interests, activities, and even old family photos. My colleagues had convinced me of how meaningful this could be – just as my congregants trusted me to be a part of their lives in their most joyous, as well as the most vulnerable moments, I could also trust them to get to know me. Yes, they sometimes would have to see what my hair looked like in middle school (poodle perm, big bangs…), but that’s part of building a congregational family.
As more and more of my congregants (of ALL ages) have joined Facebook, it has become an integral method of communication about upcoming events, programs, and social advocacy awareness. Even more importantly, it has presented numerous opportunities for us to perform mitzvot: we learn much more quickly when someone is ill, when there has been a significant accomplishment in someone’s life, when someone has experienced a loss, or even when someone is just having a bad day. As a community, we can reach out and offer a virtual shoulder to cry on, make a phone call to check in, or pay a real-life visit to a friend.
Likewise, I have been delightfully surprised by how many of my teenagers reach out to me online – I imagine that it might be intimidating to come to “The Rabbi’s Study” sometimes, but it can be so much easier to write to me for help. We can alternate between writing about our favorite moments of this week’s Glee episode, to discussing a conflict they had earlier with a friend. I treasure each and every encounter that takes place online, and I feel so moved that the youth of my congregation feel comfortable contacting me in this way. Thanks to social media, I am able to be that much more available and accessible for them.
I wonder if Martin Buber would ever have guessed that we could find something close to “I-Thou” moments – real, authentic encounters with another human being – through the computer. Hopefully, we can all appreciate the mitzvah opportunities that Facebook, and networks like it, presents to us. Ultimately, I am not interested in being an inaccessible, fearsome rabbi up there, far away, on the bimah. And, if Facebook allows me to be that much closer to the rabbi I want to be, then I am very grateful for it.
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as rabbi of Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. A graduate of Brandeis University, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004