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Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, videotapes his thoughts on the Torah portion and uploads it to his Facebook page every Wednesday. When members show up for Shabbat morning discussions, they are prepared for a lively give-and-take.
Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada, posts live webcasts of bar and batmitzvah services for anyone who cannot attend in person.
Over the past 12 months, North American synagogues and religious schools have leapt on to the social media bandwagon, eager to learn how Facebook, blogs and Twitter can strengthen their outreach.
Faith-based organisations have been “the last to the social media party”, say experts at the Nonprofit Technology Network. Now they are jumping in with enthusiasm — even the Pope has 80,000 Facebook fans.
But even as rabbis and other Jewish leaders discover the transformative power of these new tools, they also see it can be a little scary for those used to old organisational models. “Generation X” and “millenials” — people under the age of 35 — “have a completely different sense of privacy than we do”, warned Rabbi Blake. “If you’re not ready for that, don’t use Facebook.”
Rabbi Blake was speaking at one of several social media workshops run by the Union for Reform Judaism last month.
The URJ is trying to help its congregations become more media-savvy, offering tips on creating congregational blogs and other resources.
“Organisations don’t have a monopoly on organising any more,” said Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, a Virginia-based non-profit group that runs social media boot camps for synagogues. “People can talk to each other directly.”
When synagogues and religious schools first turn to new media, Ms Colton said, they use it for the same kind of top-down communication they already know, emailing invitations instead of sticking stamps on envelopes and using websites as online bulletin boards.
Only in the past year have they begun to explore the full potential of social media to inspire more active participation.
“Even at the simplest level, social media tools allow people to come together around a shared idea and shared goals, in a decentralised way,” Ms Colton said.
Young people in particular will share information online that they will not share face-to-face. That’s what Rabbi Blake found when dozens of his religious school graduates “friended” him on Facebook when they went to university. Now he is an ongoing presence in their lives.
“I’m not there to spy on them, but I know more about what they’re doing Friday night than their parents,” he
said, adding that college students “don’t use email any more”.
When Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC wanted to promote its Chanuccah cooking contest, staff used Twitter.
“People were tweeting back and forth,” said Meredith Jacobs, director of family programming. “They could see who else is going and get the word out fast.”
“Most people I know have a Facebook page, and are on it all the time,” said Gabby Volodarsky, programme director at Temple Sinai in Oakland, California.
Temple Sinai created its Facebook page a year ago and now has more than 200 fans, some of whom are not even members of the congregation.