Cu @ temple: Social media transforming the way synagogues, members connect

Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati puts its prayers and blessings on YouTube so members can learn the melodies before a High Holy Day or Shabbat service.

By using Google documents, Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley has made it simple for members to sign up online at their convenience to read Torah, teach a Shabbat class or host other members at their home for Shabbat.

Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco updates its members about the status of its eruv — an enclosure that enables Jews to carry items on Shabbat — in a most contemporary way: via Twitter.

Within the past year, Bay Area synagogues, religious schools and other Jewish groups have been signing on to Facebook, blogs, Twitter and other social media, eager to learn how new technology can strengthen their organizations and improve their outreach.

Faith-based organizations have been “the last to the social media party,” said experts at the Nonprofit Technology Network, a membership organization of nonprofit tech professionals.

But lately, faith-based organizations have been jumping in with enthusiasm — even the pope has a Facebook page that boasts nearly 80,000 fans.

“Technology allows us to connect more deeply to each other,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, which uses Facebook, Twitter, Google Calendar and Ning to better connect its members.

Ning is a Palo Alto–based Web site that allows people to join and create their own social networks — a personal Facebook of sorts.

Sixty-five Netivot Shalom members have signed up for the synagogue’s Ning site, where they can view other members’ profiles, watch videos posted by the rabbi and read blog posts about world and community news.

The synagogue also uses Google Calendar to embed a monthly calendar into the site. It lists minyan times, b’nai mitzvah, fundraisers, funerals, classes, special events and even dates the rabbi is out of town.

“So many people lose themselves in the virtual world … but we forget that the reason it exists in the first place is to get us to connect in the real world,” Creditor said. “Technology can be a very appealing invitation for a real experience.”

That’s been the case for Margee Churchon, a program associate at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. She first participated in a young adult service at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco after hearing about it through a tweet on Twitter. She follows several Jewish Bay Area organizations on the site to find out about community events and Shabbat candlelighting times.

Churchon has often “gone to events as a result of what I’ve seen on Twitter,” she said.

For Gabby Volodarsky, program director at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Internet technology has helped her rally support quickly for someone in need.

For instance, someone posted a note on the temple’s year-old Facebook page saying that she was “praying for the speedy recovery” of two new members. Volodarsky wrote back immediately and found out that the couple, who didn’t know many people in the congregation yet, had been in a car accident.

“Within an hour they got calls from all our clergy and me,” Volodarsky said. “I asked what our Caring Community could bring them. Because I saw that posting, I was able to reach out and make them feel cared about. Now they’re among our most active members.”

Sometimes these new media changes happen behind the scenes. Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel created a wiki page on, a San Mateo–based online workspace for businesses and nonprofits. The site allows any member of any of the synagogue’s committees to post notes from meetings and phone conversations.

It’s a “systemic change” from the countless phone calls, e-mails and meetings it once required to plan a synagogue program, said Beth Israel’s Rabbi Yonatan Cohen.

“We drastically expanded our Shabbat programming in 2007, but after a year, we were all burnt out,” Cohen said. “The question was: We have something great, now how do we make it sustainable?”

The answer: the Web. The online organizational tools provided by PBWorks are complemented by the synagogue’s use of Google Docs and Google Calendar, which help the entire community get involved and network with one another.

“The Internet is enabling the congregation to function,” Cohen said.

That sentiment is echoed by Irwin Keller, spiritual leader at Ner Shalom in Cotati. The YouTube videos he began making last year for the High Holy Days have since expanded to include daily blessings, Shabbat prayers and niguns [melodies] composed by congregants.

“We created it for our local use, but because of the boundarylessness of the Internet, people have watched our videos all over world and posted comments in all languages,” Keller said. “That’s not our mission, but it is lovely to have it out in the world where people can use it.”

Yet the changes can be intimidating to leaders who are used to the old organizational models. Cohen, for instance, was scared by the idea of implementing Internet tools that he didn’t know how to use. But he quickly became comfortable with them, and once he saw how much they helped his congregation, he was fully on board.

“Social media changes the way people look at their faith-based institutions,” said Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps Jewish organizations get over their trepidation and understand new media’s potential. “Organizations don’t have a monopoly on organizing anymore. People can talk to each other directly.”

When synagogues and religious schools first turn to new media, Colton said, they tend to use them to perform typical tasks more efficiently. They send event invitations by e-mail instead of snail mail, saving time and the expense of postage stamps, or create a Web site that clergy and staff use as an online bulletin board. But it’s still one-way, top-down communication, Colton noted.

By delving deeper, she said, Jewish clergy, educators and others discover that these media tools demand a different way of talking and listening, encouraging active participation and grassroots involvement.

In February, Temple Beth Torah in Fremont will launch its first “snapcast,” a new platform developed by G-Snap, a Web company led by a synagogue member.

The snapcast will allow the synagogue to broadcast a live video feed of its annual Purim Spiel, one of the synagogue’s most beloved events, while viewers in their family rooms and offices — or even on a BART train, watching on their cell phones — can chat with one another, as well as the audience.

“We’ll be creating a virtual community between those who are there and those who are not there,” said Richard Garcia, a synagogue member and technology consultant. “The snapcast will allow those who can’t make it a chance to participate. But at the end of the day, like any other event, it’s best when you’re there live.”

Social media enables congregants to talk to each other as well as to clergy or staff. Rabbi Yossi Marcus of North Peninsula Chabad posts philosophical notes about Jewish values, ritual and holidays on his Facebook wall, and has had people emboldened by a Facebook connection approach him on Shabbat.

“I feel like I’m coming up with new ideas all the time with how to use it,” Marcus said. “Of course, Facebook itself is evolving and coming up with new things all the time.”

While the Internet hasn’t changed how Marcus plans events or programs, it has changed the way he markets events, and also how he teaches.

“It used to be that I could only sermonize to people once a year on Yom Kippur, but now I can do it daily or even hourly,” he said.

But Marcus isn’t the first Chabad rabbi to embrace new media. He recalls a story about the Lubavitcher rebbe from the 1940s: Chabad had just come to North America, and one of the first things the organization did was publish a monthly magazine for children.

The rebbe was the editor in chief. He instructed all of the writers and illustrators that he wanted the magazine to look as appealing as a Dick Tracy comic strip.

“Here, you have a Chassidic rabbi steeped in mysticism and piety, but when it came to teaching Judaism, he knew that it had to be as engaging and as enticing as Dick Tracy,” Marcus said. “Even then the rebbe was a proponent of using the newest media. He saw that they could be used for a holy purpose. And that’s absolutely still true today.”