The way we communicate our sacred tradition has changed radically since the days of the oral tradition, quills and parchment, and the invention of the printing press. Five rabbis and three lay leaders share their perspectives on how the latest technologies are changing Jewish life in our synagogues and homes.
What are you doing technologically within the Reform Movement that you are most excited about?
Rabbi Amy Perlin, Temple B’nai Shalom, Fairfax Station, VA: We’ve been podcasting all of our services for three years. It’s been fantastic for our members, especially the elderly, people with chronic illness, and those serving in the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on foreign service assignments. People take services on their vacations and on business trips. Our teens and college students download to listen when they are away—and some of our teens listen to the podcasts even when they’re not away. We also have listeners around the globe, some of whom have visited our congregation. One man visited from Australia.
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, Temple Am Shalom, Glencoe, IL: I have been blogging for two years now. Through my “main” blog, a mixture of personal stories and Jewish content, I’ve connected with my own congregants—my initial goal—but also people all over the world, giving them the opportunity to see that we can live fully Jewish and fully American lives, that Judaism doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.” When I post about building my sukkah or baking hamantashen with my kids, it shows how rich, varied, and possible our tradition is. And when I share my personal dilemmas, say about celebrating Halloween, the questioning gets people thinking about things they otherwise wouldn’t consider.
Michael Fischer, Temple Sinai, Saratoga Springs, NY: We post our monthly bulletin online one week prior to mailings (hard copies are mailed only on request), thereby providing timely information at less expense (a $2,000/year savings), and with less volunteer effort (in collating and mailing). A blog on the status of our temple’s expansion program has addressed member complaints about inadequate communications. And our rabbis’ blogs facilitated their communication with us during their sabbaticals. (www.templesinai-saratogasprings.org/)
Rabbi Dan Cohen, Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, South Orange, NJ: First, we’re moving rapidly toward being “paperless.” Using the same computers and handheld devices, our clergy staff communicates via applications such as Evernote, which maintains pastoral records, sharing and disseminating information much more quickly.
Second, we’ve just launched a website which not only imparts information but is an active, dynamic educational resource. For example, until 2008 every bar and bat mitzvah student received a thick packet of material containing his/her prayer book, Torah portion, a large selection of commentaries on the portion, and a CD of the prayers. This year’s b’nai mitzvah students receive only a prayer book; all the other materials are built into our temple website. Today’s 12- and 13-year-olds are downloading to their iPods and reading the resource material on the Web—which not only saves temple and environmental resources, but also speaks their language.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, Temple Judea, Tarzana, CA: Our congregation uses two new systems which help us stay informed about and connected to our members. The first, a website that’s called MitzvahTools, helps us track the progress of every b’nai mitzvah student, and provides a place to keep notes, schedule appointments, and share information, including downloaded materials. Our various tutors can log in from anywhere to get and keep notes on each student. The families love it because the online resource center has all the tutoring materials, so they can study from anywhere. Some students have even recorded YouTube videos of themselves chanting their Torah portions and sent them to their tutors for review.
Our other system, the email-based LifeCycle Tools, notifies our lay committees and clergy in the event of simcha, illness, or death. Staff members create a LifeCycle Notice, and as information becomes available, a detailed email is sent to all people who need to know it. The clergy get the news on their Blackberrys or laptops and contact and visit the family right away. The information can be easily updated and sent back out to those tracking the situation. And the private notes the clergy keep—a complete history of each family and its lifecycle events—are stored securely on our server.
On our website, every article has a comments section so users can respond to posted sermons or events. We video and podcast our sermons and lectures through YouTube and iTunes, and live broadcast all of our services with uStream.tv. All these free services require minimal investments of hardware and time.
Emily Grotta, former Director of Marketing and Communications, Union for Reform Judaism, New York, NY: Through technology the Union is now connecting Reform congregations and their members to Judaism and to one another. Today some 50,000 people participate on our email distribution, listservs, and discussion groups on adult learning, worship, and many other topics. The Weekly Briefing brings news of the Reform Movement and the greater Jewish world to the computer screens of 36,000 people every Friday. Through the new Reform blog, Jews are engaging in dialogue on topics of the day. And our Union presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Twitter allows us to connect with thousands of lay and professional leaders, sharing updates and creating a sense of community.
Scott Hertz, Manager of Web and Technology, URJ Youth Programs, New York, NY: Through photos, videos, podcasts, participants’ blogs, even Twitter, youth groups and staffers are chronicling their URJ camp and travel adventures—often from their cell phones (in up to 140 characters).
The most exciting impact we’re seeing now is with our alumni. On our websites, alumni are creating profile histories, searching for friends, telling tales, and sharing simchas. Facebook is an amazing site—thousands of URJ youth event photos have been scanned and carefully “tagged” with, for example, the name of every person who raided the kitchen in 1984.
Rabbi Scott Sperling, former URJ Communications Technology Consultant, Washington D.C.: Through conference calls, video conferencing, and online meetings, many people are coming together to share ideas in virtual space from wherever we find ourselves—six blocks or six thousand miles from the synagogue building. What is today a series of small but bold efforts to link congregations to their congregants and others will, over time, become a new paradigm of Jewish relationships that will support, enrich, and enhance our institutions and our lives.
Have you encountered any ethical issues?
Rabbi Amy Perlin: We’ve had very few ethical breaches because we adhere to a strict policy: all information in our online directory and newsletter as well as web links are consistent with our congregational values statement. Also, permission must be received in advance of posting any photos with children. The biggest transgression has been members using email addresses for commercial purposes, which is strictly prohibited. In such cases the president contacts the member directly and asks him or her not to solicit other members.
Michael Fischer: We resolved the concern about posting images of children by adopting a permission form included as part of each year’s school registration application. Schoolteachers, the temple bulletin staff, the webmaster (me), all maintain a list of children whose photos are not to be posted.
Rabbi Dan Cohen: We wanted to share images of temple life on our new website, but at the same time we needed to respect privacy concerns, so we created two web areas: a general “communal” section and a password-protected “members only” section.
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer: As we enter into this realm, there will always be a tricky minefield of privacy issues. For instance, if we start to link our congregants through Facebook and a member posts something inappropriate on a personal profile page, what will be the impact on the rest of the congregation? What does it say about the leadership?
Rabbi Scott Sperling: One issue, which poses a serious challenge to the social fabric of congregational life, is the increasing number of individuals who feel empowered and/or entitled to use a temple email list to communicate their disagreement with a synagogue board or staff member’s decision, or to solicit participation in an unrelated event. Generally, pleas for civility and respect have been ignored.
Social networking also has a dark side. Some people have posted inappropriate pictures of themselves and had those images come back to haunt them with rejected college or job applications. We’ve just started learning how to teach both the etiquette and the ethics of these new technologies.
Scott Hertz: Starting in 2006, with online sites such as MySpace, Facebook, LiveJournal, Xanga, YouTube, Google Video, and more, NFTY’s North American leaders found themselves overwhelmed by the apparent dichotomy between how teens were choosing to share information about themselves and about NFTY as an organization in the same online space. That June, NFTY’s General Board, consisting of 140 teens from across North America, considered, debated, created, and ultimately overwhelmingly passed OurSpace: Recommendation Regarding Maintaining NFTY's Sanctity in Online Spaces, and a partner program has been implemented by NFTY’s nineteen regions. Subsequently the twelve URJ camps conducted specialized training for their staffs, resulting in a drastic reduction in the bullying, harassing, or derogatory statements posted in online spaces.
Emily Grotta: Our policy has always been: No advertising on the Union’s website. We want our web visitors to recognize immediately that our site is different—a noncommercial site with a religious purpose.
We encourage congregations to do the same and avoid potential pitfalls—like the congregation that signed a contract with a company to provide monthly rotating advertisements. In December a large ad asking, “Have you accepted Jesus into your life?” appeared on the congregation’s home page. It took almost a month for the congregation to have it taken down.
To protect members’ privacy we recommend that congregations “cleanse” their online publications of private emails and home addresses, and visit our “tech” site, www.urj.org/tech.
What does it mean for the “People of the Book” to have technology introduced into our communications?
Rabbi Scott Sperling: Fortunately, this is not a new question. We have always been early adopters of any means of communication that allowed greater numbers of human beings to learn from and share opinions with one another. One can imagine a similar debate 2,000 years ago when our sages deliberated the relative merits of a strictly oral tradition versus the innovation of documenting the tradition in writing on parchment scrolls. Centuries later, some of the very first documents produced by the newly invented printing press were Jewish books.
Rabbi Dan Cohen: Our embrace of technology simply means we are continuing a longstanding Jewish tradition. One of the reasons we Jews have survived over the millennia is because we’ve been quick to adapt to new realities.
At the same time, we’re always striking a balance between tradition and modernity. We have no hesitation in using a printed Tanach; yet when it comes to worship, we still use the ancient form of a Torah scroll. Change doesn’t mean “either/or”…we Jews are always looking for a “both/and” answer.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz: Technology and the Internet are the printing presses of our day. They have the same benefits and built-in challenges as those encountered by the rabbis of the talmudic period: When you put things in writing on paper or on the screen, they are subject to interpretation, inviting comment and more writing. The Talmud was really the first blog or listserv, with various voices and perspectives speaking over a period of time to comment on a subject. In our age, instead of being restricted to the rabbinic authorities, the Jewish Internet is available to Am Yisrael (the entire Jewish people)—with all of the benefits and some of the downsides of such democratization. The Internet is the logical evolution of the “People of the Book.”
Emily Grotta: Let us not forget that this technology is a means to an end, not the end itself. What is crucial is the content, not the way it is delivered.
The Jews are known as the “People of the Book” because the written word has, for centuries, been the means for debate and dialogue over the “big ideas” in our literature. It doesn’t matter if the words appear on parchment or on a website. What matters are the words themselves, and the ideas they convey.
If our strength as a Movement is in creating community, and if we create community through communications, how will new communications change us as a Movement?
Rabbi Amy Perlin: Technology doesn’t change anything except to expand our ability to reach our people. When a woman tells me that she listened to a podcast while walking on a beach to sort out her life, when a “new Jew” is able to learn the service by listening to Friday’s podcast, when a Jew becomes comfortable reciting the Kaddish that way, or when a man hears the Mi Shebeirach with the voices of fellow congregants before surgery or during chemo, we are meeting needs beyond our walls and touching hearts and lives.
Emily Grotta: Today’s communications do benefit the Jewish community. Those who take advantage of the vast amount of information are becoming better informed and more involved Jews—and these experiences, in turn, prompt many to turn to the “real life” temple community, where they share in people’s joys and sorrows, and hugs and smiles tell them they are cared about.
Rabbi Scott Sperling: Our Movement will, of necessity, have to change in adopting changes in communications technologies. We are—as individuals, as synagogues, and as a Movement—going to be less tied to a single geographic location or source of information and community. We will face new paradigms in which everything about a synagogue community—education, worship, governance, finance—will change. This is not a matter of better or worse; it is simply different.
What are the pluses and minuses of the technology?
Rabbi Amy Perlin: I fear that the Movement will divide into those congregants that can, say, afford large screens so people can see the bimah—and those that cannot.
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer: Technology affords us a chance to become more of a community. I regularly get Facebook messages from campers and NFTYites. When young people see their rabbis and teachers online, they’re afforded a level of access that previous generations didn’t have, giving them a sense of empowerment. Facebook also played a big role in the grieving process following the deaths of two members of our camp community. Friends around the country were able to connect and feel part of the community even though they were far apart. At the same time, much of the notice about both deaths came via Facebook and not through “traditional” channels, which concerned the adult leadership who were unable to control the flow of information—which leads to such questions as “is such control a necessary thing?” “is it a thing of the past?” and “what role does and should social media play in the rituals of grieving?” As for me, when I see that @urj or @rac is commenting on something on Facebook or Twitter, I can comment back and feel that my voice is heard in the Reform Movement.
One certain downside to the technology can be the false belief that because we are connected online we are all connected—there are many populations not accessing the Internet and perhaps feeling left out of the online “buzz.” For those who use it, it’s a great tool.
Michael Fischer: We should not let the means of communication change who we are: a Movement rooted in three-dimensional, eye-to-eye human interaction. Video conferencing, for example, is best used sparingly, when the parties have previously met face to face and compared body language to voice inflection. One must respect that in our diverse Movement, many individuals need to “touch and feel” other human beings. Also, we must not lose sight of the many members who don’t have wideband access to the Internet—for example, some Temple Sinai congregants live in very rural environments in Saratoga Springs County or do not maintain the latest versions of software needed for some new web technologies.
Rabbi Dan Cohen: As we make the transition to employ more electronic communication, we need to be vigilant in the process lest we disenfranchise those who are less “tech savvy” or prefer to spend less time online. The biblical verse, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” needs to also read: “Our community will be accessible to all peoples—even those without Internet access.”
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz: The Mishnah commands us: Al t’frosh min haTzibor, do not separate yourself from the community. I interpret this to mean that we have to meet people where they are—not just bring them in, but also infuse Judaism into their daily lives. So many of our members, and those who will become members in adulthood, experience community in online social networking environments. If we do not meet them there online, then Judaism is not relevant to how they live their lives.
Emily Grotta: The new technology is resulting in the democratization of Jewish life. No longer dependent on the “authority” in a local community for answers to their questions, Jews are able to reach across time and space to read new ideas which may challenge their long-held beliefs, and discuss and debate them with others.
At the same time, I do worry about information overload and computer addiction. It’s great to receive news about people we care about in emails and text messages, but we also need to remember to spend Shabbat with our family and friends, and not in isolation in front of a computer screen.
Do you worry that technology will replace face-to-face communications?
Rabbi Amy Perlin: I don’t ever worry that online services or sermons will replace the magic of what happens in our sanctuary. Just because a football game is televised, it doesn’t stop the fans from going to the stadium. And consider the new uses: When a parent of a young child replays the Friday children’s sermon as a bedtime story, we are all richer for the continuation of the message.
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer: Internet connections enhance, rather than replace, real-life communications. It’s easier for many people to communicate with me because they “see me” online at Facebook; it eliminates some of the discomfort that might exist in infrequent personal interactions. At the same time, hearing the shofar blow must be experienced in a room full of people. The YouTube rendition never replaces the collective gasp as Tekiah Gedolah ends.
Emily Grotta: Stronger and faster relationships are forged by corresponding through cyberspace. I’ve seen this at URJ Biennial conventions, where people who’ve only connected through email or blog posts greet each other like long-lost friends.
Rabbi Dan Cohen: Electronic communication sometimes allows for connectivity in places and at times that would otherwise be impossible. For instance, one of our bar mitzvah students lives with a chronic illness that limits mobility. In addition to my paying visits to him at home for tutoring, we also work via video chat. It doesn’t replace the face-to-face interaction, but enhances it in ways beyond description.
Rabbi Scott Sperling: This past Chanukah, as our family and friends gathered to celebrate the first night, my adult children were together in Israel, half a world away. At the appointed hour we opened up our laptops and, using a free communications program called Skype, we chatted via video and audio. Over the course of nearly twenty minutes, my wife’s laptop was passed from hand to hand as everyone greeted each other and caught up on the latest news from D.C., Madrid (where my daughter lives), and Tel Aviv. Moses, 4, chatted with his former babysitters as if they themselves—and not a computer—were sitting on the couch next to him. We all had a wonderful visit and promised to be in touch soon.
None of us, though, would argue that this virtual visit was equal to being in the same room and ending the evening with a real hug and kiss.
As long as we’re cognizant of its significant limitations, technology can reframe our relationships. We can remain vitally connected to people who are physically unable, for a host of reasons, to be in the same space with us.
Does a person need to be present to be part of community? If Shabbat is being brought to us via YouTube or streaming, how does that affect our individual Jewish choices?
Scott Hertz: This is tough. The next generations of Reform Jews are growing up in an “on demand” world. They watch TV when they want, and they can even watch it without a TV.
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer: Streaming services will never replace being present together. It’s not the same to “conference in” as it is to be “live.”
Moreover, bringing Judaism to Jews will never be “too easy.” Judaism begs to be brought to each of us in whatever way we’re willing to meet it.
Rabbi Scott Sperling: We have learned from our history that being part of a community is a movable and fungible description. Did any of the rabbis who wrote to Maimonides asking for his legal opinions from a continent away feel themselves not to be a part of the same Jewish community? Community is, I believe, not necessarily an address, but fundamentally a matter of the head and heart.
Rabbi Dan Cohen: A number of years ago I was officiating at a wedding. One grandparent wasn’t able to be present due to health issues. The bride was heartbroken. At the beginning of the service I pulled out my cell phone, called the grandparent, and placed the cell phone, on speaker, on the podium in front of me. While being present via telephone is a distant second from being physically together, having the grandparent present via this device was, in and of itself, a cause for celebration. A cloud that had hung over this joyous event was, at least to a degree, lifted, thanks to technology.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz: We started streaming our services online after 9/11, when air travel was impeded, and many people have thanked us for allowing them to be “present” when other factors or events made “in person” worship impossible. Here’s just one letter we’ve received:
I am currently in [a college] program which gives students an opportunity to intern in Washington DC….I really love services and I was devastated I couldn’t [get home and] attend this year, but it was kinda like I was there with the webcast (I even got to see my parents open the ark!). Despite its glitches and blurry picture, I felt like Temple Judea really was my home and they were accommodating me even though I couldn’t be there. I know there are only about 20 people watching on the webcast, but if it meant as much to them as it did to me, then it is well worth it.
Rabbi Scott Sperling: If anything, for me the new technologies heighten our individual Jewish choices. We can’t say, I can’t get to the synagogue for the ritual committee meeting—the meeting is being held by conference call. We can’t say, I couldn’t hear the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur because I was in a hotel room in Beijing—the webcast of the service was available in either real time or on YouTube. We can’t say, I don’t have time for Torah study—the Union’s "Ten Minutes of Torah" teaching is delivered to our computer desktop every day. With the help of webcam or cell phone technology, we can also light Shabbat candles with our family members throughout the world.
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