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Synagogue: Strengthening Community with Social Media
by Lisa Colton
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Congregations are about relationships, which means they need to be where the people are. And these days, people are on social media. In 2011, approximately 169 million people in the U.S. and Canada used Facebook monthly (Facebook statistic), and more than half of users are engaging with the platform at least daily (Pew Internet and American Life Study).

Recognizing the power of social media, many congregations have launched Facebook pages and developed their voices on Twitter—some to great success, others meandering, and still others struggling to wrap their heads around these new tools.

What about your temple? How can your congregation use social media effectively to engage members and potential members?


1. Social Media is About People

Social media is not about technology; it’s about people, relationships, and communication. Think about it. You’d never say that talking with your daughter is “about your larynx” or that having a conversation with an old friend is “about the telephone.” You’d speak about what was said and how the conversation affected you, your relationship, your life.

In person or on the telephone, you are used to employing facial expressions or changes in intonation to communicate. Most of us are still learning these social nuances when communicating on Facebook or Twitter. How do we learn to use social media in social ways?

Today we are working in an attention economy. Now that everyone is both a producer and consumer of media, we are all struggling to filter out the content blitz vying for our attention, and focus instead on the information that is most valuable and can help us lead happier, more satisfying, and successful lives.

In the old “one-size-fits-all” communications paradigm, messages were broadcast in one direction to large numbers of people. Let’s call this the “hub and spokes” model. The synagogue as the institution sits in the center, sending out information and solicitations to members or prospects. When the institution is perceived as the “center of the universe,” and when the rest of us are, by necessity, prioritizing our limited time and attention, if we perceive an “institutional agenda” at work (to get us to become a member, give a donation, attend an event), we are less likely to offer the sender our attention.

In the new paradigm, individuals, families, and community are the center; the institution exists to support them and their shared goals; and the institution’s messages are tailored to the community of individuals in order to earn each person’s attention. From the user perspective, when the institution is helping me clarify and achieve my goals, that’s worth paying for with time, attention, and dollars. Sign me up.

Given that we are trying to strengthen relationships among synagogue members and the community as a whole, social media is much more than a soapbox; it is an opportunity to promote knowledge sharing, provide a platform for communal conversation, and add value, convenience, accessibility, and sometimes humor. Like the biblical Abraham welcoming the strangers as they approached his open tent, social media is a modern way of being open and welcoming.

In short, social media technology isn’t a free bullhorn to promote your events and ask for contributions. Using the new tools in the old way is not the means to build trust, strengthen relationships, and get attention.


2. To Get Heard, Start by Listening

Here’s a little social media success secret: Don’t worry about talking. Start by listening. Make listening a habit. Go back to the social norms of face-to-face conversations or telephone chats with loved ones and friends. These relationships are successful because they balance talking and listening.

Before social media, it was hard and costly to listen. The hub-and-spokes model, which required listening to members one by one by one, simply was not feasible. Today, in just a few minutes of scanning Facebook posts or tweets, you can get the pulse of your community, do “small talk” online, and connect with a dozen individuals in meaningful, relevant, and personal ways.

Gabby Kozak, membership and communications director at Temple Sinai in Oakland, California, knows this well. When she read a status update on Facebook that temple members had been in a car accident, she immediately reached out to them and notified the clergy and staff, all of whom leapt into action.

“Within an hour of my reading the news, they received calls from one of our rabbis, our executive director, and me offering support and deepening their connection to the Temple Sinai community,” Gabby says. “While the family had not called the synagogue for help, they were sharing the news on Facebook. It is Temple Sinai’s responsibility—and all of ours—to be listening.”

Another example: Leza, a member of Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) in Charlottesville, Virginia, posted on her Facebook profile that she was struggling to explain the death of a family pet to her young children who were wanting to fly up to heaven to visit the dog. Among those who offered condolences and support was Ellen Dietrick, then CBI director of Early Childhood Education, who shared developmental and Jewish insights on how to talk with children about death and recommended books to read with them. The public Facebook dialogue both strengthened Leza’s relationship with the congregation and allowed other young Jewish families to learn from Leza’s experience.


3. Ask Questions

Once you’re listening, start asking questions so you can listen some more! Rabbi Arnie Samlan, R.J.E. asks a weekly Friday question on Facebook, “What did we learn this week?” which generates dozens of responses—everything from “I learned about the reproductive system of a hen” to “[I learned] to have a little more faith in myself than I might otherwise deem I deserve.” Some congregations and schools make their Facebook pages a platform for communal knowledge sharing, asking such practical, relevant questions as “What’s your best tip to keep young kids engaged at a Passover seder?” or “How do you talk to your teenagers about forgiveness at Yom Kippur?” You might even consider asking questions that could influence your strategy and programs, such as “What do you want to learn about Judaism this year?”

Rabbi David Levy at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey is using Twitter, Facebook, and his blog to engage the larger temple community—many of whom were not regulars at adult education classes or services—in learning and discussions. Conducting what he calls a “Social Sermon,” he posts text and questions online, receives comments, and later delivers a sermon that weaves in the communal conversation. Several members who have put their toes in the water online are now attending Shabbat services and in-person classes more often, he says. “And because Twitter is more of a dialogue, it has enhanced many of my real world connections with congregants.” He’s even had prospective members walk in the door and say, “I already know you through Twitter.”


4. Share Stories and Make Connections

Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee uses Facebook to help make the 1,500+-member congregation feel more intimate and allow people to get to know each other better. So when the synagogue office heard that another member had helped member Emilie Rattner by changing her flat tire, the staff (with Emilie’s permission) shared her story through Facebook (see example in image above). Result: community members connected Emilie’s name, face, and story; contributed to building their culture of mitzvot; and illustrated how the synagogue community lives outside of the building walls.

The warmth of the Temple Israel community probably was apparent to Scott Biales, a newcomer to Memphis, who posted a question on the congregation’s Facebook page (see example in image above).

There are three lessons here.

First, if a single young adult is reaching out to a synagogue, he/she may be doing that research at 9:00 P.M., and not during the typical hours the synagogue staff is on call. Our Jewish lives, needs, and curiosities work on a 24/7 clock, and social media tools can help congregations engage current and prospective members beyond synagogue business hours.

Second, congregations trying to strengthen community need to build more points of possible connection, and Facebook is an important, inexpensive, and efficient way to do so. A prospective member may get his/her first impression of your congregation on your Facebook page. So, what does yours say? Does it look like a logo begging for attendance, or like a vibrant community pursuing meaningful Jewish lives?

Third, with proper follow-up, Facebook can become a conduit to in-person social connections. In this example, Scott said he wanted to meet people; seeing from his profile that he fit into the 20s/30s group, Temple Israel’s communications director, Iste Bardos, invited him to a relevant upcoming event and connected him to their young rabbi. And because this exchange is public, it helps demonstrate Temple Israel’s responsive, welcoming, and thoughtful culture to others who may be watching.

To make himself more accessible to more people more often, Rabbi Jonathan Blake at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York uses a simple service called Formspring. At formspring.me/rabbiblake he receives questions ranging from “What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” to “How do you define ‘forgiveness’?” to “What do you think about Israel’s handling of the flotilla situation?” In an open forum, Rabbi Blake is connecting with others while making Jewish information and his personal insights available to anyone who chooses to read them.


5. Open Communications Boundaries

In my experience, older people tend to default to private communications unless there is a reason to make the information public; conversely, younger people tend to make all communications public unless there is a reason to keep it private. While there is certainly a place for private exchanges, if we are in the business of building relationships and community, we need to be social. Consider the potential benefits of making appropriate communications public. Think of open socializing as your open tent, as the modern way of being “warm and welcoming.”

Each of us feels welcome when we connect with real people. For Jews who feel like outsiders and are considering whether or not to attend a synagogue event, the “connectors” could be temple members and fans, not just staff and trustees. It’s often uncomfortable to walk in the door “cold,” but when a Facebook friend invites you to come to tot Rosh Hashanah services, for example, that sense of alienation often evaporates. Recently an increasing number of posts from young adults, singles, families, and empty nesters are saying things like, “I’m going to Congregation ABC for services. They offer free tickets for High Holidays services—anyone want to come?” How much more powerful it is to receive that invitation from a friend than from a newspaper ad!

So, make sure to identify active temple members who are trusted and have strong online networks. Encourage your members to share their experiences online and invite their friends into your congregation. Networks are powerful. Use them.

Many synagogue cultures are still based on a society from decades ago when synagogue membership was a norm and a community value. Nowadays a variety of factors are changing the landscape, and the only thing we can hold as true is that more of the same isn’t going to work. We can’t assume that people will find us, let alone walk in the door, if the sides of our tent are closed. Let’s open the tent.


Lisa Colton, a member of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Virginia, is founder and president of Darim Online, which offers internet strategies for Jewish organizations and their communities, including a free social media bootcamp for all URJ congregations through December 2012 (see below for more information).


Social Media Boot Camp

To help your synagogue succeed in the networked age, the Union for Reform Judaism is offering member congregations a year-long training program on social media tools and strategy powered by Darim Online which features:

Webinars: 12 webinar trainings with three tracks to help beginners and experts alike, including an introduction to social media tools, strategic use of common tools, and the synagogue as a networked nonprofit. You can take these courses easily from almost any modern computer.

Sharefests! At four Sharefest! webinars, congregations will present their work, explain how they tackled a particular challenge, and invite community conversation. In addition, Darim Online consultants will answer questions and/or give feedback during their Open Office Hours webinars.

The program continues through the end of 2012. To sign up, go to the URJ's Social Media Boot Camp page. For additional questions, email urjbootcamp@darimonline.org.

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