Synagogue: Strengthening Community with Social Media
by Lisa Colton
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
What about your temple? How can your congregation use social media
effectively to engage members and potential members?
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.