Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation: Adventures in Social Media and Community Building

 

As my children were beginning to leave home, we read a poem by Sheri Linder at our seder each year. In it, Linder describes each generation as leaving its own Egypt, which was, in fact, the parents’ Promised Land. Near the end, the author paints this picture of watching at the Sea of Reeds:

We will watch you for a long, long time, as you cross to the other side.
We will be more wise than Pharaoh: we will know that where you go we cannot follow.

Being an education director in a progressive synagogue is not unlike being a parent. We give children and families a strong foundation and the tools we think they’ll need, and trust that they will build lives we cannot even imagine but anchored by enduring values.

This analogy proved to be true with our social media project this year: we recognized a need, provided support and tools, and watched as our families took ownership and adapted the program over the course of the year.

The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation proposal to Darim was to create a chavurah of religious school families who would gather monthly to experience a variety of aspects of Shabbat, from a Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat to a Saturday evening havdalah service. A social media component would enhance the monthly in-person gatherings by allowing for ongoing conversation and idea-sharing between Shabbatot. This idea originated out of a year-long school study group in which we identified the need to educate parents in Judaism – in particular, Reconstructionist Judaism – and to nurture relationships between families so parents would model for their children their own engagement in the community.

It came as a surprise to us that few turned to social media to enrich or supplement their personal connections with each other. Rather, chavurah families invited one another to shabbat dinners and gathered in the lobby during religious school classes and choir rehearsals. People seemed more ready to make time to be with each other than to connect via technology.

We learned that people read the announcements on the Facebook page but rarely commented or posted. This even applied to members who update their own Facebook page regularly and frequently. Facebook is being used to post dates for upcoming events, coordinating such things as meals or children’s activities, and to send out reminders. After each event there are one or two parents who post a sort of shout-out to the group, usually to say thank-you. Our project leadership team was not successful in our attempts to remind participants that the congregation was looking to them as a test group to explore social media applications within the congregation. I do want to say, though, that Ellen Dietrick, our Darim coach, was a great resource to us, with a knowledgeable grasp of our concept and terrific suggestions.

Chavurah participants quickly developed ownership of the group and new leadership arose. The chavurah took control of programming content and scheduling. Beyond the original scope of our proposal, a majority of chavurah families attended JRC’s Memorial Day weekend kallah, and continue to meet to plan future events and outreach.

We were disappointed that we failed to actualize our vision of chavurah blogs, online discussions and links to relevant articles. However, although the method was not what we envisioned, we were successful in our goal of creating a tightly-knit, committed community of school families that is more Jewishly knowledgeable and has the motivation and the tools to function independent of the school.
 
Based on what we observed in the chavurah and what the participants reported, JRC is going to launch a Meetup.com account so congregants can post suggestions for getting together at venues outside the synagogue. Meetup.com offers enough flexibility as to be useful to all demographics. Someone might suggest an activity that is size-limited or age-limited, such as a block of tickets to a children’s theatre; or it can be open-ended, such as a general invitation to any JRC members who want to congregate at a free concert in the park. We do not know yet if Meetup.com is the right platform, but we are optimistic that we are on the right track, balancing leadership and responsiveness.

Terri Ginsberg Bernsohn has been Director of JRC’s Religious School since June 2003, and a member of JRC since 1992.

This post is part of our special summer series highlighting stories shared by our 2011-12 Social Media Boot Camp for Educators Cohort. The SMBC for Educators is made possible through a generous grant from the Covenant Foundation.

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