Learn Hebrew in the Palm of Your “Yad”

In January, Birthright Israel NEXT launched its first iPhoneapplication, Mila-4-Phone. The application (app), a Hebrew-learning program that uses flashcards and includes audio pronunciation, has been downloaded more than 3,000 times so far.

Such success signals the grand potential for Jewish organizations to use apps to reach their constituents in a new way: right in the palm of their hand.

Graphic from Mila-4-Phone App
Graphic from Mila-4-Phone App

Apps are what websites were to an organization ten years ago, Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, said. Back then, we used to joke “you are not real until you are virtual.”

Brenner makes a good point. In the web of the 1990s, websites were static and reference-focused. Today, the web is increasingly more fast-paced and social-focused thanks to the ubiquity of user generated content and the rise of social networking sites.

As apps bring the social web to phones and other mobile devices, organizations are pressed to deliver valued-added content that is more than just reference material.

Apps challenge organizations to show how ongoing, updated information from the organization is relevant to users, Brenner said.

For Birthright Israel NEXT, the key to compelling content was listening to its target base, a population that was expressing interest in returning to Israel and learning Hebrew.

We view the iPhone app as having two mission related functions one educational and one community building, Brenner said. One element of our mission is to deepen the connections that young adults have to Israel Hebrew learning certainly does just that.

But the real power of the app is that it is building a community of over three thousand young adults who share an interest in Hebrew language. Since we are involved in promoting ulpanim in ten cities and in holding ‘beit cafe’ events where Americans can meet Israeli peers and work on their Hebrew, the iPhone app serves as a magnet for folks with a shared interest and has encouraged people to meet others who want to learn Hebrew.

While the app may not be for every Birthright Israel alumni, it has attracted a large, focused following with more than 3,000 downloads from 49 countries.

Niche followings are the best type of followings, Brenner said. Knowing that over 3,000 young adults who are for the most part unaffiliated Jews and who did not go to Jewish day school all want to learn Hebrew is a very good thing.

Seeing a Jewish organization invest in a new technology and using it to reach its base in a 21st century model transcending space, time and place is definitely a very good thing.

So good that other Jewish organizations are taking notice. For instance, Mazon has an iPhone app as does the Cleveland Jewish Federation, which launched Jewish Cleveland in March.

Will apps be the new websites of the 2010s?Are you or your Jewish organization thinking about creating an app? Sound off in our comments.

Video of Mila-4-Phone in Action

To learn more about Mila-4-Phone check it out here.If you dont have an iPhone, or iPod touch, you can still join in on the mobile- Hebrew-learning fun with Birthright Israel NEXTs Hebrew Word-A-Day Text Messaging program. Just text Hebrew to 41411 to get started.

Epic Change: an organization putting the power of storytelling and social media into the hands of the local communities they support

by Diana Norma Szokolyai, Associate Consultant, Knowledge Communities
[cross-posted from the Knowledge Communities blog]

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Darim Online on the strategic use of Facebook (FB) for non-profits. We were invited by Caren Levine, who is a part of our Kehilliyot Community of Practice. Darim Online specializes in internet strategies for Jewish organizations and their communities, and the webinar was part of the organizations Social Media Boot Camp. The host, technology maven Avi Kaplan (on twitter @meshugavi), provided valuable insights into using FBs tools. Besides laying out the great strategic use of FB groups, analytics, pages, and friend lists, Avi also talked about using FB for causes, something he knows a lot about from his deep work with the 3-year old nonprofit, Epic Change.

Intrigued by Epic Changes mission to amplify the voices and impact of grassroots change-makers and social entrepreneurs, we set up a web meeting with him the following week via WebEx . What we discovered was the organizations innovative use of technology and social media to create and spread change through the powerful combination of social media tools and age-old storytelling.

Epic Change has been focusing on a project in Arusha, Tanzaniathe support of the Shepherds Junior School. Co-founders of Epic Change, Sanjay Patel and Stacey Monk, an IT project manager and a management consultant respectively, created the nonprofit organization after a life-changing trip volunteering in Africa in 2007. The project supports the work of the schools founder, Mama Lucy Kamptoni, who they describe as a savvy and passionate local woman. Epic Change made initial loans to the school and then helped them find creative ways to pay back the loan, such as a school performance and selling hand-made crafts.

In addition, the organization has facilitated finding partners to raise money for the school, such as the May 2009 $10,000 grant from Ideablob, which funded the schools first technology lab. In October 2009, the fifth graders became the first #TwitterKids of Tanzania when they partnered with LacProject, part of a social media curriculum. The story of one of the local students whose life has been impacted can be found here. One particularly successful partnership was with Silicon Valley Tweet Up, where they raised over $2,000. You can read more about their success in getting this communitys story out there through blogging themselves, forming partnerships, and empowering the locals with the technology to give voice to their own perspective (and tweet their thanks) by visiting Epic Change’s news page.

We at Knowledge Communities were honored to talk with Epic Change and learn about their extraordinary work. This organization is a leading example in building community around an important cause and using the tools of storytelling and social media to raise funds to support grassroots change-makers that are in need of resources in order to continue their work. We are also thankful to our Kehilliyot Community of Practice and the sharing and generosity that members show towards one another, thereby allowing us all to gain more insight into good work and how it is getting done around the globe.

Don’t Say Cheese

David Frank

In the old days one hallmark of a professional photographer was that the photog was never without a camera. By that standard, today just about all of us are professionals.

Cell phone cameras are ubiquitous. Now we go through our days visually armed, as it were, often immediately emailing friends the resulting photo reconnaissance of our lives. We post these mega-pixel bits and bytes of our lives in our Facebook albums. We tweet them to whoever will follow. We collect them in vast numbers on our computers. Sometimes they are dark, blurry rectangles that assert simply that we exist. Sometimes they surprise us with unspeakable depth, transforming even a random moment into a powerful enduring memory. Sometimes we make prints of them so they can become our companions, or even turn them into hardcover, realio-trulio coffee-table books all about us.

What does it all mean? Have we all become self-obsessed users of the latest must-have tech-tools for noting, recording and sharing our lives? Or think of this – have we, perhaps, all become historians newly in procession of cutting-edge tools for making meaning. Using these tools is it possible that we can now translate our busy, sometimes chaotic lives into the illustrated narratives that, upon reflection, help us understand who we are, where we fit and what we mean.

Here is a small example of what I am getting at. I have spent about an equal number of years in my life working as a Jewish educator and as a photographer. Recently, I have begun to photograph bar/bat mitzvahs – but with what I believe is an interesting twist that incorporates the sensibilities of both.

It is not just about a party. And it is certainly not about lining up the family and at my prompt encouraging them to, Say cheese. In fact, I do as little directing as possible. Just like you can with your cell cameras at the ready, I am after stories from real life. I begin months before photographing the child studying, working with the rabbi and cantor, documenting the mitzvah project, the party planning, the suit/dress shopping, anything related to any aspect of what is involved in a 21st Century bar/bat mitzvah – taking pictures that ultimatelygive me the raw material to tell a much bigger story. Now a trusted confidant, I interview the child exploring what they make of all the attention being heaped upon them, their Torah reading, their expectations, and their fears. I talk to the parents about their child, their aims for the event, their Jewish identities and what they hope to pass on to their children. Then I weave a narrative words and pictures and I put them in a book a personal history book that can play an important role in helping a family define and express the meaning of the experience.


Bat Mitzvah – Images by David Frank

And, here is something to consider – even the very fact of photographing makes meaning. Remember, Im not talking about a Say cheese grab-shot. But Im also not suggesting anything about the quality of the camera you might use. Im talking about the quality of paying a particular kind of attention that has the capacity to suggest to your young subject that THESE aspects of your process (the study, the talks with the rabbi, the time spent alone drilling words of Torah, etc.) are significant and valuable. And the resulting photographs then can take their rightful place.

And the photographs make the memories. Thats why we take pictures. We grab from the swift flow of undifferentiated life a few split seconds of our lives and say, Stop! Just now I want you to be this age, with these people, in this place forever. Such pictures, especially at peek moments can help to define who we are.

Consider the photo documentation of your own life. How your memories are sparked when you peruse an old album. Look at my big hair! Those are some crazy lapels! Look how beautiful Mom was when she was young. What if the interior monologue could continue Here I am before my Bat Mitzvah. Im so proud that or Wow, this was the first time I touched a Torah. or Here I am in the rabbis study Pie in the sky? Perhaps, but without the photographic jolts to memory over the years the event loses its specificity and its power to shape identity. Identity = authentic experiences, sensitively documented and well remembered. My own, now adult, daughter is still awed by the photos that remind her that all those people had come to see HER.

At a recent Bat Mitzvah the family stood on the bima with the rabbi reciting the Havdalah blessings. They tasted the wine, smelled the spices, illuminated their fingertips but missed, until they saw the photograph, the moment when a daughter, caught up in her thoughts and feelings, rested her head on her mothers shoulder. It lasted for a second. Went unnoticed. But the photograph now has great familial power. The photograph creates the memory. The memory is inexorably tied to this very intimate and Jewish moment.

You have the tools. You have the digital means to enter the rush of ones and zeros and use it to stop time, to write histories, to interpret the present in service of the future, to fill the histories of those around you with the memories of Jewish moments. And these moments make meaning. They illustrate the narratives through which we come to know who we are.

Further resources:

The Meaning of Family Photographs by Charles Williams

http://homepage.mac.com/williamszone/dostal/research/meaning.html

Candid Photography, and the Meaning of “Real-Life” by Len Bernstein

http://www.lenbernstein.com/Pages/candid.html

Reading Photographs to Write With Meaning and Purpose, Grades 412 by Leigh Van Horn

http://www.reading.org/General/Publications/Books/bk612.aspx?mode=redirect

Social Media And The New Meaning of Photographs

http://understandinggraphics.com/brainy/social-media-and-the-new-meaning-of-photographs/

Family Photographs: Content, Meaning and Effect by Julia Hirsch

http://www.amazon.com/Family-Photographs-Content-Meaning-Effect/dp/0195028899/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1265908169&sr=8-6

David Frank was a photojournalist and graphics editor at various newspapers in Michigan before becoming a Jewish educator and the Director of Conferences at CAJE. He is a storyteller, always trying to tell the public story, the back story, the whole story – your story. He makes art out of both the simple and the sublime moments in life. He lives in New Jersey. You can learn more about his photography at http://www.davidfrankphoto.com

10 for 2010: #2 UNFRIENDING and UNFOLLOWING

Anyone remember the Burger King campaign last year — defriend (or unfriend) 10 people on Facebook and we’ll give you a burger? Regardless of what you think of the campaign or Whoppers, their ad agency jumped on the beginning of a trend that is really coming to fruition in 2010. The Oxford English Dictionary even named “unfriend” a 2009 word of the year (along with “tweetup”).

As Facebook and Twitter have become so mainstream, and friending so casual, our rolls of friends and followers have grown extensive. Maybe too extensive. Just at that time when we’re trying to manage our precious time and sort through reams of content to find the gems, it is our own “friends” weighing us down. Dunbar proposed that any individual could really only have 150 stable social relationships at any given time. Others propose that with tools such as Facebook we can manage higher numbers. In a recent update, Facebook set the number of people to show up in your news feed to 250 (which you can change). While it may be true that our maximum number is far over Dunbar’s 150, many people are starting to approach their limit and are pruning their social network gardens.

There are two things you should be thinking about:

  1. How should I pare my friends and people I’m following to get the most bang for my social-media-hour-buck?
  2. How are other people making decisions about paring their lists, and how should I position myself to stay on the friends list of those I care about? (note: you may not care about all of them)

How you answer these questions will depend on your business, your brand, your audience, your goals, and how you have been using these tools. People want value (which can be information, insight, humor, etc.). People also want to be talked with, not talked at.

One of the challenges is that when you’ve mixed company in your friend or follower list, there’s not one clear value proposition. For example, family wants pics of your kids, college friends want to know what you’re reading, business colleagues want professional insights, customers/clients/members want meaty information and connection. You cannot please all of the people all of the time.

Some people have dealt with this by creating multiple profiles — in some cases with hard lines (members of the congregation can befriend a staff person here but not there), and in some cases much softer lines (e.g. I tweet about Jewish social media and innovation at @darimonline, and I tweet personally about kids, chickens, music and other things at @lisacolton) where you’re welcome to friend or follow in both places, but at least you know what you’re getting (or as the writer, what you’re giving) with greater specificity.

I predict that the next waves of functionality and privacy updates from Facebook and Twitter will offer greater control over sorting these groups (they’ve already begun), targeting content to this group or that, and being able to hide or categorize friends and followers with greater ease to create customized feeds (how cool would it be to login to Facebook at work and see only updates from professional colleagues, and get home and login to see updates only from friends and family?).

In the meantime, put these on your to-do list:

  1. Be educated about privacy and friend list categorization opportunities on Facebook. There’s more control there than you probably realize or use.
  2. Set up friend lists, and each time you accept a new friend, add them to a list. When you use your settings you’ll be able to count on knowing who’s getting what info. See a tutorial here.
  3. Be aware that the functionality, policies, and culture of these tools will continue to adapt and change, so adopt a nimble stance (modern “sea legs”) and keep educating yourself.
  4. Think about how you can talk with your community, not just talk at them. Experts suggest a ratio of 1:12 (or even 1:20) — for every one self-promoting post (“come to our young adults event Tues evening…”) you should add value 12 times. What value can you offer? What questions can you ask to tap into your community? What conversations are happening related to your work and how can you participate? And don’t forget to LISTEN.
  5. Discuss among staff how people are managing these issues. There may be creative ideas, and you may or may not want to have everyone on the same page and taking the same approach. Either way, staff should be aware of expectations as employees if they are engaging with members, prospects, board members or donors. You should consider drafting a social media policy or guidelines, or revisiting to existing policies. See info here from Wild Apricot and info here from Beth Kanter and sample policies here.

How are you identifying what your target audiences want to hear, learn and discuss? How are you thinking about what to post and/or tweet? Where are you adding value and growing your online community? How will you know if people and dropping out and why?

Faith, Hope, Meaning, and Change: The Story Behind TweetYourPrayers @TheKotel

[cross-posted on jlearn2.0]

Fascinating story about community and more, presented by Alon Nir (@TheKotel) at Jeff Pulver’s (@JeffPulver) #140 Characters Conference in Tel Aviv earlier this month:

Read Alon Nir’s blog post about the experience, and learn more about Jeff Pulver and the #140 Conference – see if there is a meet up or conference in your neighborhood…

I just registered for #140 Characters Conference NYC ’10 in April – and in return I received a discount promo to share with my friends – how cool! So, come on and join me, friends!

Chanukah Double Feature: The Nefesh B’Nefesh Flash Mob and the Making Thereof

[cross-posted on jlearn2.0]

By now, you may have already seen the ebullient flash mob video produced by Nefesh B’Nefesh:

What is particularly compelling is a) how Nefesh B’Nefesh used the concept of a flash mob to communicate its work and underscore its message – “Make Aliyah in a ‘Flash‘: Join 23,000 Nefesh B’Nefesh Olim celebrating Hanukkah in Israel ” – which also emphasizes aspects of its mission: you are part of a larger community through Nefesh B’Nefesh; you are not alone in your aliyah adventure; individuals join together through the organization to create community; each individual is essential to the community’s success; and, b) how Nefesh B’Nefesh was able to mobilize volunteers to join in the festivities.

Did you know that invitations to participate went out on Facebook five days before the event – and the sole rehearsal with the group was held an hour and a half before the flash mob itself?

If you haven’t already seen the back story of the “The Making of the Nefesh B’Nefesh Jerusalem Flash Mob,” be sure to check out this video and enjoy the show:

The Social Sermon: An Innovative Approach to Community Building, Engagement and Torah Study

Picture 7Social media, like other major communication revolutions before it (think: printing press) have radically changed the way we learn, connect and organize. The impact on culture and behavior is significant – we have new ways to connect with our communities, find meaning, express ourselves and engage. The new ease of organizing is fundamentally changing the role that organizations play for their constituents. This is great news for the Jewish community, if we are able to take advantage of it.

We invite you to try a new approach to Torah study, community building, and perhaps even sermon writing in your congregation, The Social Sermon, an idea comes from acknowledging three things:

1) That many people can’t get to the synagogue for a lunch or evening Torah study class, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t interested;
2) That people want the social experience of learning, not just passive reading or listening to a lecture, and that connection through learning enriches a local community; and
3) Social technologies can be a wonderful tool to enrich and augment Torah learning in local communities.

Imagine a Saturday morning sermon that’s the work of not only your rabbi, but you as well. Lets take it a step further: what if it weren’t just you and your rabbi, but also your fellow congregants, young and old, those new to the community and the stalwarts of your city? By the time your rabbi delivers his Shabbat remarks, he or she could be drawing inspiration from, or even representing the discussion of, hundreds of his congregants!

What does The Social Sermon look like? At the beginning of the week a Rabbi posts a question on his or her blog, or on Twitter with a particular hashtag (e.g. #CBSSS for Congregation Beth Shalom Social Sermon), or as a Facebook post on the congregation’s Page. The first post would describe a theme of the parasha, or link to some text, and at the end, pose a question.

As comments and responses start to be posted, the Rabbi then facilitates an ongoing conversation through the week — responding regularly with insight, text, links, answers to questions, and more questions to guide the discussion.

By the end of the week, several things will have happened:

  • New people are engaged in Torah study. Likely a portion of the online participants are a demographic that doesn’t often come to mid-day or evenig adult education classes. (On-site classes – adult and youth – can also participate);
  • Participants will have formed new relationships through the online discussion, perhaps following each other on Twitter, friending each other on Facebook, etc. which leads to ambient awareness, thus strengthening your community;
  • The Rabbi will have a better understand of what aspects of the parasha resonate with the community, and be able to design a Shabbat sermon that is the most relevant for the congregation, and will have ideas, quotes, context to make the sermon even more rich; and
  • More people may show up for Shabbat services, feeling more educated, connected and like they have some ownership over the sermon that week.

And for those that missed the service, they could read it the next day when the rabbi posts the sermon back on the blog or web site, with a link on Twitter and/or Facebook.

Interested? Use the SocialSermon tag on this blog to find posts about the Social Sermon, and for case studies and guest posts from Rabbis and educators who are doing it. Follow #socialsermon on Twitter for updates, links to these blog posts, and to connect with others who are doing it. Join us on Facebook to be connected others who are doing Social Sermons and get important news.

Feel free to adapt the concept — a confirmation class could do this throughout the week between class meetings, a youth group could do it with their adviser or a parent facilitator. Please report back and let us know how it’s going, and what you’re doing. Please let us know if we can help you at any stage – leave a comment here, or any other space mentioned above.

Want more “hand holding”? Darim offers hourly consulting, and we are working with interested Social Sermoners to find funding from a donor or Federation small grants program to work with a group of Rabbis in your local community. Holler if you’d like more information.

Ready, Set…. Social Sermon!

The Reform Movement Should Make the Most of this Moment

As far as Rabbi Eric Yoffie is concerned, Reform congregations need to get with the program, technologically speaking, and they need to do so now. At the recent URJ Biennial in Toronto, the movements head delivered his annual sermon and used the opportunity to encourage every congregation to think seriously about harnessing the power of the internet to enhance their communities:

[T]he web potentially at least empowers our members and democratizes our synagogues. The synagogue is the grassroots address of the Jewish world, and the web gives us an instrument to involve and include Jews as never before. Are our synagogues doing great things in this area? Absolutely. Are we making the most of this potential? Not even close.

Yoffies challenge to congregations is to be applauded. Too many synagogues and Jewish schools have an attitude towards tech thats generations (a relative term, I know) behind their congregants and students who all have Facebook accounts, use Twitter, and are never more than an arms length from their Blackberries and iPhones. But the movements approach to addressing this issue an organized program to train lay leaders to create and maintain congregational blogs is only a first step. The Reform movement has an incredible opportunity on its hands, a chance to take the next steps and to get a lot more serious about using technology to build and strengthen communities.

Four suggestions for maximizing this moment:

1. Congregations should form committees (or task forces) to develop thoughtful strategies for using technology to increase the efficacy of communication. Rabbi Yoffie is right that blogs are a great way for synagogue members to connect online. But there are lots of other technologies social networking, microblogging, podcasting, mass texting that also might be useful to synagogues. And there are those congregations for whom blogging might not be the best fit. Every synagogue should gather their most technologically savvy members (and some socially savvy connectors, if were going to take Malcolm Gladwells advice) to make these sort of decisions for the community. Should the temple have a Facebook page, and if so what kinds of things should be posted there? If the synagogue has a Twitter account, who should be charged with maintaining it? And how often should they tweet? The URJ could be indispensible in providing consultants and experts to help congregations get on this path.

2. Technology can help Reform congregations do an even better job of running organizations that live up to the highest values of the movement. Imagine if a synagogue lived up to its commitment to environmentalism by going totally paper-free. The synagogue staff uses Google Docs to collaborate on projects. Rabbis project Temple announcements (and other administrivia) up on a screen during services so that programs dont need to be printed every week. Instead of spending lots of paper and money on a newsletter, members receive a monthly email newsletter, as well as frequent updates on Facebook and Twitter. Lots of congregations are using all these technologies, and theyre preventing lots of paper waste in the process. The Union can support congregations new to these technologies by teaching professionals to use these tools, empowering congregants with tech skills to be leaders in their communities, and by pairing temples at the beginning of this journey with those whove already found success.

3. Technology is an important part of the future of Jewish education. Im not talking about educational video games. Im talking about using tools to help learners connect deeply to Jewish text, about helping schools better communicate with parents, about using inexpensive video conferencing to bring diverse teachers to isolated Jewish communities. Education is a central part of a synagogues mission, and we need to be asking new questions about how learning is changing. How can we utilize new technologies like Google Wave, Twitter, and YouTube to allow for collaborative (hevruta for the new generation!) learning? How can the internet help us engage (and empower!) parents and families in new ways? How can we use technology to open up the world of Jewish education to better integrate the arts, science, and communication?

Thirty years ago, innovative Jewish educators were using filmstrips, slideshows, and video to bring Torah to life. Now, equally innovative educators are using Flash animation, social media, and hypertextuality to accomplish those same goals. The URJ should nurture and support these sorts of projects and help to bring those tools to congregations and their learners.

4. Technology is an excellent opportunity for collaboration. In the few days before the URJ Biennial, a group of educators gathered for a pre-conference symposium on Jewish identity. One of the teachers at that gathering was Professor Ari Kelman who shared research that suggests that the current generation of young, involved Jews (many of whom are digital natives, if you dont mind sweeping generalizations) are redefining affiliation by resisting joining a single organization, and rather participating in lots of diverse parts of Jewish life. For these Jews, no single institution is the center of Jewish life.

Institutions that pay attention to thinkers like Kelman realize that successful Jewish organizations of the future will be marked by cooperation and collaboration. They also know that efficient and financially responsible Jewish organizations are the ones that dont insist on re-inventing the wheel but rather seek out partner organizations with different types of expertise. To truly move forward to empower member congregations to embrace a 21st-Century social-media-savvy technologically-engaged existence, the Union should seek out organizations, educators, clergy, innovators, experts, academics and thinkers who can help congregations do their best work.

Perfect example: Darim Online has lots of experience helping Jewish organizations effectively utilize social media technology (including blogs!), and that expertise could really help (and in fact already is helping) Reform congregations look at new ways of communicating. Instead of trying to invent their own wheel, the URJ should seek out partners whove already invented pretty good wheels.

Lets be clear: The Reform movement is taking unprecedented steps forward. Rabbi Yoffies sermon and the related URJ initiatives launched this week mark the first time a major movement is encouraging and supporting member congregations to take this trend seriously. This is an important moment, and it would be a shame to waste it.

Josh Mason-Barkin, director of school services at Torah Aura Productions, is a member of a Reform congregation and a graduate of HUC-JIR. He blogs at tapbb.com. You can find his twitter feed at www.twitter.com/barkinj. He frequently contributes to a conversation about Jewish Education in the 21st century on Twitter under the hashtag #jed21

Get Over Your Fear of Critics, and Learn To Appreciate Them

For some, social media is a bit scary because it empowers the public to voice their thoughts. While hopefully in the vast majority of circumstances this means engaging in more meaningful conversations, learning about new supports, and amplifying your message through valuable networks, it also means that critics can make their rants public. This is scary, and threatening. Partially because of the potential content of those rants, and largely because it represents a loss of control.

I often remind those concerned that control is largely an illusion — those rants and conversations happen in the parking lot, the dinner table, via email and on Facebook. The companies that have done a great job of turning around their brands (Comcast, Dell) have done so not be trying to shut down the conversation or ignoring it, but by listening, acknowledging, and learning from it. (For stories about what they’ve done, read Twitterville.)

Chris Brogan, a widely known and well respects new media marketing specialist, writes a very prolific (and insightful) blog and weekly e-newsletter. This week he talks about critics, and offers some advice :

If you are fortunate enough to have critics, you’re doing something right … I want to share with you how I deal with critics, and what you might learn from the gifts they give you.

Thank them. No matter what a critic says, say “Thanks for your thoughts,” or a variation. They have taken the time to offer their opinions, however invalid or unhelpful, with you. Say thanks. It’s the only good response to a criticism.
Don’t defend yourself. The person giving you the opinion probably doesn’t care what you have to say about it. They just wanted to share their take. You can reply and reflect back what they’ve said, but try not to defend. It only comes off as making you look defensive and it just goes nowhere fast.
Decide for yourself, in private, if you agree. You don’t have to take every critic’s opinion, but listen to whether there’s any grain of truth in what they say. I learn when my critics are my friends, but I learn LOTS when they are people who don’t much like me. Sometimes, I’m able to adapt their mean words into something of great value to myself.
Don’t just throw it out, is my point. Criticism can be helpful, even non-constructive criticism, if you are willing to hear a bit of it and throw away the junk. Thing is, don’t necessarily run around seeking it, either. It can build up like toxin in our veins, and if we’re only hearing a stream of icky things, that doesn’t help us at all.

… It took me a long while to believe in myself enough to not believe in critics. There’s a great bit from an interview (and I forget who the subject was), where she said something about really loving her positive reviews, but then her agent said, if you believe all the positive reviews, you have to believe all the negative critics. That’s stuck with me.

Personally, I’ve found most of the criticism we receive on the JewPoint0.org blog is really helpful — it teaches me where I can improve, adds value to the conversation, and often helps me identify knowledgeable folks who are invested in our mission.

How do you think about critics and criticism, whether it be on or offline? How do you use it as a productive feedback loop? How to you respond to critics? What have you learned?

From Place to Space: I Live in a Virtual Community

I live in a virtual Jewish community:

My life-cycle rabbi is in Columbus, Ohio.

My education rabbi is in Los Angeles.

My close friends are in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, St. Louis and Charlotte.

I am enrolled in a Jewish professional graduate school in Boston, my family is in the Southeast, and I intern at a Jewish non-profit headquartered in Charlottesville, Va.

Thats why I need a network that works where I worka place I like to call “Charstonashingtonatloges.”

(Remember this AT&T ad?)

This is how my community works:

I study Jewish texts with my rabbi on the phone.

I keep in touch with my friends through constant texting, playing in a fantasy football league, talking on the phone while driving, reading Gmail and Twitter status updates and viewing new pictures as they are posted on Facebook or Google’s Picasa.

For work, I use a VOIP (voice over IP) phone with a Charlottesville area code to take calls, and a combination of Google Docs, Wikispaces, Ning, Jing, Skype, Delicious and other Web 2.0 tools to coordinate my work with my colleagues.

When one of my friends gets married, I am there in suit and tie, and our rabbi whom we know from college flies in to be with us for the weekend to officiate, dance, talk and reconnect.

I am extremely lucky. My community is amazing. The community I feel closest to only exists in its connections among its members. While we face serious geographical challenges, physical space or proximity is just not as important as the right people or the best connections.

This is a trend that Jewish communal leaders need to understand exists and is very real for many in my generation. We are becoming increasingly globally oriented and are no longer willing to compromise quality of friendships or experiences just because we may be far away.

We are in constant pursuit of personal meaning, and where we find it is where we will be. Social media not only allows me to create community when we’re not physically together, it empowers me to continue to add to it nationally and globally.

Many of the newest and most innovative Jewish start-up organizations are prospering, having transcended the idea of physical space. JDub Records creates a Jewish space on your car’s stereo, Storahtelling takes the tradition of Jewish storytelling into nightclubs and Reboot helps launch Jewish-themed creative projects into the public sphere.

Moishe House, a start-up creating physical places for young Jews to gather and create community, recognizes the need for a physical space but creates it by leasing living rooms, rather than building all-out community centers.

The Jewish community having long ago moved into the suburbs to build beautiful synagogues and create long-standing institutions, however, is very invested in physical space. And for good reason. In these spaces is where much of the Jewish activities, traditions and culture exist. But these building-centered Jewish organizations might benefit by dipping their toes into the water by creating new spaces outside the synagogue building.

For example, the Riverway Project at Temple Israel of Boston brings synagogue activities into the homes of young Jews and into other spaces in the community.

Shabbat Connections at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA, funded by the Legacy Heritage Innovation Grant, creates small havurot within a Charlottesville congregation, and encourages groups of families to meet in one another’s homes once a month for Shabbat experiences.

As we happen upon Sukkot, a holiday that reminds us of our wandering ways and encourages us to build temporary houses, it is important to remember that the most important place for Judaism is the one place that we take with us wherever we go: our neshama, the place inside us all.

With all the new technologies flying around us, we should take a step back to see how they help each of us connect with our communitiesboth physical and virtualand with ourselves. The communication revolution is here, and its transforming not only the way we talk, but the way we relate to everything around us.

To some, social media means loss of face-to-face connection. To me, social media is the saving grace of my life in Charstonashingtonatloges, the virtual, and in Boston, the physical. It is the tool that enriches my connections and makes my face-to-face time all the more meaningful.

Do you have examples of programs in your community that are redefining traditional space boundaries? Please share them in the comments section.