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 You can find his twitter feed at He frequently contributes to a conversation about Jewish Education in the 21st century on Twitter under the hashtag #jed21

Kick the New Year Off With Darim Onlines Learning Network for Educators

Are you a teacher, education director, rabbi, cantor, or other congregational educator looking for opportunities to integrate educational technologies and new media like blogs, wikis, and social networking into your work?

Are you interested in joining a community of like-minded educators for professional development and collaborative learning?

We invite you and your school, synagogue, or organization to become a member of the new Darim Online Learning Network for Educators. Learning Network members take part in a series of webinars designed to help expand congregational and complementary educators’ understanding and use of web 2.0 technologies for learning.

Membership information about the Darim Online Learning Network can be found here. Membership includes participation in Darims overall Learning Network for Jewish organizations, the Darim Online Learning Network for Educators, access to webinars and webinar archives for both Networks, and Dirah, Darim’s online resource center. All in all, a pretty good deal!

Current members of the overall Darim Online Learning Network have access to the Network for Educators at no additional fee but need to enroll their educators so that we can send them invitations to Darim events directly. Questions? Contact us at [email protected].

Our first educator’s webinar, an Introduction to Social Media for Jewish Educators, will be held Wednesday, October 14, 1-2:00PM Eastern.

Know an educator or educational organization that would benefit from membership in the Darim Online Learning Network for Educators? Share this post with them or have them contact us at: [email protected] for more information. Please note: the Learning Network for Educators is targeted primarily for educators in Jewish congregational / complementary learning settings but is also open to educators in other settings.

The Darim Online Learning Network for Educators is made possible by a generous grant from the Covenant Foundation.

PS: Want to help us plan this year’s program? Take 5 minutes to complete this survey – let us know what’s important to you!

Announcing: The New Darim Educator Fellows Program!

Attention North American educators in congregational / complementary Jewish settings! Ever wish you had the opportunity to spend some focused and supported time on developing and implementing your Big Idea for Jewish learning and new media? Looking for a community of like-minded educators?

Well, guess what?!

Darim Online is pleased to announce the Darim Educator Fellows program, an intensive semester of hands-on professional learning.

The program is designed for educators in Jewish congregational / complementary learning settings who are already using new media in their work and who would like to take their practice to the next level.

Darim will mentor up to 3 educators who are willing to devote at least 2-4 hours a month to professional learning over a 5 month semester. The Fellows program includes one-on-one coaching, exposure to successful models in Jewish and non-Jewish educational settings, and more. Darim Educator Fellows also participate in the broader Darim Online Learning Network for Educators.


Details and applications for the Fall semester are available here. Applications must be received by Friday, August 14, 2009, 6:00pm Eastern.

We offer additional learning opportunities to Jewish educators through membership in the Darim Online Learning Network for Educators. Learn more on Darim’s website.

The Darim Educator Fellows and the Darim Online Learning Network for Educators is made possible by a generous grant from the Covenant Foundation.

Jewish Supplementary Schools That Work:ADCA Webinar Hosted by JESNA

What do we know about the makings of good Jewish supplementary education? What are noteworthy characteristics of schools that work? What factors enable successful learning communities? What are emerging policy recommendations toward creating and sustaining effective, vibrant complementary education?

These questions are addressed in the report, Schools That Work: What We Can Learn From Good Jewish Supplementary Schools, authored by Dr. Jack Wertheimer on behalf of the AVI CHAI Foundation, March 2009. In conjunction with the release of the report, JESNA recently hosted an ADCA webinar with Jack Wertheimer to discuss the report and the role of central agencies for Jewish education. The webinar is available at JESNAs Sosland Resource Center. ADCA is the Association of Directors of Central Agencies for Jewish Education.

We wrote about other resources on complementary and congregational education published by JESNA – be sure to take a look at them as well.

What are some of the most powerful characteristics of success in your school? What would you add to the report’s list of policy recommendations? What else do you want to know about successful complementary education?

Leading Change: Educators as Agents of Change

The first year of the Darim Online Educators Learning Network is coming to a close. The Learning Network, funded by a generous grant from the Covenant Foundation, facilitated a community of technology-using congregational educators as they dove more deeply into integrating new media resources into their work.

The theme of change has emerged in many Darim Educator conversations. The projects that the educators created and the learning with which they are engaged often lead to other, unanticipated benefits that impact their schools and congregations in positive ways. Many of these educators took the initiative to lead change by example, catalyzed by the opportunity to translate their big ideas into tangible projects.

This trigger video clip, “A Tale of Power and Vision” may resonate for many of us regarding issues of vision and change and leadership.

Another interesting resource about effecting change is David Dorsey’s article, “Positive Deviant,” published in Fast Company. Dorsey writes about one person who effected change from within by capitalizing on successes in the community:

Jerry Sternin’s job was to help save starving children in Vietnam. Faced with an impossible time frame, he adopted a radical approach to making change. His idea: Real change begins from the inside…. [Y]ou have to find small, successful but “deviant” practices that are already working in the organization and amplify them. Maybe, just maybe, the answer is already alive in the organization — and change comes when you find it. Read more….

It is worth taking opportunities to step back and consider: How do we see ourselves as change agents? How does our work impact others in our communities – students, fellow educators, clergy, synagogue colleagues, parents, lay leaders? What successes do we capitalize on? What challenges are we experiencing? How do we addresse these challenges?

What are your stories? Share your “special agent” insights!

Stanford Offers Free Online Course on iPhone Apps

The Apple iPhone has been a raging success, largely because it functions as a platform enabling third parties to create and sell (sometimes give away) applications, and users to customize their experience and utilize their phone as a mini-computer. Over 800 million applications have been downloaded from the App Store, according to Apple.

Stanford University has become famous for offering courses on developing Facebook applications, and now is venturing into the iPhone application world with free classes for the public. From their announcement:

Want to know how to write programs for the iPhone and iPod touch? Beginning this week, a Stanford computer science class on that buzzworthy topic will be available online to the general public for free.

The 10-week course, iPhone Application Programming, is a hot ticket. It begins today and videos of the classes will be posted at Stanford on iTunes U two days after each class meeting ( Copies of the slides shown in class will be available there as well…

Online viewers of the Stanford course will see the same lectures as the on-campus students, but will not receive credit for the course ( Some of the student-developed apps from the fall-quarter class, such as the Chinese-English dictionary Qingwen, are available at the iTunes store.

Have you developed an iPhone app, or have an idea? Share it with us! What’s your favorite iPhone app and why?

Torah at the Center: Centering On Technology

Get “Centered” – URJs Torah at the Center, Spring 2009 is hot off the press! This must read edition focuses on technology and Jewish education. Articles include: The Digital Culture that Shapes our Educational Environment (Brian Amkraut); Professional Learning at Your Fingertips (Lisa Colton and Caren Levine); Podcasting for Smarties (Heidi Estrin); Tech-Kun Olam: Using Technology to Make a Difference (Deborah Stern Harris); Integrating Modern Technology Into Jewish Supplementary Schools (Eran Vaisben); Taking the Siddur Live (Rabbi Judd Kruger Livingston); Assistive Technology: Opening a World of Possibility for Individuals with Special Needs (Shana Erenberg); Youth Culture on Facebook (Scott G.Hertz); and lots of other tasty morsels for your learning pleasure!

Follow Your Dream: Join “Team Darim”Graduate Student Intern Wanted!

Darim Online is looking for our next phenomenal intern! Are you a graduate student in Jewish education or a related field? Or know someone who is? Do you like social media, and want to help Jewish organizations and Jewish educators use technology in creative and effective ways? Come learn more about our internship here.

This position is full time during the summer, and part time (10 hrs/week) during the academic year. This is a paid internship, thanks to the generosity of the Covenant Foundation. Ideally, interns will be able to be based in New York or Virginia for at least a portion of the time, but this is not a requirement.

Learn more and download the application here.

Feel free to pass this along to friends and colleagues who may be interested.

Update: Interviews begin March 31 and will be conducted on a rolling basis
We hope to announce a decision no later than April 17, 2009