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

Your Turn To Brag. Come On, Really.

Reform Judaism magazine is planning an upcoming article on how Reform congregations are integrating cutting-edge technology in the service of community. We know if you’re reading this blog, and you’re a staff member, lay leader or active member of a congregation you’ve likely got something good going on. Tell us about it! NOW! Leave a comment (see “comments” link above) or email us at [email protected] and tell us your story, including links. We’ll pass along stories to the folks at the URJ, and/or you can copy them on your email at [email protected]

We have found that many congregations think what they’re doing isn’t so special — until they start to tell others about it, and eyes light up. It doesn’t even have to be fancy techie stuff. When Temple Israel Center really started sharing their web stats (a report to the board to show value, a report to staff to show their writing is really being read, and a report to members to illustrate how many people find the web site content valuable), it changed the conversation about the use of the web site in their congregation. And once they shared the practice with others via the Darim Online Learning Network, many other congregations adopted the valuable practice.

Are you doing anything with social networking? Online video or podcasting? Distance learning for adult education? Blogging? Have you restructured your e-newsletter recently? What products or services have you found most helpful? What’s been key to moving your work forward (adding staff, recruting volunteers, getting a budget, etc.)?

Consider it my Hanukkah present. Take 3 minutes and tell me your story.

Imagine the uses of the URJ’s “Chai Dictionary”

The URJ is promoting an online dictionary that’s part of their Chai Curriculum. While it’s pretty simple, and not terribly extensive (maybe I should say “there’s room to grow”), it’s a very useful tool for those learning Hebrew, or wanting to brush up before the High Holy Days or for any other reason.

Sample of the Chai Dictionary

Broken into 7 levels, words are listed in alphabetical order (in transliteration – which is exactly the way to do it for the intended audience). It offers the Hebrew spelling with vowels, the translation and… audio! Furthermore, there are notes in some entries about where the word or phrase is found, or contextually used, which is really helpful.

The one thing I wish they included was a search function. For users who have a word in mind but aren’t using this tool specifically with the Chai Curriculum materials, one might need to toggle through the seven levels to a) find the word, or b) determine that it’s not even on the list.

I’ve also found a number of Jewish organizations who employ non-Jews who need a Hebrew tutorial here and there, and interfaith couples where the non-Jewish (or not raised Jewish) spouse is seeking clarification of something. Not to mention the very-common (and exciting, I’ll add) moment when kids come home from Hebrew school knowing something their parents don’t! And I’m sure there are many other uses. How might you use this online audio dictionary? What do you think could make it even more useful?