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!

New Pew Study Shows Importance of Internet/Cell Phone Use in Families

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has released a new study titled “Networked Families”. The report paints a picture of how “parents and spouses are using the internet and cell phones to create a new connectedness that builds on remote connections and shared internet experiences”. The majority of American families now are empowered with multiple tools, including desktop and laptop computers, cell phones, and broadband internet, which make possible a new type of connectedness. These patterns of connection within the family shed light on how families prioritize time, seek out and experience meaningful activities, and relate to both people and institutions.

Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Networked Families"
Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project, "Networked Families"

One interesting finding is that the majority of adults say that technology has enabled their family life today to be as close or closer than they remember their families being when they were growing up. While the technologies have perhaps increased time that adults spend at the office and/or working from home, the study reports that they have not had a negative impact on family closeness.

In fact, people say these new communication tools help them stay more connected to family and friends throughout the day, not just during “leisure” time. And approximately 25% of online adults report watching less TV as a result of their internet use. This is an important statistic, as internet use is more likely to be characterized by interaction (email, blogging or microblogging, recommending resources to others, signing up for events or purchasing goods, etc.) rather than passive observation (TV).

“There had been some fears that the Internet had been taking people away from each other,” said Barry Wellman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto and one of the authors of the report, published by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “We found just the opposite.” Wellman said families appreciated the innovations because “they know what each other is doing during the day.” This, he said, comports with his other research, which shows that technology “doesn’t cut back on their physical presence with each other. It has not cut down on their face time.

The report finds that “some 52% of internet users who live with a spouse and one or more children go online with another person at least a few times a week. Another 34% of such families have shared screen moments at least occasionally,” and “more than half of the parents (54%) who use the internet go online with another person a few times a week or more.”

These findings are important for our understanding of technology in Jewish life as well. Our missions are not just about getting people into the building or attending programs, they are also about impacting individuals and families, bringing (and strengthening) Jewish knowledge and practice in the home and the family. Thus, it’s critical that we understand how families are using technology, and that we are “there” when they are sharing information with one another, planning activities, and discussing important family matters.

How do you take advantage of this level of connectivity to bring your message and offering into the homes of your constituents? How have you observed the impact of such “connectivity” on your work?

I’ll leave you with two examples from my own life:

Story #1: Our 4 yr old son attends the synagogue’s preschool. The preschool has a blog (private, for parents only) and posts photos, stories and curricular info there. I read it in my Google Reader, and when there is something important (photo of our kid, a great story, request for volunteers for a field trip), I forward the link to my husband, and we often end up discussing it with our kids at the dinner table. This level of insight into our son’s experience would not be possible without the blog, and without both parents having connected on XYZ topic mid-afternoon, our dinner table conversation may not have been about the preschool, synagogue or Judaic content

Story #2: I’m on the AJWS email list. Prior to Passover, I received an email about a publication drawing connections between the conflict in Darfur and the Exodus story. I downloaded the PDF, emailed it to my husband and friends with whom we were having seder. We exchanged emails about how we would include it our seder. I then uploaded the PDF to the Kinkos website, ordered color print outs, picked them up on my way home, and included this valuable resource in our seder.

What are examples from your personal and/or professional life?