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!

G-dcast.com Animated Torah Lessons

Date: August, 2007. Place: Atlanta. “The Conversation“, an amazing gathering of professional and lay Jews.

My Ah-Ha Moment: Sarah Lefton showing a small crowd a new project she’s been working on: G-dcast. A short animated online video that captures the story, the lessons and the larger questions of the Torah portion. Wow. Fun, entertaining, insightful, thought provoking. Accessible. Really accessible. I was impressed.

Fast forward approximately one year. Sarah’s attracted funding, support and a lot of energy as she’s produced a series of G-dcast.com films, which launch today. The narrators include Lawrence Kushner, Esther Kustanowitz and many other hip, household names. Some episodes are straightforward storytelling, while other parshiot are told as country songs, hip-hop tracks or mystical discourses on the nature of the universe.

G-dcasts goal is to raise basic Jewish literacy among youth and young adults in an accessible and fun way. In order to affect as wide an audience as possible, G-dcast is delivered online for free, and they offer a downloadable curriculum guide for each episode (great for teachers as well as parents). The series will also be available as a video podcast, so the cartoons can be watched and collected on ipods and mobile phones. Each episode offers embed code so you can easily add it to your web site or blog (see below). While Lefton and her colleagues imagine the animations targeted to a relatively youthful audience, I happen to think the wit, insightful nature and creative style will appeal to a very wide audience, both online and in a live gathering, such as a classroom. What do you think?

Check it out: G-dcast.com.

copyright 2008, g-dcast llc

Update: The New York Times raves about G-dcast.com!

Torah Tidbit

In this week’s Torah portion Mase’ei, the land is finally apportioned to the tribes of Israel. After wandering, debating and negotiations each of the tribes knows where where in the land either east or west of the Jordan they are getting their portion of land. Numbers 34: 13-29 describes the process by which the land was apportioned. Moses instructs that a chieftain from each tribe is designated to receive the land on behalf of their tribe. In turn each of these men will allot the portion to the families of their tribe.

The JPS Torah Commentary points out that with the exception of Caleb and Joshua who are survivors of the generation who left Egypt, the rest of the list are new names. Each of these leaders is taking the helm of the tribe and for the first time serving as a representative. Yet in the context of the larger narrative this apportioning is seamless with the previous sections on land distribution. To emphasize this link the story of Zelophehad’s daughters that appeared two weeks ago in chapter 27 concludes in this portion in chapter 36.

It is this juxtaposition of changing leadership and continuous communal narrative that piqued my interest. How important it is to retain seamless transition despite changes in leadership. While change is good, here seamless transition is important for stability. The narrative of the daughters of Zelophehad reminds us of the passage of time but also the unity of the story. As we think to our modern institutions the lessons of this Torah portion are important. The ideal is for the new guard to take over without taking steps backward. The text assumes that the knowledge of the apportionment has reached these leaders and that everything will continue as planned. Now while we don’t have God and Moses showing us the ropes, we can take a clue from their book and make sure that we transmit not only responsibility but also the information needed to accomplish the task at hand.

Shabbat Shalom!