Archive for the ‘Digital Dreaming: Using Technology Wisely’ Category

 

A Sabbath from Technology: Turn Off and Tune In!

Posted on: May 4th, 2010 by Hayim Herring No Comments
I’m starting my post with a thank you to one of the most valuable blogs on social media’s potential for societal good: Beth’s Blog: How Non-Profit Organizations Can Use Social Media to Power Social Networks for Change.
Beth writes at the end of her most recent post,

We’re all struggling with balance of technology and a purposeful life.  We need to reflect inward and examine our motivations, patterns, and use of technology – understanding when we’re mindful and not.

Then we need to integrate ways of finding the right balance.  That balance is not a simple on and off switch – it is understanding how to integrate focused and receptive attentions into our online and offline lives.

In her post, Beth recommends a few tips about how to get into the habit of disconnecting from our electronic tethers: smart phones, laptops, Kindles, iPads—and whatever will be next. But the insight that caught my attention was that disconnecting is only a part of the problem. The other part is integration—given that technology is becoming increasingly embedded in our lives (and now, our bodies,) how do we work with it, so that it doesn’t work against us? Futurists and science fiction writers have a long history of creating scenarios about computers or robots taking on human characteristics. I’m more concerned lately about human beings becoming too robotic and losing our essential humanity.
Religious traditions which have a Sabbath offer much wisdom on this subject. Here’s a slice of this wisdom from the Jewish tradition, one that I know reasonably well. While the book of Genesis gives work a bad reputation (Adam has to work the garden after he and Eve violate God’s rule against eating of the forbidden fruit), the book of Exodus (20:8) views both rest and work as positive commandments.
A life of all work is prohibited because it’s destructive. But a life of no work isn’t healthy either from a Jewish perspective, which views humanity as partners with God in working to sustain and enhance the created world. It’s all about balance. And, ironically, by scheduling a day with no creative work, we return to life reinvigorated and attuned to our surroundings and the people who matter to us.
For me, the solution to this problem of electronic enslavement is turning off in order to tune in. Call it a Sabbath from Technology. Integrating technology in my life means not exhibiting a Pavlovian response to the chime of an email or instant message and freeing myself from the pressure to take every call when it comes in—regardless of what I’m in the middle of.  And increasingly, I’m feeling a need to cultivate mindfulness so that multi-tasking doesn’t take a permanent toll on my ability to concentrate. I recognize that I’m the only one who can take this kind of control of technology in my own life.
So—how do you feel about this age-old problem of enslavement taking a new digital guise? Is it over-exaggerated? Or, is it something that you feel but don’t talk about too much anymore? Do you have other suggestions about navigating these issues? Please comment!
Thank you,
Rabbi Hayim Herring

I’m starting my post with a thank you to one of the most valuable blogs on social media’s potential for societal good, Beth Kanter’s: Beth’s Blog: How Non-Profit Organizations Can Use Social Media to Power Social Networks for Change.

Beth writes at the end of her most recent post,

We’re all struggling with balance of technology and a purposeful life.  We need to reflect inward and examine our motivations, patterns, and use of technology – understanding when we’re mindful and not.  Then we need to integrate ways of finding the right balance.  That balance is not a simple on and off switch – it is understanding how to integrate focused and receptive attentions into our online and offline lives.

In her post, Beth recommends a few tips about how to get into the habit of disconnecting from our electronic tethers: smart phones, laptops, Kindles, iPads—and whatever will be next. But the insight that caught my attention was that disconnecting is only a part of the problem. The other part is integration—given that technology is becoming increasingly embedded in our lives (and now, our bodies,) how do we work with it, so that it doesn’t work against us? Futurists and science fiction writers have a long history of creating scenarios about computers or robots taking on human characteristics. I’m more concerned lately about human beings becoming too robotic and losing our essential humanity.

Religious traditions which have a Sabbath offer much wisdom on this subject. Here’s a slice of this wisdom from the Jewish tradition, one that I know reasonably well. While the book of Genesis gives work a bad reputation (Adam has to work the garden after he and Eve violate God’s rule against eating of the forbidden fruit,) the book of Exodus (20:8) views both rest and work as positive commandments.

A life of all work is prohibited because it’s destructive. But a life of no work isn’t healthy either from a Jewish perspective, which views humanity as partners with God in working to sustain and enhance the created world. It’s all about balance. And, ironically, by scheduling a day with no creative work, we return to life reinvigorated and attuned to our surroundings and the people who matter to us.

For me, the solution to this problem of electronic enslavement is turning off in order to tune in. Call it a Sabbath from Technology. Integrating technology in my life means not exhibiting a Pavlovian response to the chime of an email or instant message and freeing myself from the pressure to take every call when it comes in – regardless of what I’m in the middle of.  And increasingly, I’m feeling a need to cultivate mindfulness so that multi-tasking doesn’t take a permanent toll on my ability to concentrate. I recognize that I’m the only one who can take this kind of control of technology in my own life.

So – how do you feel about this age-old problem of enslavement taking a new digital guise? Is it over-exaggerated? Or, is it something that you feel but don’t talk about too much anymore? Do you have other suggestions about navigating these issues? Please comment!

Thank you,

Rabbi Hayim Herring

This One Should Give You a Jolt: Is “iLearn” the Future of Education?!

Posted on: April 26th, 2010 by Hayim Herring No Comments

I know that people who are fascinated with technology like to toss the word “revolution” around quite a bit.  On the other hand, those who are more skeptical about technology often refer to the latest technology as a “fad.”  I was both so dazzled and unnerved by a recent article about technology and education in Fast Company that I want you to decide: are we glimpsing the next revolution in education, or are we seeing the next commercial venture that delivers nothing but profits to marketers?

The article, entitled  A is for App: How Smartphones, Handheld Computers Sparked an Educational Revolution, claims that studies show that technology can actually make kids smarter. It then goes on to describe several new learning devices which are already having impact on how children learn in different cultures and among different socio-economic communities. The author claims the bottom line is these technologies work anytime, anywhere.

Think about the revolution in entertainment.  Entertainment has gone from a “command and control” model, with elites directing the content, format, venue and timing, to an “iTunes model,” in which users not only control their entertainment, but can also create it!  In a similar vein, this article suggests that young learners will soon have the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat of their own education.  The role of the teacher will change from instructor to coach, and teachers will finally have the ability to help students customize their learning so that they can proceed at their own pace.  Students will be able to follow their own imaginations instead of a hierarchically imposed set of rules that someone else has defined as “learning.”

I really encourage you to read the article (it’s multiple pages, but well worth it,) and tell me your reaction. Do you see this as an inevitable march toward a new way of learning?  Do you view this potential leap as positive or negative?  What implications does it have for religious education?  What will be the role of the teacher, the rabbi or the youth minister in this scenario?

I’m looking forward to hearing from you soon!

Thank you,

Rabbi Hayim Herring

image from Flickr.com, woodleywonderworks

Bringing the Torah to Life: A Tale of Technology

Posted on: September 15th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

I recently learned from Elaine Kleinmann, a former STAR consultant, about how her rabbi is using technology in a very simple way to help his congregants prepare for Rosh ha-Shanah.  While this was done for Elul, it could be adapted to work with any holiday.  With thanks to both of them, I’m sharing it with you.

– Rabbi Hayim Herring

Elaine writes:

Rabbi Neil Kurshan of the Huntington Jewish Center in Huntington, Long Island, NY, started a lead up to Shabbat called “Torah Teasers”.  These are emails based on the parasha of the week, and raise questions which elicit responses that do not require additional knowledge of the Torah to answer.  The emails are sent to all those who had requested to be on his listserve, and it is a way to engage people and tie the Torah into personal experience.  Participants can then respond to the entire network. On Shabbat morning, in lieu of a sermon, Rabbi Kurshan gives some background of the parasha, raises the questions again with the congregation, asks for responses, and shares some responses from the listserve.  Following the give and take, he uses that opportunity to share his learning and perspective.

He sent a new request this summer to all those who are on his Torah Teaser listserve. He asked to “be able to share with all of you during the month of Elul some of the experiences that make Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur meaningful for all of us… just a paragraph about a High Holiday experience that was particularly meaningful for you.  It can be an experience from your childhood or from more recent years.  It can be an experience at services, within your family, in your home or from anything else connected with the holidays.  I just want you to describe in some detail the experience–what happened and what it meant to you.  I would then like to share these experiences during the days of Elul with the online community in our shul that makes up our Torah Teasers network.”

As a member of this network, I have been receiving these responses since Elul began.  One is about blowing the shofar, one from someone who underwent a health crisis in the past year, one was about childhood memories of Rosh HaShanah dinner, and one from someone who had moved (with her nuclear family but away from her birth family), and had her first encounter  at our synagogue on the high holidays. Rabbi Kurshan’s request  inspired and motivated me to write about my Russian born father, his ambivalence about Judaism in general and Yom Kippur specifically, and the irony of his death occurring a few hours before Kol Nidre 18 years ago.

Image from Flickr, Alexander Smolianitski

Coming Soon: A Social Media Site That Rates Your Synagogue

Posted on: June 2nd, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

Shalom to all! I’ve invited one of STAR’s media maven consultants, Elana Centor, to post her thoughts about social media trends which are likely to impact upon synagogues. Please read her post and share your reactions, which her provocative post and thoughtful suggestions will engender! Thanks, Elana, for being a guest blogger on Tools for Shuls!  -Hayim

With a tag line of Get the real scoop on doctors, clinics and hospitals, TheHealthcareScoop.com is a place for consumers to share their personal experiences. While the majority of comments are positive, about one-third are negative. Piloted in Minnesota, and now a nationwide community, HealthcareScoop.com is part of Blue Cross Blue Shield. That’s right: an insurance company is sponsoring a blog where its group members can weigh-in on doctors. Isn’t that an “interesting” way to influence doctors?!

Now substitute rabbis, synagogues and religious school in that tag line and you have a peek into the very near future. Get the real scoop on rabbis, synagogues and religious schools.

If there is one trend in Web 2.0 that most synagogues are not prepared for, it’s the proliferation of what Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li coined as Groundswell

“A groundswell is a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other rather than from traditional institutions.”
 
Bernoff and Li say the groundswell has created a permanent, long-lasting shift in the way the world works–one that most traditional institutions see as a threat.

Just in case you think you have some time before the groundswell impacts synagogue life, think again. Introducing ShulShopper.com, which bills itself as, “The premier online service for finding and reviewing congregations that you help create.”  Shulshopper, which is currently in a beta release, is part of the nonprofit independent Jewish organization Matzat. While there aren’t many synagogues reviewed on the site right now, that could change any moment and probably will. And, even if Shulshopper doesn’t go viral, some other synagogue social media site will appear without notice and it will allow people to share their experiences at your congregation. You can count on it– not every comment will suggest you have a warm and welcoming culture.

Since the question is not if, but when members, former members and visitors will share stories about your congregation in an online community, what will be your strategy? How will you respond if someone writes a negative comment? How will you even know if someone has written about you?
 
Here are three things you can do to prepare for the synagogue groundswell.

  1. Develop a Social Media Communications Plan
    Every synagogues needs to have a social media communications plan which includes strategies on how the synagogue will respond to positive comments, negative comments that are nasty, unfair or untrue as well as negative comments that have validity. Create the plan when the emotions of the comments are not part of the equation.
  2. Become Digital Detectives
    Digital Detectives are people who investigate what is being said about their organization on websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and a host of other social media sites. It’s not as difficult as it sounds thanks to Google Alerts – a free feature of Google that can be configured to send you an email alert every time your synagogue, rabbi or key members are mentioned on a website or blog.
  3. Spend Time Doing Some Online Listening
    In many ways, participating in social media is like immigrating to a new country. It has its own culture, customs and language. That’s why it’s important to spend time observing how things are done in social media before you try to actively participate in it.  By taking the time to listen and observe you will represent your congregation in an appropriate and respectful manner.

Elana Centor is Chief Strategist For Digitalwagontrain a training, coaching, consulting firm helping individuals and organizations achieve their goals faster, smarter, easier by using social media tools.  Elana posts regularly on her blog Funny Business.

Image from Flickr.comLong Zheng

Don’t Forget the Personal in PC

Posted on: May 22nd, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

The acronym PC originally meant personal computer. This represented a revolution, putting powerful computing tools once only used by corporations into the hands of individuals. But personal should have another dimension. We shouldn’t forget that technology must be a reflection of the personal touch that a church or synagogue aspires to provide.

In the prior post on technology, people noted that technology should be thought of as just another way to reach and teach members in the community. If you have people leading the technology team in your congregation who are easily attracted to the latest trends and toys in technology, take caution. Make sure you also have people who know less about technology, and more about building community. 

For example, many congregations have four generations of members.  Let’s assume that the majority of members at least access the congregation website, which you’ve just redesigned.  Did you ever think about the font size used for text? For some who are older, trying to read it is like trying to hear from an inadequate sound system in the sanctuary.  One of the ways you can help people into your “electronic front door” is to have a button which enlarges the size of the font.  This sounds like a small matter, but if older members have difficulty reading the website, what message are you sending to them? You’re implicitly saying that your congregation doesn’t understand their abilities—not the message we want to send to our elders, who have often been loyal supporters of the congregation!

Another example: how easy is it to use the automated voicemail system. Is there a long message before an option to get information? Is the staff directory accurate? (I often find that trying to locate the extension of a Rabbi after hours is especially difficult because some directories consider “rabbi” a part of the name!) If you get caught in the equivalent of voicemail devil’s triangle, you’re again sending the unintentional message that you’re not attentive to your congregants.

So here’s a suggestion. If you have an adult education committee meeting, invite people to come in 15 minutes earlier to give feedback on the adult learning section of your website.  You can do the same if you have a sisterhood or brotherhood meeting—ask members to review their activities page and the website in general. You can follow a similar process for getting feedback on your voicemail system.

As you review your technologies, try to keep the following questions in front of you:

  1. Do your communications technologies serve your members’ needs, and how do you know that’s  true?
  2. Are they consistent with each other so that key information is easily accessible and accurate?

If you do try to solicit feedback from committee members please share what you’ve learned.  Additionally, let our readers know what simple changes you have made to help better connect members to you’re congregation.

Thanks—and looking forward to your responses and experiences!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

photo from flickr.com, Kaptain Kobold

Terrific or Terrifying? Technology’s Impact on Your Organization

Posted on: May 12th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

Item: in 1986, I purchased a desktop computer manufactured by Leading Edge (which would now have to be called Dead Edge—the company didn’t last long) and an Epson dot matrix printer for about $2200. The computer was state of the art, came with 2 megabytes of RAM which I upgraded to 4, a monitor on which amber-colored words appeared and, when I inserted a second floppy disk, a fairly sophisticated spell-check program. As I write this entry, I am sitting on an airplane, using a laptop. One person is watching a movie on his handheld device, another is listening to songs, and although it’s dark, the cabin is aglow with other laptops or net books. All of these small, portable devices are exponentially more powerful than my first electronically tethered desktop, which didn’t move more than a few inches because it was plugged into a wall outlet.
 
My point? As much as we may sometimes wish it, technology is not going away and is literally embedded in most aspects of life already. In fact, it’s literally embedded in many bodies—insulin pumps, pacemakers, replacement parts (we are just seeing the beginning of how technology will allow for body-morphing for the masses for non-medical purposes).  So while hardware and software applications will continue to change and mature, the communications environment in which we live is here to stay.
 
From what I observe, there are many digital addicts who are always on. That means that they expect near-immediate responses when they send you a question, want you to help them solve a problem or simply want to send a greeting. The ding of an email or voice mail notification can create a near-Pavlovian response on our part, we feel like me must acknowledge the email moments after it comes, perhaps at the expense of deeper thought. 
 
I’d like to start a conversation with you now by asking two questions:

  1. Are you satisfied with how your synagogue manages to keep up with the rapid flow of technological changes?
  2. What technological changes has your synagogue made within the last five years, and have these changes delivered what they promised?

Thanks for what I’m sure will be another provocative discussion!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

image from flickr.com  leo.prie.to 

A Minyan, a Megillah, and a Megabyte

Posted on: March 9th, 2009 by Hayim Herring No Comments

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Retooling Rabbis.  One of the respondents was Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dror.  He asked the following two questions:
 
How would you train rabbis to function in a virtual congregation and in a cyberspace quest for spirituality? I want to give him a shoutout for raising two intriguing questions, and also respond. Your questions really point us to a future which has been relatively unexplored.  We can glimpse how some churches are rethinking spirituality in web 2.0 environments:
 
Virtual Church
Air Jesus
The Cathedral
 
The Jewish world has its counterparts, too.  For many years already, there have been Jewish prayer groups, virtual Passover Seders, Jewish learning opportunities and other ways to meet virtually. One of the most exciting developments is occurring in the website Second Life, where several virtual synagogues already exist (please see some earlier posts on the CO-STAR blog on this topic: here and here. And, I believe that there is already one online semikha (rabbinical ordination program).
 
For a variety of reasons, synagogues and seminaries are slow to respond to technological changes. But amkha, the “non-professionals” who are knowledgeable and creative, may drive the outcomes of these kinds of questions. Will virtual megillah (Story of Queen Esther and Mordechai) readings compete with real-time ones in the future? For example, if you have several friends join you in your home for a megillah reading that is webcast from Jerusalem, can you fulfill your legal requirement to hear it read that way? And what about gathering for a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 men if you’re Orthodox, 10 people if you’re not)? Will we see the emergence of virtual minyanim because of the convenience and flexibility which they offer, especially as the possibilities for making them interactive increase? What about downloadable prayer books that you can customize for your personal theological mood?
 
The tools and the environment are ripe for these kinds of experimentations. They are happening and will only increase. My question to you: given that you will have to respond to them, what is your position on these issues? Will you try to adapt as many as you can for the synagogue or try to limit them? What are the pros and cons of working in this kind of environment?
 
Rabbi Hayim Herring