Welcome to the third in a series of guest bloggers from my friends and colleagues — all experts in their respective fields. As I wrote last week, these three words — mission, marketing and media — can begin to sound like empty buzzwords unless they are clearly defined and then made actionable for congregations. The content of what they mean is easy. The key is in understanding the context. Rounding out the series, I’m delighted that my friend and colleague Rabbi Jason Miller, President of Access Computer Technology and all-around rabbinic entrepreneur, is this week’s guest blogger. He provides real-world examples of what happens when the bricks and mortar of a congregation meet the bytes and clicks of the digital age, and why social media channels for engaging people are not optional, but integral to congregational work.
“The Social Networking Synagogue of the 21st Century”
Rabbi Jason Miller – Access Computer Technology
Ask a typical Jewish man or woman if they belong to a synagogue and you’re likely to hear, “Yes, but we only attend on the High Holidays.” Nothing new there. We all know the twice-a-year Jews who only show up in the pews on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, just as we all know Christians who only appear in church on Christmas and Easter. However, something has changed as of late.
That same individual who once described their synagogue attendance in such sporadic terms might now explain that she is an active member of the congregation. Has she all of a sudden begun attending the bricks and mortar synagogue building any more than she did in the past? No. So what has changed that her answer is so vastly different? She now finds herself engaging with her congregational community in Cyberspace. She is a fan of the congregation’s Facebook page and while she was able to ignore those monthly event flyers that arrived in her mailbox on various colors of copy paper, she now sees each program the congregation offers in her Facebook feed (which she spends an hour a day on average reading!). As she’s following the lives of her friends and family, she’s also tracking the weekly happenings at the synagogue. She can see which friends are attending classes, she is learning from the rabbi who posts some thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, and she closely scrutinizes the photos that were uploaded from the last Sisterhood function (which she didn’t attend in real time, but she now feels as if she was there).
That same individual who felt so out of touch with his congregation because he only engaged the services of the rabbi a few times in the month leading up to his daughter’s bat mitzvah is now subscribed to the congregation’s weekly Constant Contact newsletter. He knows which congregants passed away, whose children became engaged, and who just became grandparents for the first time. He can now keep up with what his children are learning in the religious school because he follows the education director’s tweets during the school hours (wow, he thinks, this is way more interesting than my Hebrew School experience!). He learned from uploaded photos on Instagram that there is a monthly study session just for men at the local pub led by the rabbi and he already added the next month’s session to his calendar.
Just a few years ago, congregants like these individuals would have easily been able to maintain their anonymity in the congregation. In the Digital Age, however, synagogues are becoming more social. They are broadcasting religious services online, reaching congregants’ e-mail inboxes each week with correspondence, and creating virtual communities on Facebook. The age of the social networking synagogue is now fully here.
Twenty years ago some synagogues began to recognize that outreach via e-mail was the wave of the future. The next decade found many congregations experimenting with websites and virtual communities on AOL. In more recent time, synagogues have begun to exploit the world of social networking. The mantra of “meet them where they are” means that with over 1.2 billion users, synagogues have no choice but to use Facebook to further their mission, broaden their brand, and engage with different cohorts of followers. Synagogues have to have a presence on Instagram, Pinterest, Vine, Google Plus and Twitter too. There will continue to be congregants — and unaffiliated folks too — who won’t set foot inside the synagogue if it isn’t a major Fall holiday or bar mitzvah they’ve been invited to, but they’ll feel just as connected as they watch (and then share) that funny Purim video the synagogue produced on its YouTube channel.
Congregations are often slow to adapt to new technology. It’s difficult when budget lines aren’t in place to hire social media managers (not a job for the teen in the congregation in need of community service credit), but the future will require such professionals to handle the congregation’s online communication. Rabbis will have to learn to blog and push their digital content far and wide (even beyond their dues paying constituency). Rabbis will have to think outside the box to disseminate their Torah — a lunchtime Google Hangout with business executives in the congregation might be a more practical way to gather a community of learners during that time. Synagogues will need to crowdsource more and the responses they receive will help them do better programming and be more successful in general. Sports arenas had to invest in a new employee who would read the Twitter feed during games to learn of problems that needed to be addressed (“my seat is broken”) and now synagogues have to do the same. When a few people tweet that it was too cold in the sanctuary during that morning’s services, will those complaints go ignored or will they be handled because someone is responding to the social conversation?
Social media should not be viewed as additional work for congregations any more so than creating e-mail accounts and accepting credit card payments were in the 1990s. Technology will keep advancing and it behooves congregations to put their resources into it. Online engagement should be the optimal focus for synagogues. That means that the priority should no longer only be engaging with those who are in the seats, but rather those with an Internet connection. Social media is a new strategy for synagogues, but the ones that are the quickest to adopt it well will be the real winners in the Digital Age.
Tags: Access Computer Technology, Blogging, Congregations, Constant Contact, Culture, Cyberspace, Digital Age, Facebook, Google, Google Plus, Instagram, Pinterest, Rabbi Jason Miller, Rabbis, Social Media, Social Media Marketing, social networking, Synagogues, Tech, Technology, temples, Twitter