Role of the 21st Century Rabbi

A recent editorial in The Forward demonstrates how much the American rabbinate has changed in the 21st century. The economy has made it difficult for many rabbis to find good jobs; and for them to keep good jobs when the synagogue or organization falls on tough financial times. A reduction in the number of congregations due to closures and mergers has also caused a dearth of desirable positions for rabbis in the U.S. and Canada. But there are other factors involved as well. New rabbinical schools (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Ziegler at the American Jewish University, Hebrew College, and the Academy for Jewish Religion) have cropped up in the past fifteen years increasing the number of new rabbis looking for work. The Internet has also made it much easier for the laity to learn synagogue skills — life-cycle officiation, prayer leading, and teaching — that may ultimately reduce the need for a rabbi, although I don’t believe that to be the case.

As the Forward editorial makes clear, “the role of rabbi is being challenged as never before.” Some sociologists like Prof. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University predicted precisely such a change in the American rabbinate based on shifting demographics and the needs of the community. However, I don’t see this as a crisis in American Jewry. Rather, I find this to be an interesting opportunity for rabbis to become more entrepreneurial — both as a way to be necessary and to make a significant contribution to our people. Rabbis who see this as a chance to reinvent their rabbinate will ultimately be the most successful in the new era of Jewish life. And that holds true not only for American rabbis, but for rabbis throughout the Jewish world who have the entrepreneurial spirit.

I’m currently taking part in a Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) Rabbinic Cabinet Mission to Ukraine and Israel, and writing this blog post on a plane headed from Kiev to Tel Aviv along with a few dozen of my colleagues from the multitude of denominations. One thing I’ve noticed on this mission is that when rabbis meet each other for the first time, in general, they no longer ask each other “Which congregation do you lead?” Rather, the question is something along the lines of, “Where are you from and what do you do?” Rabbis today are exploring much different rabbinic paths of leadership than in previous generations. Growing up I always thought the role of the rabbi was solely in a synagogue. All of the rabbinic role models I had as a child were pulpit rabbis. Today, much has changed and the majority of rabbis do not work in congregations.

Talented rabbis are working in day schools, Jewish Community Centers, camping agencies, communal organizations, college campus institutions, and philanthropic foundations. They are also cobbling together two and three part-time jobs in ways never imagined in previous generations. Several entrepreneurial rabbis are taking a page out of the Chabad emissary playbook and founding new congregations and small prayer communities where there is a need. While not an easy task, these rabbis are finding the “start-up” experience to be exhilarating, significant and spiritually fulfilling. Rabbis are also freelancing their skills more often. As the number of Jewish families and singles unaffiliated with a congregation rises, there is an increased need for rabbis to perform life-cycle leadership roles. With the growth of the internet it has become easy for people to identify rabbis to officiate at a baby naming ceremony, wedding, funeral or unveiling.

A recent article in The Jewish Week showed a new trend for private bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, independent of synagogues, that is prevalent on the East Coast. And that trend is spreading to the rest of the country. As a rabbi who is not affiliated with a congregation, I am called upon often to lead life-cycle ceremonies and I know that is the case with my colleagues around the country who likewise aren’t working in a congregation. Our culture of desiring the best products has reached into the religious leadership marketplace as well. A Jewish couple no longer feels compelled to have the rabbi of their childhood congregations preside at their wedding ceremony. Instead they will select the rabbi who they believe will create the most meaningful, memorable experience. So too with other life-cycle events like funerals. I’m often asked to perform the weddings of young people with whom I developed a relationship working as a rabbi on a campus Hillel or at a Jewish summer camp. Many of these young people have moved away from their childhood communities and don’t have a meaningful relationship with the rabbi of their parents’ congregation, but like everything else in life they are seeking the personable, meaningful, and memorable.

I believe that while laypeople may be able to perform many of the functions traditionally reserved for rabbis, there is no replacement for the vast array of skills a rabbi brings after years of training. A one-year online rabbinic program may be a worthwhile endeavor for many spiritually seeking Jewish people who are not able to attend a five- or six-year rabbinic training program, but they will not be a legitimate substitute for a rabbi. As the Forward editorial articulated, “For many American Jews, there is no substitute for the penetrating power of a brilliant sermon, or the comfort offered by a rabbi who knew the dying person before she became ill. There is no one else to mold and lead a religious community, to carry on and interpret our great tradition of scholarship, or to stand as a moral lighthouse in this foggy time. No one else to represent ourselves to ourselves, and ourselves to other people. Which is why defining and sustaining the role of the modern rabbi is one of the most vital challenges before the American Jewish community today.”

I don’t believe the rabbinate is in crisis, but I do believe that the most resourceful and entrepreneurial rabbis will be the ones to emerge successful in the Jewish world. Professional programs like Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship have realized this and are helping guide rabbis in the new rabbinate. The rabbis who embrace rather than dismiss the new realities of Jewish life will be the ones to make positive contributions to their community in particular and to global Jewry in general. And those rabbis who don’t dwell on the past (“the good ole days of the rabbinate”), but seek out modern innovations to guide their leadership and influence will be the most dynamic Jewish leaders of the future.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Texting Teshuva in Shul: Tech Savvy or Tacky?

There was undoubtedly more texting in shul this Rosh Hashanah than in past years. In most liberal congregations texting was likely done as discreetly as possible; often with a cellphone hidden low in one’s lap. In some congregations the texting may have been done more overtly outside in the synagogue lobby or perhaps outside the synagogue building. The younger generation is much more cavalier about using cellphones in the service on one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar.

But as NY Times Miami bureau chief Lizette Alvarez wrote in a recent article (For Young Jews, a Service Says, ‘Please, Do Text’), in some congregations texting was a rabbinically sanctioned activity on Rosh Hashanah. Some rabbis, as Alvarez reports, integrated texting into the service. In many congregations this new form of interaction during services was a first.

Alvarez explains that in a Miami Beach Reform congregation, congregants looked up at a big white screen and read the directions: “Pray. Write. Text.” For 90 minutes the participants in the pews used their texting thumbs to send out regrets, goals, musings and blissful thoughts for the rest of the congregation to see.

The rabbi, Amy Morrison, encouraged her parishioners rather than scolding them for texting. She said, “Take those phones out” and asked them what they needed to let go of to be “fully present?”

“For young Jews in America, we are a demographic different from our parents and our grandparents,” said Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman, the director of congregational engagement for Synagogue 3000, an organization that seeks to re-energize synagogue life and re-engage young professionals. “We’re more educated, we move many more times and live further away from our family of origin, and we are single much longer, for years after college, which was never the case before.”

Rabbi Morrison explained the idea to encourage texting during the High Holy Day services at her shul: “For my generation, the generation that the service is for, prayer is not something you can find in your own life until someone helps you wrestle with it… So, I recommended texting.”

The young rabbi grew up in a Conservative synagogue, where the rabbi would have scoffed at the notion of a texting during Rosh Hashanah service. “Services there aren’t as thought-provoking or honest or sharing, which is what I liked here,” she explained about the synagogue of her childhood.

While progressive congregations like Morrison’s will continue to experiment with pushing the envelope and using new technology like texting and tweeting during the services, many other congregation will continue to lean toward formal decorum arguing that sending text messages on one’s phone for the congregation to see detracts from the respect the synagogue, Torah and services demand.

One congregant at Morrison’s Reform temple enjoyed the texting aspect of the services. She recalled, “I paid attention the whole time; that’s a problem with me, tuning it out.”

We shall see if the communal texting culture catches on in more synagogues or if rabbis will continue to ask congregants to remember to turn off their cellphones. As text messaging becomes even more popular and and a reflexive act for the younger generation, it is possible that a texting congregation during High Holy Day services will become less of an oddity.

Tech savvy or tacky? Which will win out?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rap Videos Okay in Synagogue But Not Politicians

It is often said that politics and religion make strange bedfellows. Strange or not, it is important to remember that politics and religion are bedfellows in just about every nation in the world (some more than others).

I’ve noticed that in the United States, where we have a supposed separation of Church and State, it is often the synagogues that are the only ones concerned about such a separation. I hear rabbis and synagogue leaders express concern about keeping politics out of the congregation because it could jeopardize the institution’s 501(c)3 tax exempt status. While these rabbis are worrying about their nonprofit status, the local churches are allowing political candidates to deliver stump speeches from the pulpit and many churches are notorious for outright endorsing candidates.
Synagogues have always had politicians address the congregation, but in recent years as the American Jewish community has become more politically polarized it has become more commonplace. While this used to occur without incident or at least with only minor dissent, there is now a guarantee of backlash from congregants and lay leaders from both sides of the aisle.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s speaking engagement at a Miami temple was cancelled

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, will speak this evening at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit. The congresswoman is speaking at the annual meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit. There hasn’t been any public opposition to Wasserman Schultz’s appearance, but this event is for a communal organization and is not connected to the synagogue.

That was not the case in Miami last week. Debbie Wasserman Schultz was slated to speak at Temple Israel on Friday night, but the day before her appearance was canceled. According to the Miami Herald, the debate about whether the chair of the DNC should be allowed to speak in shul pitted a prominent Republican donor against a prominent supporter of the Democratic Party. At the end of the day, the temple’s president Ben Kuehne decided to cancel Wasserman Schultz’s presentation, but that didn’t stop Stanley Tate from resigning. Tate is a past president of the congregation and a major donor to the Republican party who is the co-chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign in Miami-Dade County. Kuehne, the current president, is an attorney who was retained by the Gore campaign back in 2000 during the recount.
What’s interesting is that this is not the first time I’ve written about Miami’s Temple Israel on this blog. In fact, just last month I mentioned Temple Israel as the congregation where Drake’s bar mitzvah music video was filmed. I wonder if either Ben Kuehne or Stanley Tate has heard the lyrics in Drake’s song that was performed on the bimah of their beloved congregation. I would think that would be more offensive than Debbie Wasserman Schultz speaking about the U.S.-Israel relationship on that same bimah on a Friday evening.

U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearance at a Boca shul this month was met with protests

In his explanation to Temple Israel congregants about the cancelled Debbie Wasserman Schultz event, synagogue president Ben Kuehne cited security concerns rather than Tate’s opposition. He also included a video of the protest at Congregation B’nai Torah, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice spoke there on May 10. 
Having heard Debbie Wasserman Schultz speak on several occasions (including at a small gathering at a private home last November and at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference in D.C. in March), I can honestly say that when she speaks about the U.S.-Israel relationship it is not a political speech. Her support of Israel is unquestionable and I’m sure that had Temple Israel’s leadership asked her not to speak about divisive domestic political issues she would have complied.

So, for Temple Israel in Miami it looks like some of their members are fine with vulgar and misogynistic rap lyrics sung from their bimah, but they’re not okay with a well-respected Jewish member of Congress speaking from their pulpit about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Non-Profits and Social Media – Do They Get It?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

As a rabbi who is a social mediaologist, I find myself consulting a lot of synagogues and Jewish nonprofits on their social media strategy. The leaders of these institutions all recognize that they require a social media strategy, but the plan for how it will be implemented varies greatly.

Many synagogues in 2012 have yet to budget for social media marketing so they look for the quickest and cheapest solution. In most cases this comprises of identifying a volunteer lay person or existing staff member who is willing and able to set up the congregation’s social media presence across the major networks. In some instances this is a teen who claims to be a Facebook wiz and over-promises and under-delivers. With many volunteers, congregations often get what they pay for.

Synagogues and Jewish nonprofits are jumping on the social media bandwagon, but are they taking the initiative seriously enough?

Jewish organizations seem to be a little further ahead than synagogues in the social media department. Third party retailers like Target and Home Depot have forced nonprofit institutions to get on the social media bandwagon quickly because of their online contests in which the retailer partners with nonprofits for fundraising prizes. These crowd-raising initiatives have required nonprofits to bolster their social identity online to compete in the contests.

While businesses in the for-profit world have allocated serious funds to their online marketing initiative, the nonprofit world is still light-years behind. That should be no surprise because nonprofits often take a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to change.

Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin recently wrote on the eJewishPhilanthropy blog about an unofficial survey they conducted to investigate how Jewish nonprofits are “utilizing social media and how it enables them to meet the demands that they and their leaders are facing.” From the outset, they assert that the picture is not entirely positive and quote a synagogue software system developer lamenting that “most of the Jewish world seems frozen in the 20th century when it comes to being technologically advanced.”

Our recent survey demonstrated a significant lack of human or dollar resources invested by Jewish groups into Facebook and Twitter. Very few synagogues even seem to have any presence on Facebook or Twitter, although they all have websites, many of which are reasonably interactive. Robyn Cimbol, director of development at New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, noted that her congregation was probably the first Jewish congregation to have a website but today they have no specific plans to foster Facebook or Twitter activities, citing other pressing priorities and no apparent demands from their 2,800 member households. “We have limited staff resources and capabilities for this,” she noted, “but we are gearing up ultimately to recognize social media as one communications opportunity,” she told us. She did emphasize that “a number of staff members do use Face Book [sic]… to communicate with specific constituents but it is not used Temple-wide.”

Facebook reports that 89% of 1.3 million U.S. nonprofit organizations boast a social networking presence, offering opportunities potentially for fundraising. However, fundraising on Facebook is still a “minority effort,” despite recent gains.

The authors of the study recognize that the Jewish nonprofits that have succeeded the most in social media marketing have been those that have participated in social fundraisers with third parties, such as mega-retailers or major foundations. Many organizations that find themselves competing in these online social fundraisers have allocated staff time or in some cases hired dedicated part-time staff to manage these initiatives (if they win there is a good return on investment).

The Jewish Education Project and JESNA’s Lippman Kanfer Institute (in partnership with UJA Federation of New York) have launched the Jewish Futures Competition, which will dole out $1,800 prizes for Jewish nonprofits to advance their social media identities. As more synagogues and Jewish nonprofits become more focused on bolstering their social media exposure (moving from building their fan base on a Facebook page to increasing their brand amplification through likes, comments and shares), they will integrate their email marketing (Constant Contact, MailChimp, etc.) and online fundraising (Razoo, CauseCast, DonorPages, etc.) into their social networking.

Evans and Lapin’s study demonstrates that nonprofits do understand the value in using social networks for fundraising. “According to this year’s Nonprofit Social Network Benchmark Report, four out of five nonprofit organizations find social networks a ‘valuable’ fundraising option.” However, these same nonprofits aren’t able to quantify why that is. It is important to remember that social media is still in its infancy. As it grows (and its exponential growth doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon), more synagogues and nonprofits will get on board by allocating the necessary resources to its success.

As they say, the “proof is in the pudding” and the ROI will be noticeable for the synagogues and Jewish nonprofits who dedicate the necessary time and resources to building their brand/mission exposure through social media. Change is never easy and the nonprofit world is more risk averse when it comes to technological innovation. At least the conversations about social media integration are taking place in the Jewish nonprofit world, and the studies are showing that a realization exists that this is a necessary form of communication, marketing and fundraising in the 21st century.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Revised USCJ Luach

Today is the second day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the beginning of the new Jewish month. It is also the seventh day of Hanukkah. That means that the past two mornings have been long, complicated prayer services with Torah readings from two separate Torah scrolls, Hallel (songs of praise for both Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh), and a Musaf service for Rosh Chodesh that includes an insertion for Hanukkah. It’s unusual for morning minyan to last for a full hour, but Rosh Chodesh Tevet is always a long service (of course, it’s even longer when it falls on Shabbat).

There are a few days when morning minyan gets complicated and requires a road map (like Hoshanah Rabbah for example). A gabbai (one who runs the synagogue service) often uses a luach (calendar and service guide) for assistance in coordinating the services and making sure that nothing was left out that should have been included or included that should have been omitted. There are several Orthodox versions of a luach and many Conservative Jewish leaders will use those, however, the newly revised official luach of the Conservative Movement is a wonderful resource.

My teacher Rabbi Miles Cohen (pictured below) took over the responsibility as editor of the USCJ Luach (or Luah with a dot under the ‘h’ as its rendered therein). Kenneth Goodrich created the first Luach for the Conservative Movement 17 years ago for the Jewish year 5755. Upon Goodrich’s untimely death in 2004, Rabbi Robert Abramson edited and managed the publication of the Luach. This is the first year that Rabbi Cohen has taken on the editorial tasks.

I studied with Rabbi Cohen at the Jewish Theological Seminary and found him to be an amazing teacher who takes synagogue skills very seriously. He is punctilious when it comes to nusach (Hebrew pronunciation and melody) and is one of the world’s experts in Hebrew grammar pertaining to the Torah text and liturgy. Rabbi Cohen is also a master typesetter, and has created guides and interactive software for learning to read Torah, haftarah, and megillot, as well as guides for nusach skills and Hebrew grammar.

The USCJ Luah can be purchased from the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism online book service. It is an indispensable tool for the Conservative synagogue and Rabbi Cohen has superbly improved this important resource.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Join the Minyan with Skype

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), he was examining the legal permissibility of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, my teacher picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class from Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation.

Rabbi Reisner’s project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not “kosher.”

Now, one of my colleagues has opened his daily minyan through Skype access which brings this halakhic question back into discussion. Skype had yet to be invented back in 1998 when Rabbi Reisner considered the issues surrounding virtual minyan participation. In a bulletin article for his synagogue (reposted by the Rabbinical Assembly), Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts, Rabbi David Lerner refers to Rabbi Reisner’s published teshuva noting that he reasoned that should the technology come available the virtual minyan would be permissible.

Rabbi Lerner had good reason to open his daily minyan via Skype to those who couldn’t attend in person. One of his congregants, Maxine Marcus, lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a prosecutor of war criminals from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Her mother recently lost her fight against cancer. After returning to Amsterdam following the funeral last fall in New York, Maxine how difficult it was to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lerner made the decision to allow Maxine to participate in the Temple Emunah minyan through Skype.

Based on my reading of Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva, the issue of reciting kaddish as part of an already constituted real-time minyan was a separate issue from constituting a minyan via the Internet through video conferencing. Thus, so long as a minyan is already in place in Lexington, Massachusetts at Rabbi Lerner’s congregation, there was never a question about a “virtual participant” reciting Kaddish in that minyan.

Based on Rabbi Reisner’s conclusions, however, it would seem that even with Skype a minyan could not be constituted virtually meaning eight people gathered together could not be joined virtually by two others using Skype to count as a minyan. He writes that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, through an audio- or video-conference or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, defined as being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.” He goes on to explain, “Once a quorum has been duly constituted, those who hear the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill their obligations thereby, even long distance.

With regard to the Mourner’s Kaddish, Rabbi Reisner concluded in the 2001 teshuva that “a mourner at a distance may recite it, but must be accompanied by a physical participant (a member who is physically present) in the minyan. This preserves the reason behind requiring a minyan for the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. It establishes community. Without this concluding statement, individuals might take it a step further and recite Mourner’s Kaddish on their own.” Therefore, as far back as a decade ago Rabbi Lerner was on firm halakhic standing to allow his congregant in Amsterdam to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish via Skype so long as at least one minyan member in Massachusetts accompanies her.

Rabbi Lerner reports that introducing Skype into his daily minyan has strengthened the minyan and has proven to be a very powerful experience. “Members of the minyan have gotten to know Maxine, schmoozing with her for a minute or two after minyan over Skype.” He also has found that opening his minyan virtually has impacted the general community. He wrote in his bulletin article, “This project enabled someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come and experience the power of God, the power of prayer, the power of community, and the power and support of a nurturing community around sacred occasions and after times of loss. His biggest challenge has been trying to encourage other congregations to invite remote minyan-goers to their minyan without letting it adversely impact on our minyan or attendance.

Kol Hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Lerner for making good use of technology like Skype to allow a mourner in Amsterdam to find comfort with her community in Massachusetts. While Skype might still not be the technology that allows ten people to come together virtually in Cyberspace to form a minyan, it is certainly a great way to allow outsiders to join an existing minyan with a Web cam and Internet connection.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Congregation Beit Kodesh

It’s not uncommon for a rabbi to write a eulogy for a human being, but writing a eulogy for a synagogue is fortunately not very common. Nevertheless, I’d like to express my sincere sadness that a local Conservative congregation is closing its doors today.

Yesterday marked the final Shabbat for Congregation Beit Kodesh, a small Conservative synagogue in Livonia, Michigan that began in 1958. As if this wasn’t already a sad weekend for the families of Congregation Beit Kodesh, news has circulated today that Cantor David Gutman, their beloved cantor emeritus has passed away. For several years after Beit Kodesh had retained its final full-time rabbi, Cantor Gutman held the congregation together and led all prayer services including the High Holidays.

At the end of the summer in 2005 while I was working as the associate director at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, I was contacted by the leaders of Beit Kodesh who invited me to meet with them in the synagogue’s library. The small group of long-time members explained the history of the congregation to me and their concern that with dwindling membership numbers they wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open much longer. Their building was owned by the Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit and they ran a small Sunday school program. They asked me if I would be willing to be their rabbinic adviser, serving as a consultant when questions came up, helping to raise some much needed funding in the community, and also providing direction to the Sunday School director. I wasn’t about to let a synagogue go out of business if I could help and so I agreed.

For the next three years (in my spare time) I wrote newsletter articles for the synagogue bulletin, taught the Sunday School families at holiday events, and helped promote the congregation in the community. The highlights during that time were a front-page story in the Detroit Jewish News and the renovation of the congregation’s sanctuary. In December 2008 I sent out a letter to my own contacts in the community explaining that this small congregation was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, but would soon have to close its doors because of financial reasons. Close to $10,000 trickled in to help Beit Kodesh stay alive for a little longer.

Finally, this month the congregation’s leaders recognized it was time to close. As I told the Detroit Jewish News, “The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story. That they eked out another five years makes them ‘The Little Shul that Could.'”

These days it’s not unusual for small Conservative synagogues to either close or merge with other congregations. The national trend is a response to the growth of Conservative synagogues during the expansion years and today’s difficult economic conditions. For a dwindling Conservative Jewish population here in Metro Detroit, there are too many congregations and they can’t support themselves as their membership rolls decline. The Beit Kodesh leadership should be proud of themselves for sticking around as long as they did in an area without a lot of Jewish people from which to draw.

The men and women of Congregation Beit Kodesh of Livonia, Michigan should be commended for their hard work in maintaining a Jewish presence in an area of Metro Detroit that hasn’t had a large Jewish population for many decades. It is sad whenever a synagogue closes, but Am Yisrael Chai… the Jewish people endures.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Facebook Group or Private Social Network for Synagogues?

In my last year of rabbinical school, I had an interesting conversation with a rabbi of a large congregation. He told me that he had put his foot down and refused to let his congregation create a synagogue-wide email LISTSERV. His rationale? This forum would be used by the membership to complain about the synagogue… and the rabbi.

I gently suggested to my future colleague that if his members were going to use an email discussion group to complain about the congregation, they were likely already doing this in real-time at kiddush (the reception following services). He laughed and acknowledged I was correct. I’m sure that in the ensuing years he acquiesed and allowed for an email LISTSERV.

Developed in 1986 by Eric Thomas, LISTSERV was the first email list software application. The simple LISTSERV, an automated mailing list manager, allowed for likeminded individuals in a group to disseminate email messages to one another. The features of such a platform were minimal. The threads were difficult to follow. In digest format, there were several discussions arriving in the inbox all at once with no logical grouping order. Today, the email LISTSERV has long since run its course. Even the next generation of these discussion groups (Yahoo! Groups, Deja News which became Google Groups, the London-based GroupSpaces, etc.) are limited in features.

Today, Facebook has made these discussion groups unecessary. The Facebook Group application allows for the dissemination of rich content in a secure, private network. I have helped many synagogues transition from the old LISTSERV and email-based group platforms to the Facebook Groups application. As I tell rabbis and synagogue executives all the time: There are over 750 million Facebook users worldwide so there’s a good chance that your congregants are already signed on.

Facebook Groups allow for smaller cohorts within a congregation to have a forum to share ideas, documents, links to articles, photos, videos, and promote events. It is private and secure with at least one administrator monitoring the group.

Recently, when encouraging synagogues to start using the Facebook Groups application, I’ve been met with some resistence. Facebook isn’t secure, they argue. They’ve heard that there is really no privacy with Facebook. They argue that a Private Social Network must be the way to go. I disagree and here’s why.

Private Social Networks are certainly great apps and they have features galore. At first glance, applications like SocialGO and Yammer seem like the perfect solution for a company or organization that wants to have a social network that is open to only their employees or members. For many companies, these private social networks might make the most sense because once the employees are logged into Facebook, there will likely be many hours of unproductivity.

Synagogues and temples are different however. In that respect, I say use the network where the members are already participating. And that is obviously Facebook.

The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly recently announced a deal through a partnership with SocialGo that allows member rabbis to contract with the private social network company to create a web-based social network for their congregation. These private social networks have all the features and functionality as Facebook Groups, but cost a discounted $500 and then $25 per month. Facebook is free and everyone already has an account (or knows how to get one simply enough). Having people log in to another platform is tedious when they are already using Facebook on a daily basis and can simply use the Groups application to interface with the congregation’s forums.

In terms of privacy, these Facebook Groups are just as private as LISTSERV groups were and continue to be. One must request to be a member of the group or be invited to participate in the discussions and view the content. Breaches of privacy can happen the same way there can be a breach of privacy from a face-to-face conversation. A group is only as private as its members allow it to be. The bottom line is that congregations shouldn’t complicate matters by creating their own private social network. It’s unnecessary. Save your money because Facebook Groups will work just fine.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs Blog at The NY Jewish Week

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Donor Recognition Gone Wild

There is usually some form of recognition when donors give a significant amount to an organization. The plaques that decorate the hallways of hospitals, symphony halls, universities, and museums is nothing new. In the Jewish community, there seems to be a longstanding joke about the large amount of plaques dotting the walls to recognize donors.

Locals in the Detroit Jewish community often quip that they wouldn’t be surprised if a certain large synagogue in town put donor plaques above the urinals in the Men’s room. And in rabbinical school, I recall a discussion about the irony that in a faith tradition that recognizes the Maimonidean philosophy that the ultimate form of charity is to give anonymously, there are so many ways we recognize donors by name. Of course, the names on synagogue sanctuaries, on Jewish Community Center gyms, on Torah covers and in the inside cover of prayer books, and on the walls of day schools are all lasting legacies to the donors or tributes to the memory of their loved ones. I’ve long believed that donors, both those who create large endowment funds and those who give on a smaller scale, deserve recognition for their generosity and benevolence.

But as this satirical video demonstrates, sometimes donor recognition does go too far. This funny video from Israel was sent by Dan Brown of eJewishPhilanthropy, who is currently in New Orleans at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly amidst thousands of Jewish donors and those working to secure their charitable gifts. Even if you don’t speak Hebrew, you will understand the premise of the video.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jay Michaelson On Taking the Boring Out Of Shul

I just read Jay Michaelson’s spot-on article in the Forward, “Rethinking Egalitarianism:
Are We Leveling the Playing Field Too Low?”
. Michaelson seems to always have his pulse on the Jewish community, and his perspective is not limited to only one denomination or to what’s going on in New York City.

His article tackles several problems in synagogues today and I agree with him on most counts. I disagree, however, that egalitarianism has much to do with the malaise one finds in most non-Orthodox congregations today. He begins by introducing his friends who emigrated from the famous B.J. (B’nai Jeshurun) on the Upper West Side to a mid-size Jewish community in the South. When they couldn’t find a shul as invigorating and active as B.J., they settled for the Modern Orthodox congregation despite their egalitarian leanings. Not finding a shul like B.J. is a common complaint for people who leave this dynamic ruach-filled NYC congregation and go elsewhere. In fact, as a rabbi I’ve heard dozens of people exclaim after visiting B.J. just once, “Why can’t we recreate the B.J. experience at our shul?” (Newsflash: It’s more than just Argentine rabbis and musical instruments!)

More than “egal doesn’t matter anymore,” what I think Michaelson is arguing is that the heimishe quality found in Orthodox shuls needs to be a goal for Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative shuls. The attempts to make services more inclusive and accessible to everyone by calling page numbers, over-explaining and over-simplifying the liturgy, and presenting English readings with confusing themes that pose theological problems have caused a general malaise in these services. Not to mention, most Reform and Conservative services are taking place in buildings that are too large to create any sense of warmth or heimishe ambience.

Michaelson is correct about the roots of this culture. He writes:

The reason for this is historical: Reform and Conservative grew out of German Reform Judaism, which aped German Protestantism and tried to offer an edifying, formal service of moral instruction and beautiful music. It’s true, that this formality still does work for some people today — and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that — but has there ever been a sociological study to quantify its appeal? I’ll wager that these antique, even archaic forms work only for those who know and feel comfortable with them. But isn’t that exactly the complaint lodged against traditional Orthodoxy — that it includes some, but not others? If what we’re interested in is inclusiveness and egalitarianism, then we should try to offer a satisfying spiritual experience to as many people as possible.

Non-Orthodox shuls need to spend the next decade focusing more on the kavanah (the unbound spiritual search for devotion and intention) and less on the keva (the mindless following of the rote). The Orthodox service is less robotic, thereby allowing individuals to move at their own pace and find their own comfort zone within the service. I concur with Michaelson that synagogue leaders seeking to invigorate the service and empower the membership need search no farther than Rabbi Elie Kaunfer’s book Empowered Judaism, where Kaunfer writes “What the Jewish world needs is not more dumbing-down but more empowerment of individuals to opt in if they so desire.”

I also appreciated Michaelson’s apt view of how children should be treated in shul. He writes, “Of course, the kids ran around themselves too, as is the de facto culture in many traditional places of worship. This, my friend observed, was far better for the children’s sanity and their parents’ prayer lives. A few decades ago, we were told that the family that prays together, stays together. But if the family stays together in synagogue, often no one prays at all.”

This article should be required reading for synagogue leaders. There’s a lot we can learn from the culture that permeates Orthodox synagogues on Shabbat mornings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller