Israel’s Gaza Situation Becomes Cyber War

Social media changes the zeitgeist in ways we couldn’t have imagined. As we saw with the recent presidential election, opinions and attacks now travel at the speed of light. And so it should be no surprise that the ongoing Middle East conflict in Gaza between the Palestinians and Israelis has escalated into a Cyber war.

While the conflict may seem like history repeating itself, social media is actually changing the way the public sees the violence. As several news agencies have reported,Israel is now using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube to its advantage in its war with Hamas in Gaza. In the past Israel has had to rely upon mainstream news agencies to report on the back-and-forth actions in Gaza, but now the Israeli military and government can take its message straight to the people using its social networks.

As the LA Times reported today:

While Israel launched its surprise attack Wednesday on Gaza, it declared it to the world on Twitter, arguing its case for the new campaign against Hamas in less than 140 characters.

Minute by minute, the Israel Defense Forces fed followers information and arguments on the strike. At their computers, Internet users could click through aerial photos, check updates on the offensive and watch a YouTube video of the strike killing the Hamas military chief.

At one point, the Israeli military traded Twitter barbs with Hamas. “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the @IDFSpokesperson account tweeted Wednesday.

The Hamas military wing tweeted back, “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

Israel Defense Forces Twitter Account

Social media isn’t new to the IDF, but the way it’s now using such sites as Twitter is new and will likely become the way nation-states will operate in military conflicts. It is clear that the chief spokesman of the IDF, Yoav Mordechai, believes that tweeting the operation in Gaza is a good weapon in its hasbara (public relations) struggle. Israel has always been challenged by negative PR in the mainstream media. Mordechai’s office even used Twitter to send a warning to its Hamas enemies, tweeting, “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” The IDF’s Twitter feed has been continually updated with news, pictures and videos from the front lines using the Twitter “hashtag” #PillarOfDefense. Perhaps the Cyber war really became a reality when Hamas’ military wing responded with return fire on Twitter, tweeting back, “You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves.”

In addition to the IDF’s new found use of Twitter, sites like YouTube (operated by Google) have had to navigate their way through the new murky waters of whether the postings by the IDF of their military operations are deemed “kosher” according to its own terms of service agreement. Originally Google yanked a video posted by the Israeli military Wednesday, which showed the “pinpoint strike” that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari in his car. YouTube originally had a message on the removed video stating, “This clip has been removed because its content violated YouTube’s Terms of Service. Sorry about that.”

However, YouTube apparently changed its corporate mind and allowed the video to be shown. A company spokesperson explained, “With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call. When it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.” Most likely enough anti-Israel YouTube users had flagged the video triggering a review process until someone at YouTube could view the video in question and make the decision. By reinstating the video, YouTube opened up a whole new front in this war.

Israel Defense Forces Facebook Page

In taking the Middle East conflict to the Web, the opportunity for hacking has also been escalated. So it was no surprise early yesterday morning when a hacker group called “Anonymous” announced a mission to crash and deface websites belonging to the IDF, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli websites belonging to security and financial corporations. Using Twitter, the hacking group urged its followers to bring down more than 40 websites belonging to the Israeli government and military.

In a statement, the hackers stated, “We will do everything in our power to hinder the evil forces of the IDF arrayed against you. We will use all our resources to make certain you stay connected to the Internet and remain able to transmit your experiences to the world.” Already the hacker group has claimed to have taken down Israeli’s “top security and surveillance website.” They also released a “care package” with tools for staying online if the Israeli government cuts off Internet access in Gaza. Another hacker group called Telecomix posted a message online with instructions on how to use dial-up Internet to stay connect if the Web is shut down. According to Forbes.com, most of the Anonymous’ target websites were still online.

Another new front of the Middle East war in Gaza has been the public discourse on social networking sites. As soon as the conflict escalated advocates on both sides of the conflict began using Facebook to show their support. Pro-Israel supporters began simply updating their Facebook status with the Hebrew words עם ישראל חי (Am Yisra’el Chai) meaning “The nation of Israel lives.” Other Facebook and Twitter users reposted news reports of the direct hit on the Gaza leader and reminded their followers that the news coverage of the conflict has not accurate covered the escalation as thousands of missiles had already been fired into Israel from Gaza. Yesterday, in a show of support many users on Facebook began posting photos of IDF soldiers from visits to the Jewish homeland.

On Twitter, #Gaza and #Jerusalem have been trending off and on over the past few days and many heated back-and-forth conversations have taken place on the site. The IDF’s Flickr site has also seen a huge uptick in traffic with many users reposting photos from that stream to their own Pinterest boards. Additionally, the IDF’s Facebook page has noticed a sharp increase in fans approaching a quarter million. The IDF page’s recent status was “Shabbat Shalom from the IDF. We won’t be able to rest until we bring quiet to Israel.”

The long-simmering conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will be the first test of the social media zeitgeist. Newspapers and television news outlets are still relevant, but this will go down as the first war that was also played out in real time on the Web. In the social media era, anyone and everyone can become a reporter. And the millions of vehement opinions will likely only raise the heat of this escalating conflict.

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

(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

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

The Twittering of Gilad Shalit

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

Ynet News is reporting that the Israeli prime minister’s emissary to the negotiations for a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas to return the captive Gilad Shalit said “it’s not over yet. The deal reached is pretty complicated, but the most difficult part is behind us.” The former Mossad agent turned Gilad Shalit negotiator, David Meidan, added that he plans to travel to Egypt soon, together with the negotiation team, to plan Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel.

While the deal to free Shalit was orchestrated by high-level Israeli politicians, negotiators like Meidan, and world leaders, there was also an impressive social media campaign spanning the past few years to spread word of Shalit’s captivity through the micro-blogging site Twitter. The hashtag #FreeGilad has long been used on Twitter following any statement or link relating to the cause of freeing Gilad Shalit. As Adam Dickter blogged about yesterday, Gilad Shalit was trending on Twitter moments after news about the deal began to spread.

Dickter wrote at NewsFactorNews: “News of Shalit’s release and the controversial agreement spread quickly around the world, creating a stream of tweets. The hashtag #GiladShalit moved along computer screens almost as quickly today as #SteveJobs did last week, following the death of the Apple co-founder and former CEO. A few days before that, #iPhone5 topped Twitter, when Apple released a new phone that turned out to be the iPhone 4S, not an iPhone 5, as expected.”

In the NewsFactorNews post, Dickter quoted me about the early use of Twitter to promote the Free Gilad Movement:

Rabbi Jason Miller, who writes extensively about the intersection of Jewish themes and technology, said he learned about the deal Tuesday from a New York Times Breaking News alert, and quickly Tweeted it to his 2,357 followers. It was, in a way, coming full circle, as social media have been used extensively to raise awareness of Shalit’s plight. “The hashtag #FreeGilad is one that I have been using for at least three years now,” said Miller. “In fact, it was one of the first hashtags I ever used on Twitter. I’ve also been asked by leaders of the ‘Free Gilad’ movement if I would tweet certain statements at certain times of the year, on the anniversary of his captivity.” “It’s not just news for Israelis or Jewish people, but an international story.”

Dickter also noted that Facebook also offered an opportunity for people around the world to share their thoughts. The Free Gilad Shalit group, which has 107,112 members.

No doubt that the moment Gilad Shalit is back home safe and sound, he’ll be trending in the Twittersphere once again.

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

Social Media and Religion

I read yesterday’s article in the NY Times about how people are interacting with religion through social networking sites like Facebook and was amazed at the success of the Jesus Daily Facebook page. It is one of the most popular Facebook pages with over 8.5 million fans. I figured there should be a similar Facebook page that offers users a daily dose of Torah wisdom so I created the Torah Daily Facebook page this morning. The page quickly amassed 100 followers and will continue to grow. The Torah Daily Facebook page will offer daily inspiration from Jewish texts provided by anyone with some wisdom to share.

Here is the blog post I published on The NY Jewish Week’s Jewish Techs blog after reading yesterday’s NY Times article on social media and religion:

With about a billion users between Facebook and Twitter alone, more topics than just Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga are being discussed on social media networks today. Religion is certainly one of them.

An article by Jennifer Preston in yesterday’s NY Times (“Jesus Daily on Facebook Nurtures Highly Active Fans”) reports that “while it’s too early to say that social media have transformed the way people practice religion, the number of people discussing faith on Facebook has significantly increased in the last year, according to company officials. Over all, 31 percent of Facebook users in the United States list a religion in their profile, and 24 percent of users outside the United States do, Facebook says. More than 43 million people on Facebook are fans of at least one page categorized as religious.”

The article was prompted by the wild success of the Jesus Daily Facebook page, which was launched by a diet doctor from North Carolina who posts a few motivational quotes from Jesus each day. The Facebook page, created by Dr. Aaron Tabor, has close to 8.5 million fans and, according to AllFacebook.com, in the past three months has had more daily interaction (likes and comments) than the official Justin Bieber page with 3.4 million interactions last week alone.

There are now over 750 million people on Facebook so it shouldn’t be surprising that users are interacting with pages to find an online spiritual community. If you’re already navigating around the Facebook site on a computer, tablet or mobile phone it’s much easier to read a spiritual teaching in your news feed than to actually attend a synagogue or church service.

Rabbi Laura Baum, a social media maven who is part of OurJewishCommunity.org was quoted in the article explaining how social media has changed our lives. She said, “There are those people who prefer to check out our tweets on their phone or listen to our podcast. I don’t think the use of technology needs to be for everybody. But we have found a community online. Many of them have never felt a connection to Judaism before.”

An increasing number of synagogues have found that it is much easier to connect to the membership through a Facebook page than through a traditional website. Like a website, the Facebook page is an efficient way of disseminating information for a congregation, but it adds the social interaction features that promote community and have made Facebook the killer app of social media. Linda Jacobson, the president of start-up congregation B’nai Israel Synagogue in Michigan has used Facebook to connect with members and reach potential members. “Our website is great for publicizing calendar events, displaying photos and telling visitors about our congregation. But Facebook goes well beyond that,” Jacobson explained. “It allows our followers to interact with that information and with each other. There’s an entire ‘backchannel’ that brings people together virtually to share photos from our congregational programming, comment on lifecycle events, create sub-communities based on interest categories and coordinate meals when there’s a death in the congregation.”

Jacobson seems to have put social media to good use because she’s seen her congregation’s membership rolls steadily increase over the past year. Rev. Kenneth Lillard, author of “Social Media and Ministry: Sharing the Gospel in the Digital Age,” was also quoted in the NY Times article and he concurs that social media tools like YouTube, Twitter and Google Plus in addition to Facebook represent “the best chance for religious leaders to expand their congregations since the printing press helped Martin Luther usher in the Protestant Reformation.”

Beyond official synagogue Facebook pages, there are many ways in which users are looking to Facebook for spiritual insight and education. Some popular Facebook pages have been created by rabbis in an effort to share motivational teachings from the Torah. Rabbi David Wolpe, the popular author and spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has a Facebook page that boasts over 19,000 fans. Wolpe utilizes Facebook to offer short sound bites that both motivate and challenge his readers. He makes a point of trying to respond to all questions on the page as well, which is not an easy task for a busy pulpit rabbi and a highly sought-after speaker like Wolpe. One follower asked if the rabbi had any marriage advice to which Wolpe responded simply “Shared values; forgiveness; deep attraction; resilience; luck; faith.”

One thing that social networking sites like Facebook have demonstrated is that one need not be an official religious leader, like a priest or rabbi, to dispense wisdom to help guide people in their daily lives. Many individuals and businesses offer a daily prayer or spiritual teaching to inspire their followers on their Facebook pages. Some Facebook users may post an inspirational teaching as a status update. There are businesses that post weekly motivational quotes on their Facebook page as a way to engage their following.

As social media increasingly become part of our daily lives, people will find new ways to interact with religion and spirituality. For some, it may be interacting with like-minded people on a synagogue Facebook page. For others it may be learning a different Talmud text each day through a Twitter feed. In the Digital Age, a minority of virtual religionists will emerge. These will be individuals who do not affiliate with a bricks and mortar religious institution like a synagogue, but are nevertheless engaged in many aspects of a faith community through social networking. Increasingly, people will say they are religious or spiritual or inspired by religious texts, but only because they have chosen to plug in and engage with social media.

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

Can You Twitter Judaism?

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

Is Twitter a good medium for Judaism? Two articles were recently posted on the Web that took opposing viewpoints on this question.

Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the Engaging Israel Project, penned a critique titled “Judaism is not a Twitter-able Religion” in which he explained that the ideas of Judaism cannot be tweeted using the social networking site Twitter. Hartman argues that “in the past, we could always count on a regular stream of anti-Semitic events to maintain Jewish affiliation and identity. Today, ‘they’ aren’t hating us enough, or at least consistently enough, to generate on their own a Jewish identity and sense of belonging.”

Today, he writes, we are looking for the “something” and “anything” to put out there as the message of Judaism. This method has the potential to create entry and access points, which will eventually lead to the beginning of new Jewish journeys, but this is not enough. While Hartman explains that he applauds these efforts, they are also of a great concern to him.
Hartman goes on to state his case:

The Jewish people have, since our inception, been the carriers of ideas. We changed history, not as a result of our economic or military power, nor by the enormity of our numbers. It was by the depth and significance of what we stood for – a way of life permeated by important ideas and values held together and conveyed through powerful and meaningful experiences – which placed Jews and Judaism as a transformational force in human culture.

This content is not Twitter-able. The journey of a meaningful Jewish life needs a wide bandwidth. It requires knowledge, time, and commitment. If we want Judaism to have a great future, and not merely a great past, we need to set our sights higher and deeper.

How do we solve the Jewish Catch-22? Part of it is not solvable, and we have to recognize that Jewish life was not in the past, and will not be in the future only a numbers game. However, there need not be a zero-sum game between short-term programs aimed at teaching “something,” and those that give content and meaning to a more extensive Jewish journey. The problem we face is conceptual. Too many of us, in particular those in leadership positions, have stopped thinking about the requirements of a deep and meaningful journey, relegating it to the domain of a luxury item to be nurtured when the crisis of Jewish continuity is resolved. While catering to the unaffiliated and communicating a message which they are capable of hearing, we need also to work to increase their capability. We need to continuously increase our demands, so that Jews will increase their demands from themselves and what they demand from their tradition. We need to ensure that there is no corner of Jewish life in which an individual, regardless of their denomination, is not able to engage a Judaism of depth and experience its vitality. In short, if we want Jews to embark on a meaningful Jewish journey, we need to ensure that such a journey is possible.[…]

We yearned for an era in which Jews would be accepted as equals; we now need to learn not to fear it. We can compete in an open marketplace of ideas. We can survive in an era of choice and develop and provide a tradition which can inspire that choice. It is dependent now on the choices we make as a community and the level of aspirations to which we strive.

An opposing viewpoint was blogged by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder in a post for Hebrew Union College’s Tze U’lemad blog for continuing alumni education. She writes that “18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold.” She begins her revelation about Twitter’s benefits to Judaism:

At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.

Abusch-Magder cites several examples of how Twitter has been successfully used in various Jewish educational initiatives. Among others, Abusch-Magder mentions Tweeting during high holiday services, retelling the exodus narrative on Twitter, and the publicizing the Jewish Women’s Archive through Twitter. She also refers the reader to the highly popular Unitarian-Universalist minister on Twitter Rev. Naomi King who uses Twitter for what she’s termed “Digital Faith Formation” using the application TweetChat. TweetChat helps put your blinders on to the Twitter-sphere while you monitor and chat about one topic.

Both Rabbis Hartman and Abusch-Magder make valid points regarding Judaism in the 21st century. Hartman is correct that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to water down Judaism into soundbites (or tweets). Our millenia-old Tradition should not be squeezed into 140-character messages. However, there are important opportunities to utilize Twitter (and other social networking sites) for the promotion of Judaism in positive ways. This medium shouldn’t be quickly rejected as useless when it comes to bolstering Judaism and having our religion compete in an open marketplace of ideas.

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

Esther’s in Vegas – Tweeting Jewish Conferences

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

That’s right, Esther’s in Vegas. No, not THAT Esther? We’ll shift our focus to Queen Esther in less than two weeks. For now, the focus is on another Esther.

Connected Jewish leaders know that Esther Kustanowitz, the writer and social media consultant, is in Las Vegas because her Twitter and Facebook feeds pinpoint her location there. She’s at Tribefest, the Jewish Federations of North America’s “meet up” on the Vegas Strip for young Jews to “connect, explore & celebrate the richness of Jewish music, food, arts & culture.” But don’t worry, you don’t have to actually be in Vegas to participate in TribeFest. In fact, you don’t have to ever leave the comfort of your own home anymore to get to Jewish conventions, conferences, retreats, or organized excuses to gamble, party and network in Sin City.

With the popularity of social networking, you can feel like you’re actually at the Jewish conference without having to book a flight, get a hotel room, and register for the “HELLO My Name Is” nametag in plastic on a lanyard. In fact, it’s not only the speakers and breakout sessions that can be followed on Twitter with a special hashtag (#), but also the pre-glows, private parties, networking lunches, and meetings over scotch at the hotel bar.

And if you were wondering if any participants had a difficult time traveling to the conference, you can follow that on Twitter too. EstherK (her Twitter handle) starred in a Twitter remake of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” when she tried to get across the pond to Limmud late last year. She updated her 3,000-plus Twitter followers with every frustrating travel delay she endured. And when she actually got to #limmud at the University of Warick in the UK, she let us know who else was there, which sessions she was attending, and what she was doing later that night.

Twitter hashtags have kept the non-attendees feeling connected at just about every recent Jewish conference and convention, from the Reform Biennial to AIPAC and J-Street to the current JCPA Plenum. Last year’s General Assembly in New Orleans might have set the record for the most tweets at a Jewish conference with thousands of Twitterers left wondering what the #NOLAGA hashtag was all about and why it was trending.
In New Orleans at the GA, JFNA hired Kustanowitz to produce an innovation and social media enthusiasts’ event – NOLAISM (NOLA Innovation and Social Media) Schmooze-Up, where live tweeting happened simultaneously to the actual in-person schmoozing. She didn’t attend the 2009 GA in person, but wrote about attending the conference “virtually” thanks to Twitter in a blog post titled “The GA As Seen Through Twitter.”

William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and the Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America, is the reigning Twitter king of the organized Jewish community. With his list of 6,000 followers and growing, Daroff has amassed his own network on Twitter. His travel and speaking schedule is public information because he not only shares it with the people of Cyberspace but also frequently posts photos via Twitpic of his whereabouts. It’s not unusual to read Daroff’s tweets that he posted while moderating a panel discussion in front of a thousand people. One need not be at the hotel bar with Daroff at a conference to be able to network with him over a cocktail — just read his tweets to be part of the conversation.

At the 2010 GA, Kustanowitz used the #NOLAGA Twitter feed to monitor sessions that conflicted with the ones she was attending and “to assess in real-time how the sessions I was in were resonating with the other Twitterers, and to eavesdrop on what people were talking about.” She added that the “amazing part was seeing that there was a host of Twitter users who viewed themselves as on-the-scene reporters, sending instant reports not just of the larger events (for instance, Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking) but of the crowd’s responses, the behavior of members of the Israeli press, any dissent or enthusiasm that they, as members of the audience, could see more effectively than those on the stage and at the podium.”

The Twitterers who are live and in-person at the actual event can even meet their “virtual” friends for the first time. Conference attendees will use Twitter updates to let other participants know where they are in the hotel or convention center for a real-life meet up.

I’m following much of the TribeFest action right now and will likely do the same when I sit out the Rabbinical Assembly convention (curiously also taking place in Vegas) later this month. While I’ll miss reconnecting with friends and colleagues in real-life, I can follow the convention on the monitor in the comfort of my office without having to get on a plane and say goodnight to my kids over a phone. If I want to ask one of the speakers a question, I can just tweet it and let a participant ask it live.

Twitter is certainly affecting the way we participate in conferences and I’m sure that attendance at large-scale conventions has decreased over the past year. So, rather than getting in on the early bird registration for that next convention, save the money and the hassle of travel and just find out what the hashtag will be. Sometimes it’s easier to be a follower than an attendee.

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

How Do You Spell Hanukkah?

The #1 question during Hanukkah is: What is the correct way to spell the name of this holiday? Since it’s a Hebrew word that is transliterated into English, there are several acceptable spellings. But people still want to know if there is a consensus.

A non-profit theater company in California, the North Coast Repertory Theatre, even performed a show this past weekend entitled “How Do You Spell Chanukah??- The Stage Show.” Their website described the performance as “What is Hanukkah… or Chanukah? How do you really spell it, anyway? What’s it ever done for me and why should I care? Hash it out (a nice lean kosher hash) with our hosts Marc Silver and Doug Dickerman for a unique evening of fun and music and story telling. We’ll share, we’ll kibitz, we’ll have a little something to eat! What can I tell you, even if we don’t solve any baffling Jewish mysteries…we’ll have a lot of fun not getting anywhere together. Oy! Did we mention that we’ll have a little nosh?”

Melissa Bell, writing on the Washington Post’s blog, recalls that NPR’s “All Things Considered” addressed this very question back in 2005. They quoted Rabbi Daniel Zemel of the Temple Micah in Washington who said, “There’s no uniformity in transliteration.” Rabbi Zemel ordered a steering committee at his synagogue to come up with a uniform spelling. They decided on: Chanukkah. But then Bell noticed that this year, Zemel’s synagogue website was using “Hanukkah.” When she asked him what ever happened to his resolute steering committee’s decision, he explained that he was overruled and “an editor in the congregation made the convincing push to adopt the spelling used by the Reform Jewish movement in North America. Transliteration is an art, not a science.”

I’ve been using the “Hanukkah” spelling and I believe that this has become the most accepted option based on Twitter. While some might do a Google search to determine which spelling of Hanukkah appears the most, I just looked at Twitter where #Hanukkah was one of the trending terms this past week.

I was thinking about this Hanukkah spelling debate today while listening to the Sirius-XM Satellite Radio Hanukkah station. I had to laugh at this song by The Leevees which makes the confusion surrounding the ambiguous spelling of Hanukkah very funny. Check out “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?”:

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

Synagogues and New Technology

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog (The NY Jewish Week)

Yoram Samets, of Jvillage Network in Burlington, Vermont, wrote an interesting essay for the eJewishPhilanthropy blog titled “Purposeful and Passionate: Synagogues in the Age of Facebook.”

Ultimately, I think he was being too delicate with synagogues by letting them know that it’s okay to move slowly in adapting to new technology. He writes that “synagogues lagging behind cultural change is nothing new. In fact, there are those who would say synagogues should operate from a thoughtful, process-driven perspective and adopt change slowly. In essence, I would agree with that. The challenge is all in the balance.”

I agree that synagogues need to maintain balance and be sure of themselves as they transition to new technology (social media, Web 2.0, online learning, etc.), but I’m for pushing them to move quicker. They’re very good at “slow.” The successful results will come when the synagogues pick up the pace.

Whenever I talk to synagogue leaders and rabbis about the adoption of new technologies, I encourage them to “just do it,” rather than waiting to go through the normal (read: slow) process within the institution. By the time a committee is formulated and it meets six times to decide if the synagogue should have a blog, the youth group should have an official Facebook presence, and the rabbi should be tweeting, we’ll already be on to the next “Big Thing.” Four years ago, I led a Webinar for Darim Online to teach rabbis how to start blogging. Some of them said they would need to get permission from the board first. Rather than going through the red tape, I encouraged these rabbis to just start a blog and post some of their thoughts regarding the weekly Torah portion. Some of those rabbis have thanked me in the ensuing years for pushing them to open their “Torah” up to a borderless audience on the Web. They soon realized that in the 21st century, their wisdom shouldn’t only be disseminated to their synagogue membership and no further.

There are so many opportunities for synagogues to capture through social media. If rabbis wait for young people to come in the front door, they’ll be waiting a long time. Networking is outreach and outreach is networking. I’ve been asked to officiate at the wedding of a young couple while chatting on Facebook late at night with the groom, a former high school student of mine. Synagogues should be jumping at the opportunities for innovative approaches to community building, scholarship, and engagement. I think Phillip Brodsky’s novel idea of a Social Sermon through the use of social media is a great concept that synagogues should adopt. Synagogues need to be pushed, not coddled, into the Age of Facebook.

Back to the Samets article. He writes, “Synagogues have the same opportunity of using technology to build a bridge between the synagogue experience and today’s culture. Technology needs to be an outward-looking tool for greater connectedness for the community. While there are a number of creative synagogues doing remarkable outreach and engaging more members, too few synagogues have been able to emulate their example and create an operational model that will lead them and their communities to a stronger future… Technology is only a tool. And when used to its maximum benefit, it is a tool that enhances our purpose, our mission, and our movement.”

In these fast-moving technology-driven times, Samets comes up with four P’s that synagogues must look to in order to reclaim our Jewish movement in today’s American culture: “Purpose, Passion, People, Projects – the rest is all detail… And through the process you will find out the power of the potential of connectedness in the community, in the synagogue and online.”

Lisa Colton, of Darim, blogging at her organization’s JewPoint0, writes about the Jewish New Media Fund. Essentially, three of the nation’s largest Jewish foundations – the Righteous Persons Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – announced recently that their newly created endeavor, the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund, will help energize the community to focus on the need for new media innovations, and to help bring them to life. I hope synagogues take note (and full advantage) of this great opportunity.

Technology isn’t going to slow down for anyone… not even synagogues!

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

Israel Pays Porn Website Owner $3K for @Israel Twitter Name

Cross-posted to Jewish Techs (The NY Jewish Week)

The Web can be a misleading place. For years, if you typed whitehouse.com into your browser, it wouldn’t take you to the official home of our President on the Web, but rather to the home of a pornographic Web site.

In 2004, the owner of that website decided to get out of the seedy porn site business because his oldest child was about to begin kindergarten and he was afraid of what the other parents might think. The LA Times reported that Daniel Parisi started Whitehouse.com in 1997 and it “has frequently been confused with the official government site Whitehouse.org.”

Earlier this week, it was reported that the Israeli government purchased the Twitter account @israel for a six-figure sum from a pornographic Web site owner. More recent accounts, however, have Israeli officials denying the claims of a six-figure payment, yet confirming that they gained access of the Twitter handle in exchange for $3,000.

The Jerusalem Post quotes Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, who said the selling price was significantly lower than that originally asked by its owner, Miami-based Spanish citizen Israel Melendez, who also runs a porn Web site. “I won’t go into the details of the negotiations, but originally he asked for a five-digit sum and all we paid him was $3,000, period,” Palmor said. (Those sound like details to me!)

The New York Times and MSNBC.com both ran stories about the transfer of the Twitter name. Melendez opened his @Israel Twitter account in 2007 but was soon harassed by users who thought it belonged to the Israeli government. On August 26, the Israeli government took over the account from Melendez and tweeted the following: “The IsraelMFA twitter account name has been changed to @Israel. Look for us here: twitter.com/israel.”

Already, the new Twitter account has claimed over 7,000 followers. It is evident that Israel is moving full steam ahead in the social media realm with increased activity on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube.

I’m not sure who counseled Israel Melendez to settle for only $3,000 for the Twitter name (perhaps the Shin Bet?), but hopefully he’s a smarter businessman in his other endeavor.

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