Rabbi Forbids Participating in Talkbacks and Website Comments Sections

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

The more I blog, the thicker my skin gets. Overtime, I’ve learned to prepare myself before reading the comment section at the bottom of my posts. With great inventions, we have to take the bad with the good. It’s been wonderful that newspapers and magazines make their articles available to us on the Web, but it also means that individuals can post outrageous, defaming, and insulting comments underneath each article — opinions that would never be published in a print edition. And blogs are great, but with them comes a countless number of off-subject comments that only express hate and ignorance.

No matter what I publish on the Huffington Post website, I know that the atheists are going to be commenting in full force. Their comments often won’t have anything to do with the subject I wrote about, rather they will be self-serving statements about their viewpoint. I recently wrote on the Huffington Post about the importance of giving equal significance to the celebration of the birth of a baby girl in Judaism and the discussion in the comments section turned into a polemic against ritual circumcision. And of course any blog or article on the Web that even mentions Israel will soon have the page littered with hundreds of inflammatory anti-Israel and anti-Semitic diatribes accusing Israel of the occupation of Palestinian land.

Earlier this year, Ron Kampeas quoted the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris in an article on the JTA.org website about the nature of Web commenting. Harris, an avid blogger for Huffington Post, said, “To read some of the reactions to anything I write about Israel is sometimes to require a very strong stomach — it can be nasty, over the top, vitriolic and dripping.” Nevertheless, Harris believes that it’s important to continue blogging and responding to his critics, whether on Huffington Post or the Jerusalem Post, which has a notoriously controversial talkback section. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League feels differently. He said, “It’s a magnet for conspiracy theorists and for haters. I look at it and sometimes wonder why am I bothering.”

Now, an Orthodox rabbi has ruled that his students are forbidden from responding to articles on websites and blogs as it may lead to religious and moral transgressions. yNetnews.com interviewed Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, one of Religious Zionism’s leading rabbis, who “stressed that this isn’t a halachic decree or a comprehensive ban from a higher rabbinic authority, it is a ruling he gave to his students after receiving a question via text message which asked: ‘After reading a ‘kosher’ article is it all right to take a look at the talkbacks?'”

Rabbi Aviner’s responded “No” to his questioner on the grounds that it would lead to lashon hara (gossip), humiliation and valueless time consumption. In Aviner’s opinion, the ability to respond to articles and publications and to hold debates should have promoted “clarification and reformation of ideas and opinions” which is why “it could have been a wonderful thing”, but instead it is used for diatribes and gossip under assumed identities which the Torah sees as “cursed be he that smiteth his neighbor secretly.”

Gary Rosenblatt, editor of The Jewish Week, issued a call for greater civility in discourse before Rosh Hashanah this year. He wrote, “Name a contentious issue, and the two sides line up to spew their vitriol, each convinced the other’s policies would bring disaster. There is a great deal of anger, fear and contempt expressed. But no real dialogue, little if any appreciation for the other side, and less and less willingness to hear another point of view in the hopes of reaching common ground. One practical concern is the missed opportunity for meaningful discussion in… the comments area on our website.”

As we enter the new year of 2011, my hope and prayer is that there is increased civility on the Web. Cyberspace is a big place and anyone with an internet connection can post their opinion, no matter how extreme or offensive it may be. But perhaps everyone can exercise some restraint and make the comments sections a more enjoyable place to engage, learn, and share ideas.

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

Chabad’s Social Media Success

Here’s my latest post on the Jewish Techs blog (The Jewish Week):

Chabad Lubavitch has always been out in front when it comes to using the Internet for publicity. Back in the 90’s, Chabad took full advantage of the virtual communities on America Online (AOL) and then launched some of the most impressive websites once everyone migrated to the Web. For years, Chabad has been a strong force in Cyberspace with “Ask the Rabbi” websites, online distance learning, and viral videos.

Today, Chabad utilizes social networking to not only broadcast its message globally, but to also win financial grants. Chabad schools and service organizations, like the Friendship Circle, use Facebook and Twitter to rack up hundreds of thousands of votes in contests for mega grants by such corporations as Chase Community Giving and Target Stores. In last month’s Kohl’s Cares contest, twelve Jewish day schools in the U.S. finished in the top 20 of the competition, with eleven of those schools being Chabad-affiliated according to the Lubavitch.com website (Each of the finalists received a $500,000 prize).

Last January, Chabad’s Michigan-based Friendship Circle, an organization dedicated to helping children with special needs, won $100,000 when it finished third in the Chase Community Giving Challenge on Facebook after using several social media tools to get out the vote. And this past summer, 17 Chabad programs across the United States each received $20,000 in the second running of the Chase challenge.

Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad.org and its social media guru explained Chabad’s secret in these online contests in a JWeekly article.

While scores of Chabad organizations may have started out as entrants in the Chase or Kohl’s challenges, the network as a whole figured out pretty quickly which ones had a serious chance of winning and then placed its chips on the potential winners. The method has proven to be especially valuable in the Kohl’s challenge, Seligson said. Each voter can vote a total of 20 times, and only five times for one school. Hypothetically that means if supporters of one school cast votes for the school five times, they each have 15 votes left. Those voters may then cast five votes each for three other Chabad schools. During the Chase challenge, it became clear that the Chabad-affiliated Friendship Circle of Michigan had a shot at winning a prize, so the other 100 Friendship Circle outposts throughout the United States rallied behind their Michigan counterpart. It’s not cheating or skirting the rules, Seligson said, it’s just actualizing a social network effectively.

Fellow Detroiter Ronelle Grier recently wrote an article on Chabad’s social networking prowess for Chabad.org. In one section of her article she writes that two Chabad leaders, the Friendship Circle’s Bassie Shemtov and “The Recovery Rabbi” Yisrael Pinson (#recoveryrabbi) were speakers at the recent #140conf in Detroit. I also attended the conference, presented by Jeff Pulver, and heard several comments from participants about how Chabad’s exploitation of social media is so impressive and a model for other organizations. Grier writes,

Rabbi Zvi Drizin, who considers social networking essential to promoting the activities of InTown Chabad, his Dallas-based organization geared toward young adults who have finished college, but are not yet married. He makes extensive use of Facebook to announce events, share interesting links and idea, and post photos taken at recent programs.

“When you decide to go to any party, the first thing you ask is who’s going to be there,” he says. “People have always moved with their friends. If you have a good network, it expands your appeal.”

At a recent Shabbat dinner, Drizin planned for 80 people. After he posted details of the event on Facebook, 150 people showed up at his door.

While Rabbi Yisrael Pinson lives and works in my community, it is really through Twitter that we’ve gotten to know each other. He’s been successful in his addiction recovery work because of his social media connections. In Grier’s article, Pinson said that Rabbi Menachem Schneerson would likely have approved of the use of such tools in the advancement of Judaism. “The Rebbe was a champion of using new tools for the promotion of Jewish values and spirituality. His talks were broadcast over the radio when that was the revolutionary medium. So too, it’s fitting for us to be at the forefront of this revolution. Social networking’s value lies in its ability to connect seemingly discordant strands of humanity. The person you meet may not be the one who can help you, but he may know the person who will end up helping you.”

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

Hebrew University’s Sarcasm Detector One of Year’s Best Inventions (Time Magazine)

Here is my most recent post on the Jewish Techs blog (The NY Jewish Week)

Jews aren’t sarcastic at all!

Okay, that was me being sarcastic, but the problem with the Jewish tradition of sarcasm is that it doesn’t translate well in Cyberspace where tone of speech doesn’t come through in text. That’s why it makes sense that the ability for computers to detect sarcastic speech has been developed in the Jewish homeland.

Time Magazine‘s recent issue devoted to technology ranked the year’s best fifty inventions and included an application developed at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

The sarcasm detection algorithm, developed by researches at the Israeli university, was heralded by the magazine for its accuracy.

Time’s Steven James Snyder wrote, “This is the most important software ever invented. Of course, if a computer using the Semi-Supervised Algorithm for Sarcasm Identification read that last sentence, it would immediately detect the sarcasm. Developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the tool is designed to spot sarcastic sentences in product reviews. The algorithm has been fairly accurate even in its earliest stages: in a trial involving 66,000 Amazon reviews, it was right 77% of the time, pointing to a future in which computers won’t just store your words, they’ll interpret your intent.”

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

Yes, Jews Rock Too

Here’s my latest post for the Community Next blog “Rabbi J in the D”:

We all know that Jews can rock. After all, you only need to listen to Bob Dylan or Gene Simmons of Kiss to know that. But there are also some Jewish singers who are rocking Jewish music… and I don’t mean Jon Fishman leading Phish in “Avinu Malkeinu.”

I remember in 1999 when the Jewish rock star Rick Recht came to the Jewish summer camp where I was working (Camp Ramah in Nyack, NY). He had all the little kids dancing and screaming like they were at an arena concert with 20,000 fans. Then he worked his way into a cover of a Dave Matthews song and had the teen and 20-something staff members hooked.

Recognizing that there was a need for an Internet radio website dedicated to Jewish rock music, Recht has created Jewish Rock Radio. “Jewish Rock Radio was launched to provide a mass communication channel utilizing the power of music to attract, inspire, entertain, and educate Jewish youth while providing information about a variety of meaningful engagement opportunities for Jewish youth.”

The channel will expose new and established Jewish artists, as well as provide education for artists to professionalize their music and marketing. Recht didn’t want to simply create another Internet music channel. He wanted to give back to the Jewish youth who have been his biggest fans through Jewish youth groups and Jewish summer camps. As the site explains, Jewish Rock Radio is also “for Jewish youth to share their experiences with each other about a variety of national Jewish programs in which they have participated; and, to inspire and create a ‘path’ for Jewish youth to participate in Jewish life as Jewish composers, performers, songleaders, and teachers.”

Jewish Rock Radio (JRR) is the flagship program of Judaism Alive, a nonprofit 501(c)3 formed in 2009 to strengthen Jewish identity and connection for youth through their love of music, musical instruments, and online interaction. While Jewish teens will continue to fill their iPods with Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, now they just might add some Jewish rockers to their playlist like Naomi Less, Blue Fringe, Josh Nelson and Socalled.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog

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

Making Your Website Work for Your Synagogue or Jewish Organization

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


Quite often I get asked to consult synagogues on their Web presence. The first thing I do is take a look at their current Web site and try to determine in which year it was created. I can usually tell its production date within a few years based on several factors. I then explain what a Web site should do today. After I explain its function, I let them know that the look of the site matters less today than its functionality. Today’s Web site needs to be an extension of the community the synagogue is trying to create (or in some cases, has already created).

If someone’s trying to find your synagogue’s location, they can use Google Maps. But if they want to interact with the rabbi about last week’s sermon, or find out who else is attending a class, or make a contribution online, or update their membership record (see: Chaverweb), then they will need to access the synagogue Web site.
In a brilliant article, Beth Frank Backman explains the need for today’s Web sites to facilitate community building. It should be required reading for every synagogue and rabbi interested in making social media and the other technology of today work for them in their mission.
Here is her article and I can only hope it’s prescriptions are followed. All emphasis in boldface is mine.
Does Your Website Push Information or Facilitate Community Building?
By Beth Frank Backman
Social media is much more than technology. It challenges us to rethink the nature and purpose of organizations and the reasons why we meet face to face. In doing so it will eventually force us to rethink the nature and role of the synagogue.
Will the synagogue of the future continue to be a coordination hub for Jewish education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, Jewish identity activities, and prayer? Or will most of these functions move elsewhere, making the synagogue little more that a “meet-up” for ritually required prayer and life cycle events? Will it even be needed for those purposes?
In the future, even Hebrew school and bar/bat mitzvahs may no longer be a driving force in synagogue membership. Why cart kids half way across town to go to Hebrew school if the same learning can be had one-on-one via Skype? Imagine a world where bar and bat mitzvah tutors from Israel, Venezuela, San Diego and New York can be found in an on-line directory and are only a Skype call away. Imagine a world where one can find on the web free lance rabbis and cantors to lead private Shachrit and Mincha services in the Catskills, Rockies or Israel.
Imagine a world where kids form Jewish identity via summer camp and on-line networking with their camp friends throughout the year. Imagine a world where Jewish kids across the city keep in touch via Twitter and meet up at the movie theater or mall on Saturday night. What then happens to the traditional synagogue youth group? Why pay exorbitant synagogue dues just for Hebrew school training or the opportunity to participate in a youth group?
Much depends on how quickly synagogues see the opportunities of social media and incorporate them into their mission. Social media is allowing the traditional functions of the synagogue to be deconstructed and moved out of the synagogue. Many of these “imagined” services are already here and are beginning to generate loyalty.
This presents severe challenges for synagogues. The upcoming generation of 20 somethings sees on-line and off-line relationships as complements of each other.They expect communities where on and off line life create synergy with one another. Technology is fundamentally social and creates the infrastructure needed to maintain social relationships.
The current membership of many synagogues grew up in a world where real community is face to face. Technology is little more than a tool for delivering information. As a result of these differences, it sometimes hard for current membership to understand the need for a new type of on-line presence. When budgets are short there is little incentive to create a website for the Jewish community who has not yet shown up in the synagogue door. But if nothing is done, it is quite possible that the 20-something crowd may never show up.
Despite the challenges, at first glance it looks like synagogues are beginning to bite into social media. According to a study released by Jvillage Network, 66% of synagogues responding had a Facebook page. But a closer look at the data paints a very different picture.
Social media is much more than Facebook and Twitter. Even these classic social media tools can be used in ways that essentially ignore social media. Rather social media is an approach to technology that sees technology primarily as a way to create rich personalized two-way and multi-way connections criss-crossing a group of people.
To really grasp how a synagogue understands and uses social media we need to dig deeper and look at how and what kind of information is being shared on a website, Facebook page or twitter account. How does it build relationships? Is the information being pushed outward at people or are there genuine and personalized exchanges that create strong social bonds between members? When we look at how these tools are used, it is clear that synagogues have barely caught onto the idea of social media:
  • It appears that none of the synagogues surveyed had primarily community generated content and only 21% have blogs where community members can comment. In general, website updates are centralized in the hands of staff people or a dedicated volunteer. Content is being pushed from the synagogue to the members and occasionally from member to synagogue, but almost never from member to member.

  • Furthermore content pushed from the synagogue to members tends to be impersonal. While 49% of congregations updated their website with Jewish themed content and most had synagogue calendars, only 7% let members view their membership balances on line and only 4% use their website to help parents monitor their child’s progress in Hebrew school.

  • Personalized information moving from member to congregation tends to be limited to administrative matters: membership application, Hebrew school registration, RSVPs and payment for synagogue events. Even then less than 30% of congregations had one or more of those services. Only 14% had volunteer sign-up tools and only 2% could make changes to their membership accounts.

  • The impersonal nature of the websites is further underscored by the limited opportunities that members have to personalize their interaction with the website. Only 3% provide members a customized home page. Only 14% let users download the synagogue calendar into their personal calendars. 40% lack search functions making it impossible for users to go directly to the content most important to them.

  • Even support of off-line community building is weak. Only 15% provided their membership directory on line. Only 3% stream religious services for house-bound community members.

  • On the other hand, 40% accept on line donations. One has to wonder what message is being sent to members when donation features are more prevalent than features that support personalized member to synagogue communication.

  • The sense that websites are being primarily used to push information to members rather than to facilitate community building is also reinforced by an apparent lack of interest in even passive sources of community feedback such as website analytics. 66% of synagogues either are not or do not know how to use analytic tools to monitor website usage.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Internet’s Effect on Jewish Newspapers

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) likes to think of itself as the Jewish AP. The JTA is a non-profit news service that disseminates the happenings in the Jewish world as soon as they happen. Ideally, they try to scoop all the other news agencies and print media.

The long-time publisher of the JTA, Mark Joffe, stepped down suddenly on July 25 and Ami Eden, who was serving as editor, took the reins. The Jerusalem Post reports that there was more to the JTA’s press release than was reported. “Over the past two decades, US Jewish media and print journalism in general have been in steady decline due to dwindling readership and loss of ad revenue to the Web. When the recession hit two years ago it dealt a devastating blow to an already weakened industry.”

The Jerusalem Post interviewed new JTA publisher Ami Eden, who said that ideas for collaboration among the Jewish print media were percolating and would materialize between 12 and 18 months. “I think it’s clear that most American Jewish newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money online. Why should we not try to create a unified Web presence having one big Web site with a team thats constantly keeping it fresh? We clearly could be pulling our technological resources and sharing the Web traffic. If we’re all investing in the same Web traffic, it becomes a great idea,” Eden argued and then, according to the Jerusalem Post, declined to go into further detail.

Bob Goldfarb, president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, writes on the eJewish Philanthropy blog, “The ‘one big Website’ that Eden envisions could similarly be a shared platform operated by a member-owned JTA that preserves the identities of participating local papers while enabling central coordination of content. JTA editors could select stories from member papers that are of national interest and include those in a National News feed on the platform. That would free local editors to focus on local news and lower JTA’s domestic news-gathering costs at the same time. Centralizing site maintenance and advertising sales, while enabling local ad sales and local content control, would reduce costs locally. It also would vastly simplify JTA’s national marketing to readers as well as to advertisers. And owning a stake in the shared platform can be a powerful incentive for newspapers to participate in it.”

As both an avid reader of Jewish newspapers and an uber-connected Web user, I’ve been thinking about many of these issues myself.

I’m a Detroit native and have been reading the since… well, probably since not long after I learned read. For decades it was how I fell asleep on Friday nights. Following Shabbat dinner at my parents’ home, my mother would read the DJN, and then I would take it to bed and fall asleep reading it cover-to-cover beginning with the back pages first (obituaries) as is the local tradition. The prevailing joke was that if you didn’t find your own name in the back pages, you could continue reading the rest of the paper!

The paper contained the local, national and world (mostly Israel) news. It was how we found out about what was going on in the “Jewish world” around us. A few years ago, the paper switched to a Thursday delivery which actually upset many people. Even though we could get the DJN a day earlier, it seemed to upset the rhythm of the week – and the tradition. Now the DJN (laid out like the actual paper in its entirety) is available free to subscribers early Wednesday mornings on the Web. Even though I’m reading it almost a full three days earlier, the news is already stale. By the time the JTA feeds get to the DJN to place in their paper I’ve already gotten that news by e-mail (JTA News Alerts) or read it on the Web at JTA.org or the Forward or NY Jewish Week or even the NY Times. Not to mention the immediate Google Alerts I receive with keywords like “Jewish” and “Israel.”

When I come across these news stories in the DJN’s print paper there have already been updates, changes and resolutions. The local coverage in the Jewish papers is much the same. Because of e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging, the flow of information is so quick that the news is old by the time it gets in the paper. Funeral homes send out daily e-mails with death notices, and synagogues, schools, and organizations send out e-mail alerts as soon as a death is reported. By the time the deaths are listed in the paper everyone already knows about it and the funeral has already occurred. Life-cycle events like births, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and anniversaries are announced for free on Facebook which makes the announcements in the paper less exciting to read.

But all of this shouldn’t be spoken about in negative terms. Maybe it is the demise of print media, especially for regional Jewish newspapers, but this should just force everyone involved to think outside-the-box.

I think Ami Eden is on to something. The freshness he brings to JTA should be contagious around the country (and I hope it is). One of the first things Ami does should be convening a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) of all Jewish newspaper editors and publishers to collaborate on his idea of “one big website.” The advertising dollars will be there, I’m sure. This is just another example of how the Internet has removed the borders in the Jewish community. I know I’m not the only Jew who’s already gotten his news by reading the JTA feed and visiting the websites of the Forward, The NY Jewish Week, Haaretz, and The Jerusalem Post before my local Jewish newspaper even hits my mailbox.

I have great respect for everyone in the Jewish newspaper business, but let’s focus on the future… because it’s here.

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

Mayor of the Minyan

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Every synagogue minyan (daily prayer group) has the one person who always seems to be there. In some congregations, this might be the gabbai (a ritual director of sorts). In other shuls it might be the rabbi. And in others it might be a lay person who is very dedicated and wants to ensure there is always a minyan (quorum of 10) so others can say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Some minyans have a group of dedicated individuals who make it a point to always attend — regardless of rain, sleet or snow.

With the mobile application FourSquare (a cross between a friend-finder, social city-guide, and game), it is now possible to find out who attends the minyan the most. While the most active minyan attendees in many communities are older, retirees who may have never even heard of Foursquare, it would still be fun to see who “checks in” to the synagogue the most. In the FourSquare world, the user with the most check ins at a venue gains the mayorship of that venue, so it would be interesting to see who becomes the “mayor” of the shul.

Many local businesses offer specials (10% off at some restaurants and coffee shops, for example) for a check-in or for being the mayor of a venue. Perhaps in the future, synagogues will offer incentives for the most check ins at the morning minyan or for children at Hebrew school. I can imagine a synagogue discounting the dues of the mayor of the minyan or presenting the mayor of religious school with an award.

Jewish non-profits can also utilize FourSquare to reward volunteers. The mayor of the kosher food bank for instance might be featured in the monthly newsletter.

Thanks to FourSquare, in the future you might see a sign next to the rabbi’s parking space in the synagogue lot that reads: “Reserved Parking for the Mayor of the Minyan.”

Modern Tribe has some great Jewish Gifts for all occasions

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

The Virtual Simcha

The first time I heard about a “virtual simcha” was in the late 1990s. Detroit was hit with a massive snowstorm and the 8-day old baby boy’s aunt who was to play the role of rabbi was stuck at the airport in New York. The rabbi improvised and she officiated at her nephew’s bris via speaker phone.
Of course, if this happened in 2010 and not in the late 1990s the bris would have been officiated by the rabbi through Skype, and she would have seen the simcha and been seen by the attendees.
Using technology to add people to a simcha is becoming more common. An increasing number of grandparents and great-grandparents are attending their grandchildren’s wedding in the virtual world.
Just last month I officiated at a wedding that was being streamed live to Israel so that the bride’s elderly grandparents could “be there.” Through Ustream.tv, the grandparents felt like they were at the wedding even if it meant staying up late into the night in Israel.
Elicia Brown, writes in the Jewish Week about several of these simchas that would have otherwise been missed by family or friends, like the grandparents in Australia beaming themselves into their grandson’s Brooklyn bris. Or Conservative rabbis Erez Sherman and Nicole Guzik who married each other in January with the virtual presence of Rabbi Sherman’s brother Eyal Sherman, a paraplegic, and his sister Rabbi Nogah Marshall, who was nine months pregnant at the time. A $40 webcam was clipped to the ark; a laptop was discreetly placed on the bima of Temple Sinai, allowing Rabbi Sherman’s siblings to view the proceedings via Skype.
A week ago in suburban Detroit’s largest congregation, the Reform Temple Israel in West Bloomfield (3,400 member units), Rabbi Harold Loss and his wife Susie were honored for their forty years of service to the congregation and to celebrate the rabbi’s 65th birthday. Over 3,000 people joined together on the beautiful grounds of the temple, but the many who couldn’t be there in person felt connected as well. The Friday night service was streamed live on the Web for the elderly and infirm who couldn’t actually be there. The Temple Israel members who were on vacation that day also appreciated the live stream. Jim Grey reported that he and his family viewed the tribute service from their vacation home “Up North” and felt as if they were there without having to disrupt their family’s retreat.
Virtual technology is not only finding it’s way into Jewish simchas. It is also being used to help Jewish educators extend their reach. Julie Wiener’s Jewish Week article“For Hebrew Learning, The Skype’s The Limit” details how Internet tutoring is on the leading edge of use of technology beyond the classroom.
Skype-based tutoring — piloted last year and formalized this year at [Temple] Micah [in Washington D.C.] — is not only a convenient, inexpensive way to give kids personal attention in Hebrew, but it frees up time at the once-a-week school for other lessons, explains Deborah Ayala Srabstein, the temple’s education director. Micah is one of a growing number of congregations using technology to address two of the most vexing challenges facing supplemental, or Hebrew schools: how to teach Hebrew effectively and how to best make use of increasingly limited classroom hours. Whereas a generation ago it was not uncommon for children to report to Hebrew school three afternoons a week, today’s programs —which tend to serve overscheduled families and compete with an array of other extracurricular activities — often meet as little as two hours per week.
Virtual tools like Skype and live Web streaming are making the Jewish community feel smaller and allowing people to attend life-cycle events, from bar mitzvahs and weddings to funerals, that they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend in earlier eras. These tools are also helping educate the Jewish future who are more overextended than any previous generation of young people.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Email, May it Rest in Peace

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs
Email is like a cat. I don’t know if it has nine lives, but people still use this form of communication even though it’s been pronounced dead many times in recent years.
The general consensus among experts in online communication is that social media is killing the medium of email. Just as companies and organizations are getting pretty good at making their email newsletters look professional, it seems that more people are rendering email as the means of communication from a bygone era (sorry ConstantContact.com!).
As a rabbi who has worked a lot with Jewish teen communities, I learned a few years ago that teens had given up on email. To reach their virtual inbox, the communication has to come in the form of a text message, online chat, or Facebook message. For the young generation that’s never had to handwrite a letter, email just seems too formal.
Once I noticed that teens were neither reading nor replying to standard email messages I decided to give out my cellphone number. All of a sudden I found that the communication with the teens was flowing via text messages.
I’m not saying that teens will look at an email account the same way they look at a Fax machine or a VHS tape, but they’re preferred method of communication doesn’t involve the @ sign.
So, how does one reach the target audience if email is dead (or at least on life support)?
Englin Consulting added its voice to the “Email is Dead” discussion by blogging:
“…the advent of devices like iPhones and Droids that make it easy to quickly delete emails without even looking at them, plus the spreading reach of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, plus the email overload many people experience in their inboxes equals the demise of mass email lists as a productive tool. Facebook’s COO recently revived the debate, saying that because young people don’t use email the demise of email is imminent.”
However, the consulting firm still maintains that email is an important and effective commuications tool, albeit one that could use some strategic rethinking.
On its blog they offer three things to consider about your organization’s email list, including 1. Size matters; 2. Content matters; and, 3. Email matters.
Email isn’t dead, although it’s dying. A recent study, quoted by Englin Consulting, reveals that 58% of people check email first thing in the morning before doing anything else online. And mass email lists remain a critical and even growing component of many organization’s fundraising, advocacy, and education program — one that still delivers results. However, that same study showed that more than 10% of people log onto Facebook first thing, 20% start with a search engine or portal site, and 5% head first to online news.
Businesses and organizations need to be more creative with their email marketing. Maybe social media hasn’t killed email, but it’s certainly giving it a beating… Don’t believe me? Just go here and click the “SMACK” button.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Mark Zuckerberg, Emily Gould & Rabbeinu Gershom

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

What do Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, blogger Emily Gould, and the 10th-11th century scholar Rabbeinu Gershom have in common?

They all articulated their views about privacy.

Zuckerberg was criticized last month for Facebook’s new privacy settings. Over 500 million worldwide users of Facebook had more of their information made public because Zuckerberg believes that “if people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

Zuckerberg, now 26-years-old, created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room as a way to connect co-eds in the Ivy League. Today, it’s used by all ages across the globe to divulge more personal information than anyone had originally planned.

Zuckerberg’s first privacy controversy came on November 6, 2007 when he announced a new social advertising system at an event in LA called Facebook Beacon. The application enabled users to share information with their Facebook “friends” based on their browsing activities on other sites. Beacon came under attack from both privacy groups and individuals with Zuckerberg ultimately taking responsibility and offering an easier way for users to opt out of the service.

Emily Gould, author of “And the Heart Says Whatever,” has also been affected by the sharing of private information on the Web. She writes in the current issue of Newsweek: “I should have known that the blog, an anonymous diary of my personal life, was a bad idea. As a reporter for the gossip site Gawker, I spent my days deconstructing similar attempts at concealment. But I lulled myself into a false sense of security.

Disclosing her personal information and experiences with everything from cooking to an office romance gone bad, robbed Gould of her private life. Everything quickly became public and spread around Cyberspace. Her former boyfriend revealed secrets of their relationship in a tell-all article in the New York Post Sunday magazine.

Gould, who “spent the next few days wishing the Web away,” is the classic example of someone who’s life was changed by over-sharing. In the Information Age, TMI doesn’t just mean sharing too much information; it means that your too much information has gone viral on the Web.

And that brings us to Rabbeinu Gershom. Centuries before the invention of e-mail and status updates, this sage understood a thing or two about privacy. At the beginning of the eleventh century, the leading German rabbi was Gershom, known by German Jewry as Rabbenu ((our Rabbi) Gershom. According to the tradition, he wrote four special ordinances (takkanot) which differed with Jewish law in Babylonia.

While his most famous decree concerned the outlaw of polygamy, Rabbeinu Gershom also made it a major sin to open and read someone else’s mail. This legal ruling ensured the privacy and safety of mercantile transactions between Jewish communities.

This sort of makes us wonder what Rabbeinu Gershom would make of the voluntary sharing of personal material on the Web today. Perhaps, someone should share Rabbeinu Gershom’s teaching with Mark Zuckerberg so his company locks down users’ personal information that should be kept private.

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