Brenda Horowitz is a good friend and while she does not post commentary to me often, when she does, I always have to pause to reflect on the issues she raises. She sent me the following comments and I have asked her permission to share them on my blog.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the issues that you raised in your latest Jewish Common Sense blog. I think part of what’s holding back even those (few) congregations who are theoretically open to and able to do these things is the whole business model problem. After all, these efforts are not likely, especially in the short-term, to generate new paid members or other revenue streams for the host site. And while vibrancy and continuity are certainly on almost everyone’s checklist for their goals for their congregations, it’s far from certain that these efforts would actually bring more bodies (never mind paying ones) into the building . . . although it’s almost equally certain that continuing with the status quo will not!
Specifically, given the global nature of social networking and online education, why would I turn to my local synagogue for these programs when I could just as easily find and participate in them through a synagogue or other Jewish institution in New York or LA or Cleveland or Jerusalem? And why should my local synagogue make the investment in infrastructure and technology and manpower when those who are availing themselves of what I create are just as likely to live so far away and never contribute back to or affiliate with or directly benefit my synagogue?
Is it truly necessary or desirable or beneficial or an efficient use of community resources to have every (or even most or many) of our synagogues offering these programs individually, or is there some way to leverage each other’s contributions and create some type of economies of scale in these endeavors? How much of what we’re trying to accomplish is effectively “industry marketing” (Conservative Judaism or even Judaism in general), and how much is “product marketing” (our specific program or institution)? What can we learn from other industries about the industry marketing component? (Remember the national dairy boards’ “Got Milk” advertisement?)
How should or can we join together? How should or can we specialize? These are some of the interesting questions and discussions that need to be (and hopefully are) taking place at the institutional, communal, and movement levels. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on these issues.
Regards,– Brenda Horowitz
I only wish that what makes synagogues move slowly in the area of technology is a business model issue. I would love to have a conversation with congregations about business models and budgets. Far too often the real issues are money spent on “programs” and how will we raise the money for new technology. I have found that synagogues get stuck on where they are and forget (or get lazy) and no longer continue the outreach that helped the congregation grow in the first place. I am not being cynical here. The problem that many non-profits have is that they develop a core of funders and members and then, when they reach a good place, suspend the outreach that made it all possible. It is then that they begin to die. Without new members to replace those who move away, leave for other organizations and those who die, the membership begins to decrease. Funders are developed; they do not grow on trees. How many synagogues fail to continue to work with younger members to help them grow into major funders?
The reality is that outreach work today depends on a web presence. Young people, those who are 25-35 depend on the internet for their entire social life. They invite others to parties, find out the latest information and look for good ideas on the internet. These are young professionals with money to donate and synagogues are invisible to them because we have no web presence or a poor one that does not invite them into the fold. Parents today need the web because they have little time during the day to take care of business matters. They pay bills online, exchange email, share pictures and shop online well after most synagogue offices are closed. They often don’t go online until the children are in bed and they have the time (and access to the computer). Our entire communication structure with our current members as well as outreach to people who may be moving to the community and those who are ready to find a synagogue depends on our web presence. We will also see that holding on to these members will increasingly depend on being able to reach them online.
Rather than see the online resources available from distant organizations as a problem, synagogues should see this as an enhancement for their own local programs. We need to link our sites to those that share our outlook and point of view. Conservative Judaism is far behind many other more fundamentalist Jewish groups and we need to pool together and expand the content of Conservative Judaism online. But while it is possible to get information online from places all over the world, there will always be a need for a local presence as a source for that information (links) and as a personal place where the people know your name, your needs and can link you up with others who are on a similar path, to share experiences in a more personal way than can be done online. As we grow in understanding and in ritual, we want to have the personal contact that is needed to really understand. Jewish living is an art, not a science, and sharing a Shabbat meal, celebrating holidays together and talking about prayer are still strong ways to make Jewish Ritual our own. One parent recently asked me what we could do to make parents in our schools more connected to the congregation. I replied that if we increase the rituals they do in their own homes, we can foster a connection with the synagogue since Judaism can’t be done alone for long. We need the social contact to refine our practice and to learn what will work and what will not work for our families. Some of this can be done online, but some needs the sharing of ideas and practices face to face.
I think that there is room for shared community resources. A synagogue should link to sites from the Jewish Theological Seminary, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, the Woman’s League for Conservative Judaism, The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, Masorti, Mercaz and the World Council of Synagogues. United Synagogue already has a hosting service for those congregations who want to establish websites. It would be nice if they were to offer templates for synagogues to get online faster but it is a start. There are more and more online resources from Conservative Jewish sites and the synagogue website should be the first place to go to find reliable Jewish advice and learning. We are not there yet.
Beyond “industry marketing” synagogues need to have a web presence just to show up on the community radar. On a local level, while there are many social and political venues for seeking spirituality and finding meaning in life, a synagogue is still the best place to focus our efforts. Not every synagogue can help everyone in their search, but it can be a base out of which we can explore the world to help us in our searching. Many synagogues today try to out-program the rest of the world. But we are unique in important ways that people often forget, burying their spiritual search under a pursuit of “happiness” or some material venture. Real peace comes from being a part of a community that aspires to find a religious path in life. We can help people grow spiritually and grow our religious communities, but we will need to communicate who we are and what we are about better, and that means an investment in technology.
Congregations are now trying to address these needs. I am leaning these days to change the position of “program director” or “communication director” into a technology director. This is a start but it would be helpful if there was direction from the national movement. We need to call upon United Synagogue, both nationally and regionally, to support congregations as they seek to establish a presence on the internet.
Brenda, these are great questions you ask, but there is much to do before congregations can even ask themselves the questions you raise.