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Community Finds It's Very Pleased to 'Tweet' You
Unlike the stereotype for many her age, 17-year-old Julia Straus isn't a Facebook junkie, though that's not to say she doesn't use it.
While she logs on to the social networking site to follow friends and "fan pages," Straus primarily navigates the site for the purposes of her youth group, MaLTY, at Main Line Reform Temple (where her father, David, is the senior rabbi). Facebook helps keep current members updated on group business, as well as connect with prospective ones.
"In the last couple years, we decided it's easier to contact people through Facebook than just to call them," said Straus, "because if you don't really know them, there's something less awkward on Facebook."
For one thing, she said, there are no uncomfortable silences on on the social networking site; many people are used to getting messages there from folks they've never met. "And you can put a face to a name, which you can't do on the phone," she added.
But Jewish outreach on Facebook isn't just kids' stuff.
These days, congregational outreach means more than dropping a newsletter into the mailbox once a month. It means being digitally savvy, communicating with congregants and nonmembers through Facebook, Twitter, blogging, podcasts and whatever new technology may have come along in the time it took to type this sentence.
All told, they serve the dual purpose of wider Jewish outreach while helping keep the community further connected.
Facebook would seem to be the most popular digital avenue for synagogues and Jewish organizations, and many in the Philadelphia region have latched on to the site as yet another way to communicate with both members and nonmembers alike.
Facebook allows members (whether individuals or organizations) to post comments on one another's "wall," upload photos, chat via instant messaging and otherwise update their status.
Elisa Heisman, program director at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, said that she updates the synagogue's status daily, "whether it's a simple 'Shabbat Shalom' or promoting an event that maybe I'm not getting a great response to or I want to drive traffic to get there."
As far as whether or not such posts are generating attendance and involvement, Heisman said that, "little by little, we're getting results."
While some Jewish professionals have taken to Twitter, others have held back, perhaps unsure of how best to use the online fad, where users post messages of 140 characters or less.
And Heisman counted herself among those. "I think there's a danger with oversaturating," she said. "We sent a weekly e-mail blast out to the congregation, we do the Facebook thing, we do the traditional venues of the newsletter and flyers. How much do you bombard people? Pretty soon, they're going to get kind of annoyed."
Many congregations rely on digital methods for announcements and news, reducing or eliminating their reliance on paper-based communications as a way both to further "green" the synagogue and to interact with members through media they're already using -- even that old-fashioned, retro-stalwart e-mail.
New technologies have also been a boon to Jewish education, allowing parents a closer look at what their kids are learning inside the classroom.
The preschool at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park has a Facebook page, said director Michelle Bernstein, to remind parents of what's coming up and to let them connect with other parents in the A.J. community.
"It's just another resource for us to communicate," she said. "Since 80 percent of our families -- at least -- are on Facebook, it works for this day and age."
But, she said, the school could jump to another platform if Facebook becomes obsolete.
Into the Digital Waters
While a number of rabbis from local shuls have dipped a toe into the digital waters by hosting blogs or Facebook pages, Rabbi Jim Egolf of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne has done a veritable cannonball into the pool.
Egolf, 42, has been podcasting his sermons for about two years now, and said that he averages about 800 listeners per month from around the world, including nearly all 50 states, Pakistan, Iran and Micronesia.
He pointed out that he's not headed to Iran anytime soon, but thanks to this technology, "somebody's had an experience of listening to a rabbi teach something or speak to an issue which they never would have had."
Egolf's podcast is available for free in the iTunes store.
"These tools are pushing and promoting and creating knowledge upon which others can actually learn or deepen their own spiritual journeys," said Egolf, adding that digital outreach can be especially meaningful to those with limited mobility, for example, allowing them to experience Judaism despite physical hurdles.
Of course, the social networking bandwagon isn't limited to synagogues; Jewish institutions of all stripes have joined the party, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Federation has both a Twitter feed and a Facebook fan page.
According to chief marketing officer Alex Stroker, Federation is in the process of preparing a new online presence, including a focus on social media, which will enable the organization to get its message out in a cost-effective manner and meet people where they already are in a way that allows nearly instantaneous feedback.
"This is yet another way to be as transparent and as accountable as you can be to the community," added Stroker.
Just More Clutter?
But do technologies like Facebook and Twitter actually enhance Jewish life, or are they each just one more piece of digital clutter in people's lives?
Much of the emphasis on new technologies boils down to how to best engage young families, bring them into the community -- and, of course, keep them there.
Rabbi Philip Warmflash, executive director for the Elkins Park-based Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/ Jewish Outreach Partnership, said that it's not a matter of whether it's good or bad for the community.
"It just is," he declared. "And we find ways to bring people into Jewish life by going where they are."
Facebook, Twitter and the like aren't just for outreach efforts. They are, after all, social sites, and Jews use them the way anyone else would -- to check in on who got engaged, who's pregnant, who got promoted or posted new family pictures.
However, many in the Jewish world aim to use this technology for wider outreach, while keeping the existing community connected. For example, the site can be used to let congregants know about a shivah call or to organize a meal for a member who's ill.
Still, Facebook may just help to change how young Jews get connected -- and stay connected -- to the Jewish community.
"This generation is younger and different," said ACAJE/JOP educational resource director Elana Rivel, "and it just means that if we want to reach out and continue to make congregational life meaningful and relevant, then we have to think out of the box, and remember that there's more to synagogue life than the four walls of the synagogue."