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Grants help shuls go online

NEW YORK, Oct. 16 (JTA) — Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, and Young Israel of Lawrenceville, N.J., all are ahead of the curve. They boast some of the best synagogue Web sites in America, according to a new study. But a new study says most of the hundreds of congregations online are ill-equipped to win anybody over. The study, commissioned by the synagogue renewal group STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, says that at a time when 28 million Americans generally use the Web for religious quests, “the vast majority” of the congregational sites surveyed “are outdated and poorly maintained.” With its colorful but simple home page design and easy-to-use links, Emanu-El is “is an inspirational site,” said Lisa Narodnick Colton, a Web developer in Vermont. Colton is the founder and president of Darim Online, which specializes in building Web sites for synagogues. Darim has built 25 synagogue sites, and found that half of those synagogues’ new members found their congregations on the Web. “Web sites are a critical way of reaching out to engage the unaffiliated,” she said The typical synagogue Web site is “underappreciated in terms of the value it can offer,” said Rabbi Hayim Herring, STAR’s executive director. “We are now at the beginning of how synagogues and technology can work together.” STAR is hoping to help make that marriage. At the height of the tech revolution in 1999, mega-philanthropists Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt kicked in $18 million to form STAR in hopes of rebuilding synagogue life, in part through cutting-edge technology. In each of the past two years STAR has awarded more than $200,000 in grants for 24 proposals for synagogue change. Many of the projects, like Darim Online, use the Web or other tech tools such as online professional development programs. The STAR tech study, which is the first such report on synagogues and high-tech, crystallizes STAR’s mission linking synagogues with technology, Herring said. That synergy is vital, Herring said, at a time when many young Jews are connected to the Web, but 59 percent of U.S. Jews are not affiliated with a synagogue. Though no statistics about Jewish Web use exist, studies tying strong education and higher income to Web habits suggest many Jews are Web-savvy — and could get involved in synagogue life via the Internet. A well-constructed congregation Web site can open virtual doorways to new members and house digital congregations where people can communicate via email and forums, listen to lectures or attend classes, Herring said. The U.S. Jewish community features exceptional online directories such as Mavensearch.com and Zipple.com, useful Web tools such as the singles site Jdate.com or the Reform site for 20- and 30-somethings, ClickonJudaism.com, but the wired congregational world is weak, the study found. Of 1,328 Web sites linked to the main denominational organizations, “even within the advanced and interactive sites content is often obsolete,” the study concluded. Most synagogue sites suffer from out-of-date calendars and schedules, event descriptions and registration forms, the study said. Most sites remain “static” and offer fewer than 25 pages to surf. Meanwhile, the so-called “back-end” software used to support and manage these Web sites is often outdated or jury-rigged from older systems to support current systems such as Microsoft Windows. Generally, it’s lack of money that prevents synagogues from adopting better technology, the report said. Synagogues often relegate the maintenance of their sites to volunteers with some Web skills or hire commercial Web hosts. Only a few larger, wealthier congregations can afford to hire a full-time Web master. Many synagogues have turned to their umbrella movements for help. Of 101 Reconstructionist congregations, for example, 88 are online through the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. Of 913 members of the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 705 are online. Of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 800 members, 350 are online. The Orthodox Union has 144 members online, while 41 of the National Council of Young Israel’s 124 members are online. The movements provide their members with free Web hosting services such as general access, email, folders and forums — enough to maintain a state-of-the-art site, said Martin Kunoff, director of information technology for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Kunoff challenged the report’s finding that most synagogue sites are not up to par, though he admitted many could be better. “You can find synagogue sites that are out of date, but that’s not the wide majority,” he said. Every day, Kunoff said, he communicates via e-mail with more than 300 Web masters of Conservative synagogue and day school sites, proving that many sites are keeping up. Through the tech study, Kunoff charged, STAR hopes to promote the private Web developers it is funding who market “template” designs to synagogues, modeled from a generic program and adapted to meet the needs of each client. Herring denied that. “We didn’t begin with any preconceived notion of what should or shouldn’t be,” he said. Still, there are “benefits” to a “universal template for synagogue sites,” Herring said, because “the potential to create universal knowledge-sharing across the spectrum” of congregations “is much greater.” Whether synagogues would buy into that remains another question, since in a democratic culture “people often like to make their own choices,” he noted. While it does not propose a specific solution for synagogues, the STAR report offers a model called “synagogues.org” — a kind of network that would feature Web-site building software, membership management tools and a searchable database. Finally, the STAR model includes something called “shulquest,” a kind of directory for the unaffiliated that would allow people to search for a synagogue by building a profile with such characteristics as size, type or mission. More pressing than the complexities of Web technology, Herring added, is the need to get synagogues online, where their future members live. “If synagogues and the Jewish world as a whole are not a presence in cyberspace,” he said, “what are the messages we’re communicating to Gen X-ers?”

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