Old wine in new bottles. Unfortunately, this aphorism most aptly describes how Jewish organizations utilize new technologies.
Emerging social media tools offer radically different ways of engaging Jews and inspiring meaningful Jewish thought and action. Yet what too often passes for “technological innovation” in the Jewish world is simply pasting the rabbi’s sermon on the Web. For a community in need of revival, that standard is too low.
This point was driven home for me at the recent annual gathering of the Non-Profit Technology Network (NTEN). While the conference was oversold, with nearly 1,500 not-for-profit professionals attending — a 26 percent increase over last year — only half a dozen Jewish institutions were represented.
In a world where new technology empowers individuals to self-organize, Jewish organizations must shift their strategies, tactics and communications to provide something value-added beyond what individuals can do on their own. New media tools can energize Jews with interactive communication, dynamic connections with other Jews and the creation of community around shared interests. Jewish institutions can become facilitators of such creation, providing structures and support without dictating a specific vision for Jewish life.
It is exciting to see that a handful of Jewish organizations are heeding this call in innovative and cutting-edge ways, proving the potential for such approaches.
Independent minyanim, which typically rely on advanced communications tools to recruit and organize, tap into a desire for participatory communities that put the individual or family before the institution. Jewish social entrepreneurs associated with the ROI Community, Darim Online and PresentTense Institute are using and promoting strategies to engage hard-to-reach Jews not through flashy marketing, but by fostering opportunities for Jews to craft their own experiences and engage in open conversations with each other about why Judaism matters. And JTA recently posted its list of Top 100 Most Influential Twitterers, highlighting a number of individuals and organizations utilizing this new medium in effective ways.
To some, effectively using emerging technologies for Jewish engagement and aligning with the social media-empowered culture may feel daunting. But there are many easy opportunities for institutions to communicate, market and evaluate in innovative and effective ways. Federations might experiment with a model similar to the Case Foundation’s America’s Giving Challenge with the allocation of community dollars through online voting by donors. The denominational movements could learn from BBYO’s program enabling teens to create their own prayer services that interweave the personal with the traditional. Jewish learning and advocacy organizations could sponsor engaging online discussions on the relevance of a Jewish holiday or social action in today’s world. And efforts to galvanize and gather Jews could emulate most Hillels’ use of Facebook and YouTube.
The NTEN conference was a missed opportunity for the Jewish community to learn from the not-for-profit organizations and leaders using these tools better than anyone else. Jewish organizations can and must begin earnest and advanced evolution from simply applying our old means of engagement online to unleashing the full power of new media. The Jewish people deserve nothing less.
Next year at NTEN …
Adam Simon is the director of Jewish Programs at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation