SynaCon, the annual conference that the Synagogue Leadership Initiative of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation put on for synagogue leaders, is meeting in person next Sunday, November 14, in a sign of post-covid return to normal. (The institute skipped last year’s conference due to the pandemic.)
But in a sign that that the new normal is not the old normal, the gathering’s keynote speaker — Rabbi David Paskin — will be speaking via teleconference from Florida, and will focus on the role of digital media in synagogue life.
“Virtual is now seen as a necessity,” Joshua Keyak, the Synagogue Leadership Initiative’s manager, said. “Certainly in non-Orthodox shul, and even in Orthodox shuls when it’s not Shabbat or a holiday. They’ve all stepped up their virtual offerings. People got used to not driving at night, or joining in their pajamas, or joining their grandchild’s synagogue service across the country.
“There were a number of synagogues that saw a significantly higher Shabbat and holiday service attendance on Zoom than they had before the pandemic. Some saw three or four times as many people throughout the pandemic. It was notable.”
In response to the need to cancel traditional in-person activities, “the synagogues were forced to be creative,” Mr. Keyak continued. “They came up with a lot of great programming. You can’t replace the in-person experience, but you can do better than having someone on the couch watching passively. For something like an annual dinner, some synagogues sent gift baskets. When they started the program, they said ‘Open your gift basket and start eating.’ My synagogue, Darchei Noam in Fair Lawn, actually had a mixology lesson. They sent us all the ingredients to make two or three drinks. The people who would have been there in person were all at home doing the same thing, with materials the shul provided. It makes it much more interactive and helps build community when you can’t be together in the same room.”
SynaCon will be hybrid; people can join either on Zoom or in person. (Proof of vaccination required to attend in person.) “In the past we’ve welcomed about 70 to 90 people,” Mr. Keyak said. “To be honest, I don’t know what to expect this time. The virtual option could welcome a lot more people.”
Rabbi Paskin was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion; after 20 years serving a pulpit in Boston, he now is the director of youth education at Temple Sinai of North Dade. “Basically I play with kids all day,” he said.
He also has a strong internet presence.
“I’ve always been an early adopter,” he said. “I’m constantly playing around and tinkering. I’ve been blessed with a little knack for this stuff.”
So when the Jewish world had to go digital and remote, not only was he able to make the pivot, but he started creating how-to videos to help others.
“I found a lot of his videos helpful,” Mr. Keyak said.
Rabbi Paskin’s keynote will be on “the power and potential of digital media,” Mr. Keyak continued. “How we should embrace that. It’s not just about virtual Shabbat programs — there’s a lot synagogues could do outside of their services.”
He also will give two classes, one focused on engaging people during online services, the other on the more general question of “how do plan and react purposefully in this changing future.”
The SynaCon program also will feature two in-person speakers. Karen Secular, a former development officer at the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, will talk about how synagogues can create legacy giving programs — that is, encouraging members to remember their synagogue in their wills. Leadership coach Larry Center will talk about synagogue board leadership development.
Rabbi Paskin said that the move to digital may seem sudden, but has been happening for a while. “We have seen a need for a shift in how we share Torah and Judaism for years now,” he said. “If you look at outlets like Alephbeta.org, Aish.com, Chabad.org, Sefaria.org” — four prominent Jewish websites — “they’ve been at the forefront of this work of realizing we can reach a lot more people using digital tools. Large churches have been doing this for years. This isn’t just for the liberal-minded among us. For many people, Shabbat will not be an option for streaming. But there’s an Orthodox synagogue in Boca Raton that has been doing amazing streaming with non-Shabbat classes and shows.”
Rabbi Paskin encapsulates his advice as “four essential Es. All of them apply to the digital world, and I would argue also the physical world.
“The first E is eye contact. The way computers are built, you are very often looking down toward your screen rather than directly at the camera. If you’re a leader, it’s very important for people to know that you see them, even if it’s only through YouTube and Facebook.
“The second E is engagement. Digital media is a radical democratization. You can’t just create Jewish TV shows. It has to involve people. One of the things I love about Zoom is that my square is no bigger than anyone else’s. Everyone is equal in digital space.
“The third E is energy. The way you are seen in digital media is through energy. When I’m teaching online, I’m standing at a desk. I move my body. I can’t just stand there and daven silently. It’s not going to bring people in.”
“The fourth E is to know when to end. A gift that Zoom gave us was a 40 minute limit on the free account. Services have been trimmed down. People appreciate not being bored but wanting more.”
The online experience does not need to replicate the real world experiences directly.
“Last week I did a layla tov” — good night — “program for a bunch of my families here,” Rabbi Paskin said. “I said, at 6:30 have your kids snuggle up in their PJs and I’m going to sing all your kids to sleep. That’s not something I could have done before.
“With older kids, one of the things the Jewish world has learned is the power of one-to-one and small groups. Because wrangling a whole class in digital space is challenging, synagogues have done one-to-one Hebrew learning. More and more tools are allowing us to do that.”
As for keynoting a conference remotely: “There will be pluses and minuses to what I’m doing,” Rabbi Paskin said. “The minus is obviously that there will be a lot less opportunity to make one-on-one connections with people who are on site. That’s a loss.
“At the same time, if I was in person, I might be the small little guy in front of the room and the large screen might just have my slide deck. Because of my setup and the way I’ve created it, I’ll be on the big screen, and I’ll have elements of my presentation flying in and out right over me. I’ll have good cameras and solid audio. I’ll show people we can offer quality experiences in digital space.”
What: SynaCon 2021, a half-day program designed for professional and volunteer synagogue leaders
When: Sunday, November 14. 8:30 breakfast and registration; 9:00 keynote.
Where: Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, 50 Eisenhower Drive, Paramus; and online
How much: $18
Advance registration: jfnnj.org/synacon
Proof of vaccination required for in-person attendance