At one time, when rabbis wanted to connect with their congregants at home, solicit feedback, provide information about services and classes, or just spread some after-hours devotion, they depended on the postal system, the telephone, or help from office workers or volunteers.
Today there’s a new chapter in the communications playbook: the Internet.
In many New Jersey towns, half or more of all of houses of worship now have active Websites, with many more likely to come online in the months and years ahead.
There are really no discernable limitations with regard to denomination, although one can invariably find some Orthodox communities that remain particularly guarded about the technology. According to Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, a Teaneck Orthodox institution that does have a Website, those who oppose Internet usage probably do so because of morally questionable content that can easily sneak through on the mostly unregulated Web.
“But I like to look at it like a knife,” he says. “A knife can be used to break bread after the Sabbath, or it can be used to harm someone. We have an opportunity now, and a responsibility, to show how something like the Internet can be used for good purposes.”
While those who are wary of the Internet will probably remain so, Simon isn’t aware of many Orthodox congregations that remain steadfastly opposed to using the Web. An informal survey bears that out, with quite a number Orthodox congregations throughout the New York Metropolitan area now being counted among the Web savvy.
“The Web poses new opportunities for us all the time,” Simon adds. “In the past, there were only limited ways in which we were able to reach out to people. Now, we reach many people who we may otherwise not have been able to reach. Not only can we reach out to people much more easily, but we find that a lot of people are reaching out to us through the site as well.”
The Friends of Lubavitch Website, which he built and maintains himself, is one of the most vigorous of its kind – for any religious organization. Among other things, it has moving images, uses vibrant colors, and has a comprehensive menu that, while teeming with choices, is very user-friendly.
“We work hard to keep it informative and up-to-date so that once someone visits the site, they’ll be drawn in and inspired to stick around and click around,” he says.
Indeed, most Orthodox Websites, like most other synagogue sites, feature information on youth activities, adult education, community involvement, schedules of services, classes and events, Torah commentary, and more. Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck, for example, has a separate weekly e-newsletter on its site, and Cong. Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn allows visitors to click on photographs of its building, which then fill the screen – a virtual tour that can make newcomers feel as if they have stopped by the synagogue in person.
Cong. Beth Tikvah in New Milford, which is Conservative, provides many beyond-text choices for its Website visitors, including a “movie page,” a “song of the month” section, and photographs. The site, designed and maintained by Beth Tikvah’s religious leader, Cantor Steve Blane, first went live three years ago, and has been an effective communications tool ever since, Blane says.
“The most important aspect of a congregational Website is the ability to easily update it,” Blane says, adding that it is integral for synagogue personnel – even clergy – to have the skills and access to do it themselves at a moment’s notice.
Indeed, when synagogue Websites are appealing and up to date, they seem to speak well of the religious and lay leaders, staff members, and program coordinators. That kind of positive reinforcement can entice more people on the outside to become active participants and not to remain simply “Website congregants.”
But staying on top of Web trends and constantly updating sites takes time and effort, both of which are often in short supply. Some synagogues have assigned committees to the chore, mimicking, in effect, the way many businesses today handle their own Web-marketing activities, with entire departments devoted to it. That should come as no great surprise, for it has been true for generations that most houses of worship must run their organizations like businesses simply to survive, let alone prosper.
“I think we’re seeing our religious communities beginning to tap into the Internet’s potential in much the same way the corporate world has,” says Richard Skeen, a member of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, a Conservative synagogue that undertook Website revisions about a year ago. “Some communities have really been in front of the technology and have embraced the potential and efficiencies, while others are just starting to get there now.”
According to Arthur Goldberg, president of Cong. Mount Sinai in Jersey City, the greatest benefit of his Orthodox synagogue’s Website has been its ability to give newcomers an access point to learning about – and possibly joining – the congregation.
“We actually get a lot of inquiries from people who are first moving into Jersey City, or who have been here for a few years but have not yet gotten around to joining a synagogue,” he says.
While the Mount Sinai Website may be slightly less adorned than some others, it nonetheless has a section dedicated to “visitors and newcomers,” and that, apparently, has been adequate to meet the current goals of the 102-year-old congregation.
“It’s an outreach tool,” Goldberg says, “and every month we update it with new information to keep it relevant.”
As far as content is concerned, youth-centered events and activities often share the spotlight on many religious center Websites with social justice issues. But there’s another, greener spotlight slowly taking center stage. Using Websites vastly reduces the amount of paper previously required for newsletters, brochures, and other correspondence typically mailed to congregants – and that’s a plus for the environment.
“Our goal is to offer congregants a platform that provides everything from a complete calendar of events and services to a source of rabbinic teaching and links to the Jewish and religious community,” says Shomrei Emunah’s Skeen. “We want to convey the warmth of the congregation and of the rabbi – and that’s something a good design can actually help accomplish.”