Gil Mann can’t recall what the old Beth El Synagogue Web site used to look like. “I don’t think it was heavily used,” he says. And it certainly wasn’t pretty.
When Beth El, a 1,200-family synagogue located in St. Louis Park, Minn., began to think strategically about its future two years ago, a fresh Web site was a crucial component of the emerging plan.
“We developed four portfolios for the shul: education, spirituality, community (all the ways we belong to the shul) and acts of kindness (both internal and within our community at large),” says Mann, who serves as vice president for implementation of the strategic plan. Each of the four elements is expressed with its own tab on the synagogue’s new Web
site, which was launched earlier this year with the help of volunteers and the hiring of a full-time Web guru.
The new site features service times, an easy-to-access online donation form, and colorful pictures of members. Since synagogue dues cover only 55 percent of the total operating budget, members are asked to contribute to the “Chai appeal” by clicking on a prominent link on the front of the Web site. The site “reflects well on the culture of the synagogue,” Mann says. “It’s warm and welcoming and alive.”
Synagogue Web sites are — after an agonizingly slow start — coming of age. Rabbis are blogging and posting sermons on YouTube. Members are signing up and paying for classes online. And several synagogues have launched virtual yahrtzeit boards — complete with e-mail reminders.
With the High Holy Days past, many synagogues are contemplating ways to fill their pews on a regular basis. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the key to building a physical sense of community may well lie in enhancing a synagogue’s online community, social media experts say. That’s why, despite the slumped economy, more and more congregations are realizing the importance of investing in fresh, easy-to-navigate synagogue Web sites (preferably equipped with “donate now” buttons).
And as synagogue Web sites become more sophisticated — though they still lag far behind those of churches — volunteer Web masters are being replaced by the services of professional Web design companies.
The burgeoning interest and willingness to invest in synagogue Web sites have given rise to a crop of Web design companies that cater to synagogues.
Talance, a Web development firm in Boston, recently launched a Web design package geared toward synagogues, at what they describe as a budget cost of $1,999. Massachusetts-based TnR Global launched a division of its technology company called ShofarSites , which produces Web sites exclusively for synagogues and other Jewish nonprofits. And Darim Online, which developed about 100 Web sites for Jewish nonprofits over the last several years, recently sold its Web development company to the newly formed JVillage Network.
“The market [for synagogue Web sites] is growing in breadth and depth,” says Lisa Colton, the founder of Darim , an organization that offers technological and social media training to Jewish nonprofits. The organization is now focusing its efforts on teaching Jewish nonprofits how to utilize social media to enhance their online presence. “We try to stay on the front end of the Jewish community.”
When Colton launched Darim in 2000, synagogue Web sites were “basically atrocious,” she says. “They were poorly designed, had low functionality, and the content was out of date.”
Back then, the competition Darim faced was mostly inaction. Now, the competitor is the professional Web developer down the street. “We reached an important tipping point in the Jewish community,” she says. “People realized that this [having a good Web site] is no longer optional.”
For Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, which hosts nearly 300 events each year, investing in a Web site equipped with the ability for both members and non-members to sign up and pay for events online was deemed essential.
“We’ve gone through a couple of generations of Web sites and e-mail marketing practices,” says Alan Samuels, LSS’s treasurer. Now, approximately 90 percent of event-goers sign up and pay in advance, helping free up cash flow issues for the synagogue and reduce back-office staff hours. “The payback on efficiencies is very great,” he says.
When the synagogue sends out shiva notices or mazal tov announcements, members can click on a link and make a donation in memory or in honor of a friend or loved one. And the Web site, which was designed by Web Design Insight, automatically deletes past events from the “upcoming events” roster. “Being in real-time and up-to-date is very important,” says Samuels.
For Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine, a new Web site has cut down on mailing costs, says Tom Berman, the synagogue’s Tech Team leader. The site, funded by a grant from the Scott L. Cohen Foundation and built by ShofarSites, features a newsflash on the front page of its Web site, which is constantly updated with last-minute notices, such as cancellations.
Modeling itself on the popular social networking site Facebook, members of Temple Beth El can “friend” other members and e-mail each other anonymously. The tech team is also setting up password-protected areas on the site where committees can share documents and post business-related matters. To encourage more visits, Temple Beth El shortened its domain name from templebethel-maine.org to tbemaine.org (the old domain still points to the new site).
“Folks are starting to realize how easy it is to make online donations in honor or memory of others, obviating the need to write a check or call the Temple office,” says Berman. After events, Berman and his team post pictures or videos on the Temple’s blog, which helps “promote greater community,” he says.
For synagogues on Long Island needing an extra boost of support in creating Web 2.0-enabled Web sites, the UJA-Federation of New York has launched The Social Media Boot Camp. The two-year initiative run by Darim will help synagogues align their congregations with the 21st century digital culture.
The Boot Camp, a project of Synergy: UJA-Federation of New York, arose from discussions among a group of 20 or so rabbis from congregations across Long Island. They reasoned that the demographic shifts and the loss of Jewish experience on the Island are partly impacted by the lackluster utilization of the Internet to promote congregational activities.
“What we find [when we run a one-time social media seminar] is that everyone goes to the workshop, loves it, goes back home and there’s no impact, nothing happens,” says Dru Greenwood, director of Synergy.
That’s why the Social Media Boot Camp will feature a kick-off event next week at the UJA-Federation building in Syosset, Long Island, followed by eight or so Webinars and monthly conference calls. Synagogues that attend the boot camp will need to be represented by a team of staff members and volunteers.
“If this is really to be picked up and make its way into the fundamental culture of how the synagogue works, we need the rabbi to blog and youth directors to twitter and the synagogue to engage in online fundraising,” says Greenwood. “All different arms of the synagogue need to be on board.”
Darim’s next Social Media Boot Camp, funded by a Berrie Innovation Grant, will take place in December for synagogues in northern New Jersey. Applications are being accepted through the end of October.
Despite initiatives like the Social Media Boot Camp, synagogues remain eons behind churches, at least when it comes to technological savvy. “Partly it’s economies of scale,” says Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, director of the Center for Congregations, an institution that assists all congregations in Indiana. “Of the 300,000 congregations in the U.S., synagogues represent such a small percentage.”
“Most synagogue Web sites are glorified brochures,” says Spiegel, who blogs at http://mahamatzav.org. Churches, on the other hand, tend to view their Web sites as tools of outreach. “There’s potential power to communicate with the world, not just membership, using basic social networking tools,” he says. “The synagogue world hasn’t embraced that just yet.”
If anyone’s figured it out, Spiegel says, it’s the Orthodox. “The earliest adaptor of Web technology was Chabad.” That makes sense, since Chabad is so focused on outreach.
Chabad.org currently powers 1,172 Web sites in 52 countries and 21 languages, according to Moshe Rosenberg, manager of affiliate sites at Chabad.org. Chabad’s emissaries around the world have the option of creating Web sites using Chabad.org’s existing templates, and Chabad’s headquarters provide free phone, email, and live chat technological support.
In addition to posting local family programming, classes, and minyan times, each Chabad Web site has the option of featuring regularly updated syndicated content, which includes primers on Jewish lifecycle events and holidays, news from Jewish communities worldwide, weekly Torah portion, and interactive videos and games for kids. “If you can send an e-mail, you can publish a good-looking and useful Web site,” Rosenberg says.
The flailing economy hasn’t gotten in the way of this shift toward professional Web sites for Jewish synagogues, says Colton. “I was pleasantly surprised. The economy has not negatively impacted the number of dollars Jewish organizations are willing to invest in upgrading their online presence. To me, that signifies a recognition in the community that this is no longer optional.”
Yet as synagogue membership continues to be seen as optional (and is increasingly becoming an option Jews simply aren’t choosing), the question is whether a dynamic Web site is enough.
Social media technology can “serve as a tether to help reel in” unaffiliated Jews and those who no longer see membership at a synagogue as a necessity, says Rabbi Charles Klein, president of The New York Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of the Merrick Jewish Centre on Long Island. “Is the technology going to turn the tide? I’m not certain,” he says. “But will it help? Definitely.”