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October 23, 2009     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 23, 2009 PAGE 17A By Tamar Snyder New York Jewish Week NEW YORK--Gil Mann can't recall what the old Beth E! 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-fam- ily 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: educa- tion. 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 implemen- tation 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 ser- vice 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. Rab- bis are blogging and post. ing sermons on YouTube. Members are signing up and paying foe 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 com- munity, 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 sophis- ticated-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 devel- opment firm in Boston, recently launched a Web de- sign 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 de- veloped 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 syna- gogue Web sites] is growing site Facebook. members of Temple Beth El can "friend" other members and e-mail each other anonymotlsly. The tech team is also setting up password-protected areas on the site where commit- tees can share documents and post business-related matters. view their Web sites as tools of "outreach. "There's potential power to communicate with the world, not just mem- bership, 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 using Chabad.org's existing templates, and Chabad's headquarters provide free phone, e-mail, and live chat technological support. In addition to posting local - family programming, class- es, and minyan times, each ChabadWeb site has the option of featuring regularly updated " " are " and posting sermons on Tube. Members are signing up and paying online. And several synagogues launched virtual yahrtzeit boards--complete with e-mail reminders." in breadth and depth," says Lisa Colton. the founder of Darim, an organization that offers technological and so- Cial 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 competi- tion Darim faced was mostly inaction. Now, the competi- tor is the professional Web developer down the street. "We reached an important tipping point in the Jew- ish community," she says. "People realized that this [having a good Web site] is no longer optional." For Lincoln Square Syna- gogue 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 genera- tions of Web sites and e-mail marketing practices." says Alan Samuels. LSS's trea- surer. 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 ef- ficiencies 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, auto- matically deletes past events from the "upcoming events" roster. "Being in real-time and up-to-date is very impor- tant," says Samuels. For Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine. a new Web site has cut down on mail- ing costs, says Tom Berman, the synagogue's Tech Team leader. The site, funded by a grant from the Scott L. Co- hen Foundation and built by ShofarSites, features a news- flash on the front page of its Web site, which is constantly updated with last-minute notices, such as cancella- tions. Modeling itselfon the popular social networking To encourage more vis- its, Temple Beth E1 short- ened its domain name from templebethel-maine.org to tbemaine.org (the Old do- mare 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 com- munity," 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 Me- dia 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 Syn- ergy: 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 demo- graphic 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, 16ves it, goes back home and there's no impact, nothing hap- pens," says Dru Greenwood, director of Synergy. "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." Despite initiatives like the Social Media Boot Camp, synagogues remain eons behind churches, at least when it comes to techno- logical savvy. "Partly it's economies of scale," says Rabbi Aaron Spiegel, director of the Center for Congrega- tions, 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 Orthodox. "The earliest adap- tor 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 syndicated content, which includes primers on Jewish lifecycle events and holidays, news from Jewish communi- ties worldwide, weekly Torah portion, and interactivevideos and games for kids. "If you can send an e-mail. you can publish a good- looking and useful Web site." Rosenbergsays. The flailing economy hasn't gotten in the way of this shift toward pro- fessional Web sites for Jewish synagogues, says Colton. "I was pleasantly surprised. The economy has not negatively impacted the number of dol- lars Jewish organizationsare 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 member- ship continues to be seen as optional (and is increasingly becoming an option Jews simply aren't choosing), the question is whether a dynam- ic Web site is enough. Social media technology can "serve as a tether to help reel in" un- affiliated 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." Reprinted with permission from the New York Jewish Week, www.jewishweek.com. "As a ti.r :ikn ....... What ip State er , . 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