Toronto, November 7, 2009 Will the Internet age undermine traditional synagogues? On the contrary, says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the largest synagogue movement in North America. This morning, he told more than 3,500 Reform Jews that in order to stay relevant and effectively engage its diverse constituency, the American Jewish community must embrace online technology as a tool for growth, community-building, and social engagement.
In his Shabbat morning sermon to the Union's 70th Biennial Convention, Rabbi Yoffie urged the Reform Movement to take an activist approach, using technology to strengthen community ties and as a vital way to help younger Jews build community. Many synagogues had begun this work, he said, but much, much more needed to be done.
He encouraged synagogues to embrace technological advances by starting congregational blogs, experimenting with web streaming and online services, and providing online spaces for young people. "The Internet and cyberspace are changing all the rules of Jewish interaction, and we need to be at the forefront of these changes," Rabbi Yoffie told the approximately 3,500 delegates. "We need to create an online, Oral Torah of ongoing Jewish discourse, and invite in the opinions of our members. We need to ask our members to share their personal stories and Jewish memories which they love to do when given the chance. We need to encourage hotly debated, multi-voiced, civil discussions on synagogue and local issues, and on Israel and national issues."
Focusing on congregational blogs, Rabbi Yoffie said Reform synagogues should initiate congregational blogs that generate conversation and foster personal connections. By doing so, the congregation can offer members a communal space to share their personal experiences and to engage in intense discussions about Jewish issues in the synagogue and in the community. To aid this transition to improved use of technology, he announced that the URJ's professional staff will offer online training to prepare synagogue volunteers to launch, maintain and strengthen congregational blogs.
Rabbi Yoffie called on congregations to pay special attention to the needs and interests of the tech-savvy younger generation. "They will not be attracted by authoritarian Judaism," he said. As with other areas of their lives "they want a synagogue that is more bottom-up than top-down." For synagogues, he explained, this means creating online spaces that facilitate Jewish discussion and interaction while allowing youth participants the freedom to guide the conversations to the topics that most appeal to them and their Jewish journeys.
Acknowledging that the creation of a truly interactive synagogue blog poses some risks, Rabbi Yoffie suggested some safeguards to prevent the blogs from being taken over by the "kvetchers and the whiners and the grievance collectors," and said that in any case the risks were worth taking.
Rabbi Yoffie urged synagogue leaders to experiment with a range of creative technological approaches. "The idea is not just to serve our members but to engage them," he said. "The idea is not only to inform but also to inspire and create community. The idea is to see the Web not as a bulletin board for announcements but as an act of communal collaboration."
Rabbi Yoffie concluded by noting that his sermon "will appear next week on the Union's blog." "I look forward to entering into discussion with you," he told the Biennial attendees.