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In 2014, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, Ohio, faced serious financial challenges. A small synagogue with a reputation for being stodgy and predictable, the congregation sold its building and used the capital to reinvent itself in the community.
Under the leadership of its new rabbi, Miriam Terlinchamp, Temple Sholom wanted to share with the local community – and the entire country – its radical new vision for the future of Judaism: one that includes and celebrates innovative programming, progressive social justice initiatives, and a diverse membership.
But how to do this?
Posting flyers and hoping for word-of-mouth spreads simply wouldn’t do the trick. Rabbi Terlinchamp and I, together with the staff and some dedicated congregants, decided we needed to take a risk and set out to make entertaining videos. By using humor, we hoped to convey our vision to the world and to capture people’s attention around our message. (Full disclosure: My company, The Blank Press, is a business strategy, marketing, and creative video advertising company, that helps companies and non-profit organizations identify and implement their strategic goals and branding identity, leading to desired financial goals.)
For one of our first videos, Rabbi Terlinchamp and I wrote an original musical to convey Temple Sholom’s new vision. The video took months to produce. First, I had to write and compose the music, then produce the song in a recording studio, and finally convince many members of our congregation – most of whom had never acted before – to play a role in the movie. Those who agreed donated countless hours of time to the project.
Our efforts paid off!
The video was a success. It went viral on Facebook, and we received lots of positive attention from our local Jewish community and Jewish organizations nationwide. I knew we’d hit on an effective strategy when someone wrote to ask: “Whoa, is this the same Temple Sholom?”
Leveraging our success, we continued making humorous videos, using the same process as the first time, with each one requiring approximately 100 hours to create from start to finish – from comedic concept and scripting to casting and shooting dozens of takes to get a joke or line just right. Congregants began requesting parts in our videos, and those who initially were too shy to be on camera transformed into go-to fan favorite actors with masterful comedic timing.
Our community started to grow, new students enrolled in our religious school, and we greeted a diverse mix of new members, including younger families, interfaith families, and many from the LGBTQ community –- all drawn in by the messages in our videos. Almost overnight, our congregation went from stale to a cool, fun, invigorating place to be.
Our first video was designed to showcase Temple Sholom’s innovative Jewish experience, but we broadened the scope of our projects to address issues faced by many religious or non-profit organization, expanding opportunities for grant funding. Among the videos we produced are:
These videos so resonated with religious organizations, charities, and other mission-driven non-profits that they went viral, garnering more than 1.4 million collective views on Facebook. Donations to Temple Sholom increased, and we received a seven-figure grant.
From all this traction, I learned that by using satire and humor in our videos, we could start important conversations that would advance our initiatives. As a beneficial byproduct, the videos helped attract more people to our community – a diverse group of people who are helping create Temple Sholom’s innovative vision of what a modern synagogue can look like.
The primary takeaway is this: In today’s digital age, synagogues and non-profits are fighting for attention, and it takes time and creativity to craft messages that shine a spotlight on what your organization is doing. Flyers simply will not do. Instead, have fun and embrace the challenge of delivering a creative message to a public that isn’t (yet) interested in what you have to offer.
Aaron Bilgrad is president of The Blank Press, a business strategy, marketing, and creative video advertising company. He specializes in helping companies and non-profit organizations succeed by aligning their financial goals with an entertaining and engaging video advertising strategy.
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