4 Ways to Leverage Digital Platforms for Congregational Communications in a Pandemic

April 21, 2020Jason Plotkin

What I am about to share is not a surprise: Synagogues and houses of worship are in a difficult spot of keeping connected with their congregants and providing content to the community.

Like many synagogues, my congregation is no different.

My role as the program director of a 1,700-plus family synagogue, Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX, has morphed into the role of an executive producer, more synonymous with television show and movie production.

On a daily basis, I plot a schedule that looks into the coming days and weeks in an effort to provide content that touches every person within our community. At the same time, I try to ensure that the content we make available is truly accessible to as many people as possible in our current, physically disconnected state.

Here are some tips and tricks I’ve found along the way.

1. Make worship available in multiple places.

Not everyone uses Facebook – and while it is a great way to access people and truly engage them in love worship experiences, there are other ways, too. There are advantages to using these other services, as well. (Beyond worship, other programming should be considered on a case-by-case basis. We’ve found that Torah study, for instance, works best confined to Zoom.)

Zoom allows you to push to StreamSpot, which can then send your video to Facebook and/or YouTube – and URJ member congregations are eligible for discounts through the Reform Movement Marketplace. Other platforms such as ReStream also allow Zoom to push your video content to a multitude of platforms.

One advantage to Zoom is that people can listen via phone if they do not have other means of connecting to your service (i.e. no Wi-Fi or a bad Wi-Fi  connection), and using StreamSpot (or your other traditional video provider on your website) allows members some familiarity, as they are likely to know where to access your content on your website.

Zoom can be set up in various ways that ensure online security during your virtual event. Check out Rabbi Chase Foster’s handy guide to learn how to implement these measures. Take advantage of Jewish communal resources from URJ, the Secure Community Network, and the Anti-Defamation League, among others, related to “Zoombombing” and other security concerns.

2. Empower your lay leaders and staff to become content creators.

During my URJ Biennial presentation about congregational communications, my co-presenter asked attendees how many had phones with cameras in their pocket; everyone in the room raised their hands. We took a selfie with participants in our session, then I created content that I shared across multiple platforms.

We all have the means for recording – which means that great content can come from any corner of your synagogue!

Is there a popular member of your maintenance staff who is beloved by your community? What about an enthusiastic congregational president who you know your members would love to hear from? Get these individuals involved, from all aspects of your organizational structure.

A one-minute video sharing an update and positive vibes goes a long way. In turn, it puts a familiar face on screen for your community and provides content for you to leverage across multiple platforms.

In my community, a recent highlight was our congregation’s volunteer choir performing “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King & I… over Zoom! They recorded it themselves, and I uploaded the video to YouTube, our website, and Facebook.

3. Create a one-stop-shop for your video content.  

Prior to the pandemic, I occasionally used our congregational YouTube account as a place to put sermons or videos – namely when a rabbi wanted to be able to embed a sermon on their personal website.

These days, though, the way I use YouTube has changed. Now, everything goes there. Period.

Our YouTube account has become a one-stop-shop of offerings for congregants and community members who may not be looking at our preschool or religious school’s Facebook pages or who are perhaps skipping over some of the content when its shared on our website.

This allows visitors to see the full breadth of our videos, which have been sorted into categories such as “Emanu El During COVID-19” or “Passover 2020” – so they can truly see what we have produced during these times.

4. Technology happens!

Just know that things are, at some point, going to go wrong – and when they do, the way you respond and work through it is critical to your continued success.

For example, Zoom recently implemented changes and enhancements to some of its security parameters. Great, right? Well, yes, but it’s also meant that on a couple of occasions, we sent congregations slightly outdated information about how to connect to our offerings; on another occasion, Zoom didn’t push our content to Facebook as planned.

Thanks to our synagogue team’s use of Slack as a method of communication, we were able to work together to determine the best way to mitigate and handle these changes, quickly communicating new information and/or turning to other resources to help us reach the desired result.

A team effort takes the stress off a single person and helps resolve matters much more quickly. If you don’t have fellow staff members, perhaps a lay leader or two can making themselves available to be part of your technology/communications team, helping you troubleshoot in the moment.

At the end of the day, these tips and tricks are just a starting point. Across the movement, our communities are dealing with similar issues, regardless of size, geographic location and/or staffing. As members of the URJ, we are very fortunate to have The Tent as a place to share resources and connect with other communities – so that none of us has to reinvent the wheel during these trying times.

Have something to say about this post? Join the conversation in The Tent, the communications and collaboration platform for congregational leaders of the Reform Movement. You can also tweet us or tell us how you feel on Facebook.

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