Monday, March 21, 2011

Growing A Synagogue Part 3: Communicating in the Twenty-First Century

B. Websites

The basic unit of publicity on the Internet is a website. While there are domains (web addresses) that are free, for just a few dollars you can own your own domain name (e.g. or or something similar). Think of a website as one way of having your synagogue office open twenty four hours a day, seven days a week (yes, even on Shabbat!). If a congregation is looking to attract young adults, to anyone born after 1980, an organization or business that does not have a website, in their eyes, just does not exist. Long before a young adult will ever come to visit a synagogue, they will first check the congregation out on its website. It is important that the website be done right.

A website should include the following information: the name of your congregation and an accurate description of what you’re about; the mission statement and values of the congregation; your physical address and directions on how to find your synagogue; information including times and locations for services, programs, and classes; an up to date calendar of events and contact information for the synagogue staff. It’s also nice to include a bio of your clergy, sample sermons from the rabbi or audio files of the cantor; the different committees and affiliates and some of the activities that they sponsor; and information about the neighborhood such as kosher restaurants or supermarkets, etc.

Your website must have accurate and timely information and be updated regularly. Developing a website either means having a volunteer who really understands the web design it or else having the website designed professionally. Professional web design may not be the cheapest option, but if the congregation is cutting back on print advertising, a professional designer may be a good investment. One important consideration is how the website will be maintained. Who will be responsible for keeping information on the site up to date, and what training might they need? Synagogue staff and volunteers should establish a communication strategy that includes making sure that upcoming programs are posted to the website, old material is taken down and that the website is accurate. This also includes an annual review of the entire website and at-least-monthly check for accuracy. Also consider rotating the pictures on display.

If a congregation does not have a website or the congregation is unhappy with what they have currently, the first thing to do is spend some time on the web looking at what other successful synagogues and churches are doing. Ask people who use the web regularly to let you know their own favorite sites. Go to those sites and look at the style and what they put on their home page. Examine how they divide up the different areas of the congregation, putting them on different pages. Pay attention to how easy is it to find a particular piece of information, like a map showing the synagogue's location, a list of who to call for information, a calendar of current activities or the times that services will be held. Look at what pictures are used, what graphics are used. Look further and pay attention to what colors are in the background and what color is used for the fonts. If the site was professionally designed, often the designer will have the company name at the very bottom of the page in very small letters. If you like what you see you can contact the designer (at the designer's website) and inquire as to how they can be of service to you. If you have a professional design your website, make sure that it is designed so that it can be easily updated by synagogue staff or volunteers without needing the designer or incurring additional expense. When constructing a website, it should be designed to be easy to update so that the volunteer or staff member who keeps the calendar, or the one who does the publicity, can easily post new material and take down the old information. (Usually this means having a content management system [CMS] which enables those who don’t know how to code to update the text on a website).
One common mistake congregations make on their website is putting a picture of the synagogue building on the home page. Your community may be very proud of your synagogue building but the building is not the most important part of your congregation. Synagogues (and churches) are all about people and it is better to have pictures of people on your homepage; especially people who are having fun, smiling people, cute children and lots of activity. You can add a guided tour of your building to the site for those who are interested, but it does not belong on the home page.

If you have a website already, open it in your browser and see what it looks like when it opens. Like the synagogue tour above, take a tour of your own website. Does the homepage make you look like a place you would want to visit? A website is like the large window of a department store. It is the face that the world sees when they look at your synagogue. It needs to be kept fresh, up to date and have all of the most important information. A website that is out of date will never get a second look. It is better to have no website than to have one that is out of date with old, useless information. (If you really can’t keep a website up to date, consider having a “brochure website”, with the name and address and contact information for your synagogue- at least until you can establish a more dynamic website). 

Most synagogues overlook this but metrics (statistics) are a vital part of a website. There are a number of companies that offer free metrics (such as google analytics) for a website. Usually you get a counter to count how many hits the website gets. But they also include metrics that tell you how visitors found your website, what pages they visited, how long they spent on each page and how long they were on the entire website. It can tell you where these visitors live, what their internet service provider is, which browser they are using and a host of other details that can be very helpful in planning and updating the website. Businesses use metrics all the time and they can be of great help to synagogues and churches as well. Make sure that if someone is looking for a synagogue or rabbi in your area and Googles these terms, your site will show up in the search listings. If it doesn’t appear, or is ranked lower than other less relevant results, consult someone who knows about search engine optimization (SEO) to help you fix this.

It is also wise to consult someone about website security. Pictures of children and members should not give too much information to the outside world. The website should have a strong password so other nefarious characters cannot deface it or hijack it. If you allow transactions over the website, they must meet security standards including having an SSL certificate. Email addresses should be protected from those who scan the web looking for addresses to send spam and other dangerous items. Since a website can be scanned by spammers for a particular text (like an email address), sometimes it is better to post sensitive information not as text but as a graphic or picture and avoid problems with spam. Be careful how your website is linked to other sites. You don't want problems with other sites which may be out of date or with faulty security to affect your web address. The web can be a wonderful place but it can also be a bit of a wild frontier. Make sure that your web page is protected from problems. There may be legal implications of what appears on your website; you may need to specify terms of use, a privacy policy, a formal release to use pictures of individuals on the site. It is a good idea to consult with whoever does the legal work for your congregation before you make a new website public.

Some congregations have a password protected area on the website; for members only, for parents of the religious school only or where committees can share information privately; a place where more personal information can be shared. In some of these areas, social networking has been built into the website itself. By separating the public and private sections, members can have more information available than they could on a public site. They can not only share synagogue information but they can inquire about local service providers, share information on babysitters and give away unwanted furniture or theater tickets. A private area on a web site for members only can be a wonderful community tool.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Growing A Synagogue Part 3: Communicating in the Twenty-First Century

A. Communicating in Print

The third leg of a successful congregation is communication. We can be the most welcoming organization in town, and have some of the most meaningful and innovative programming ever devised but if we can't get the word out about who we are, where we are and what we have to offer, we will be unknown for a very long time. There are many synagogues that have extensive advertising campaigns, but most of the information that I have seen indicates that display advertising, in newspapers and fliers, is of little effect. It is okay if all that is needed is name recognition, but this kind of advertising does not attract new members or new participants.

Everyone knows that the single most effective way to get new prospects is to have synagogue members personally invite friends and neighbors to join them at the synagogue. With the possible exception of the month before Rosh Hashana (when Jews do look for a synagogue to attend for the holidays), display advertising is of very limited use. Too many of the people we are looking for no longer get their information from print advertising.

For example, many newspapers and organizations use community calendars that offer free advertising of events. I don't know of any community calendar that publishes all events no matter who sends them in. Often events are published based on how much space the publication has available in the issue and if the program intrigues the editor. These events may only be published a day or two before the event occurs even though the deadline for inclusion is weeks in advance. Someone who is looking for something to do that day may read about it and decide to attend, but most of the time it only serves as a reminder for those who have already signed up.

Print display advertising for synagogues is expensive and never really very effective. To be fair, most synagogues have not really invested in a major advertising effort. Synagogues don't hire advertising firms to create eye catching and informative display ads. Most congregations just don't have the budget for that kind of marketing. My colleague, Rabbi Jack Riemer told me once that he convinced a major PR firm to do a series of ads for his synagogue for free, as a public service donation of time. That was a rare successful program. In these modern times, newspapers, magazines and other print media are a dying breed. The place to get our word out today is on the Internet. The good news is that it is fast and free. The bad news is that it is much harder to rise above all the other noise on the web.

Synagogue Bulletin/Weekly Announcements

Because synagogues are multi generational, there may still be a need for a printed bulletin. The bulletin should include your synagogue logo and should carry a professional design. There are many computer programs that can help design a very professional bulletin. There are also many good graphic designers for those who would like their bulletin, stationery, and logo to all have the same look and feel. The cost of a print bulletin, printing and postage, can be underwritten by a donor or there can be advertising sold to cover the costs. You never know in whose hands a print bulletin will end up so the bulletin should be only used as a way to advertise upcoming events. Controversial items or critical letters do not belong in a bulletin. If you can afford to print in color and include pictures, that is great. If not, find lots of graphics to highlight a page so that it is not just blocks of print. Pay attention to the color and quality of the paper and the quality of the printing. If you can't do a quality job in house, then pay to have the bulletin printed at a local print shop. A good graphic designer can, for a rather modest fee, create a template for a print bulletin that can be used over and over again. It is helpful to have good advice on the layout of the bulletin. The balance between text, graphics and white space, the use of logos and borders and matching the headings for regular columns in the bulletin often require the assistance of someone who has experience and an eye for graphic design. Once the design is finished, reusing the design every month should be easy for in house editors.

While it may be expensive, it’s worth thinking about, and good business practice, to have your print and web materials professionally branded. This includes consistency in the language you use as well as consistent use of fonts and colors to create a cohesive design. In this manner those who receive or view your material can instantly recognize that it’s from you and have a sense of what your congregation is about simply from the look and feel of your website or envelope.

Weekly announcement sheets can be put out every Shabbat for those in attendance to pick up at services. This is a good way to help those who attend on weekends receive information on upcoming events. Do not make the common mistake of thinking that if something is put in the weekly announcements that every member of the congregation will see it. In fact, only the small percentage of people who attend services will see the events posted. It is no more than a reminder sheet for those who are active in the congregation. It can be used to thank those sponsors and donors for events that weekend so they can see their name in print. Since it is handed out to members and guests, it is also a public relations document. It should be short, to the point and easy to take home. If a newcomer to the service picks one up, it can also include information about the service, the congregation and who to contact if they want more information. It should have all the contact information about the congregation including the web address and the names of officers and staff who can be contacted for additional information about the synagogue.

Because both of these documents, bulletins and weekly announcements, are put together by volunteers, it has become a kind of sport, over the years, to find as many typos and mistakes in them as one can. There are whole books written about the humorous things found in church/synagogue bulletins and announcements. It is crucial, therefore, to make sure that a qualified proofreader goes over the documents before they go to print. I know that this sounds obvious, but getting the names (the right name and the right spelling), dates and information accurate is not an easy job and somebody needs to be responsible to make sure that everything is as correct as it can be.

The information on both of these documents can and should be included on the synagogue website. If it is created on a standard word processing program on a computer, it can easily be reformatted to fit on an existing page or it can be posted to its own page in just about the same format as it was for printed distribution. It is a good idea to have a teaser for important items on the front page which click through to the full description of the program or event on a different page. Since people looking for a synagogue will be viewing your website, having the announcements on the website is a good way for strangers to get to know your organization and for regulars to easily find details for programs they’d like to attend.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Chapter Four: Growing a Synagogue Part Two:- Programming for the Congregation

Let me try to be specific about the kinds of programs that compliment the welcoming atmosphere that we need to first establish. Once a synagogue has the reputation for welcoming new faces, the next big issue is “what does the synagogue have to offer?” In some ways Welcoming and Programming need to go hand in hand. As I stated before, many Jews today want to get involved first and then will become part of the community. So how do we get them involved?

First of all, we must remember that each person who walks through our door has individual needs and interests. We live in an age where we encourage everyone to find their own way in life. This means that we need to offer an array of programs, to cast our net wide, so that we can involve a diverse group of people in a wide range of programs. A synagogue may eventually discover that a staff person is needed to oversee this extensive program. A Program Director or a Lifelong Learning Director could do what a Rabbi alone may not be able to do. A pulpit rabbi, no matter how good his or her intentions may be, will be drawn away from planning and organizing when pastoral duties interrupt. Having someone to do the coordination and publicity could make a big difference in the success of these programs. Volunteers can go a long way in a program that is just getting started, but as the programming grows, and as the congregation grows, a new staff position may be required. 

Programming is not only about social activities; it is about learning and social/political action. These are the two main areas that synagogues and other religious institutions can provide that are still important and meaningful to those who are tired of empty and self centered living. While there are many non-profit organizations that try to offer such programming, synagogues (and churches too) are in a unique position to do a great deal of good in a very wide segment of the larger community outside their doors. Synagogues can partner with other non-profit organizations to bring the volunteer culture of the congregation to the causes espoused by the non-profits. We don't need to always reinvent the wheel by starting our own programs. We can work with other organizations to make the biggest impact in the wider community. 

Examples of Social/Political Action Programming

Having stated the need for Social/Political Action, we must remember to be sensitive to the needs of the different groups in our congregation. Young Jewish adults may be able to do different activities than those who are middle aged or seniors. For example, middle aged adults may be able to help at a homeless shelter by checking in the residents for the night and making sure that they have what they need; younger volunteers may be better suited to stay on duty over the entire night. For this reason some congregations that have homeless shelters have two shifts, one in the early evening for a couple of hours to get everyone settled, and a second shift that stays overnight, for six to eight hours, to make sure that everything goes smoothly all night. A middle aged adult may be happy to do carpentry work at a Habitat for Humanity build, but someone older perhaps should be kept off the ladders. Every one of every age has a role to play and we need to be sensitive as to what those roles may be by providing options for those who wish to serve.

Some of the best volunteers at a Senior Center are other seniors. They often have the time and patience to assist every resident. Younger volunteers, or those who do not have the patience to sit and talk with the clients of the Center, could take part in special programming. I have seen volunteers who speak Yiddish have a profound effect on elderly Jews who feel like the world has changed so much that they no longer have a place in that world. Just speaking Yiddish can make a world of difference to those who are very elderly. Over time, volunteers should be provided the means to increase their skills and find new ways to help. As volunteers become more skilled, we should make sure that there are many ways for them to use their experience to provide greater service to the cause. 

Here again it is important that we realize that “one size does not fit all.” Individuals will have different ideas as to how to bring meaning into their lives. It may not even be an age difference, but their approach to social action may reflect incidents from their childhood. I once wanted to open a Jewish Alcoholics Anonymous group at my synagogue. The President refused to allow “those kinds of people” to come onto the synagogue campus. I am sure that somewhere in his past, an encounter with a drunk set his mind against “those kind of people.” There is no one social action or political action program that will make everyone happy.

In a church setting, these kinds of programs are called “ministries”. Every part of the church is organized around volunteers who are part of a “ministry”. In Hebrew, the word is “Vaad” or the plural, “Vaadot” which loosely translates as “societies” or “committees”. It seems to me that this is an excellent way to organize a Social/Political Action program in a congregation. Invite groups to come together around a particular service program and if they can reach a critical mass of people, from 8-12 individuals or so, then they can begin to work together on behalf of their cause. There are two types of programs that they will need to focus on: the ongoing program that speaks to the needs of the community and the congregational program that teaches the other members of the congregation what the work of this “vaad” is all about and how they can help. Sometimes help may be a fundraiser for the project, but there are lots of other important ways a congregation as a whole can help the vaad. For example, if they are knitting wool caps for Israeli soldiers, then anyone can sign on to make hats that the committee can send on to Israel. If there is a need for contact with political figures, there can be a congregation wide letter writing program, or maybe a forum featuring information on the issue and inviting political figures to join the event.  It could alternatively mean setting up a “lobbying” day at the state capital or in Washington DC to bring home to the state and federal leadership the importance of this cause to your congregation. A vaad that is working with a homeless shelter could ask members of the congregation to donate furniture and clothing to help the homeless set up new lives. Some congregations sponsor “suit and dress” drives to collect clothing for the homeless to wear for job interviews. A local orphanage, with teens getting ready to graduate high school, were looking for donors of cars for these students who were leaving foster care and going on to college as adults, taking on responsibility for their own lives. 

Examples of Learning Programs 

Almost every congregation has an Adult Studies Program. The issue is not having the program; it is having a GOOD program. All too often, adult studies classes are simplistic lectures which are perpetually geared for beginners; the level of learning is far below the level of most adults today. Students are not inspired to look deeper into the subjects and to grapple with traditional study texts. Innovative programs for adults provide opportunities for learners to share their knowledge with others and encourage them to find their own way in these important religious texts. What makes Jewish learning exciting is the discovery of meaning in ancient texts. This does not happen when someone is lecturing on what the meaning of the text is for that teacher. Real learning comes when students are permitted to find their own meaning in the sources. There are two basic kinds of programs that promote this kind of learning and every synagogue should think about having opportunities for both. 

The first type of class is, as we stated earlier, Hevruta Learning of serious texts. This kind of learning is text based. It encourages learners to read and grapple with a text, but not alone. It can be used to study Bible, Talmud, Liturgy or any other form of sacred text.  A teacher should prepare a section of text, in Hebrew or in Hebrew and English, depending on the students’ abilities, (Hebrew is the language of Jewish learning and at some point the students should want to expand their Hebrew proficiency) with a list of open ended questions. The students then should have some time to look at the text and contemplate the questions. This is done in small groups of two or three students (a Hevruta – from the word Haver, meaning “friends” or “colleagues”) around a table. The group can be as large as four or five but remember that the more students in each group, the longer the time they will need to prepare the material since each person needs some time to share his or her understanding of the text with the rest of the group. Each person in the Hevruta has his or her own background and life experience to bring to the discussion.

At the end of this “Hevruta time”, the groups then gather where the teacher gives a “shiur” a “lesson” that offers the groups a chance to explain how they understand the text and how they came to answer the questions. There should be time allotted so that each group can share their ideas and answers, and then the teacher can weave all the answers together, explaining why some ideas are not as good as others based on the limits of the text and how rabbis and other commentators understand what the text is about. This will deepen the understanding of the text for the students. Hevruta study is a way to learn from the experiences of others and at the same time have the guidance of an experienced teacher. 

The other style of learning is an independent study group. Here, a diverse group of 8-12 people decide on a text to study and then start at the beginning and read through it with whatever commentary and study aids they find that help them understand the text. Here too, the life experiences of the members of the group are brought to the table to understand the meaning of the text. The Genesis Project, made famous on a PBS special years ago, is a good example of this kind of learning (The Bill Moyers Genesis Project: A diverse group of learners gathers each week in someone's conference room and study together a text of their choosing. Each person in the group can lead a session and the rest of the group can comment on what has been presented. The group does not need a teacher unless there is something in the text that stymies the entire group and a teacher or some reference work can be consulted for the next session. 

Both of these methods of learning rely on the students to set the tone and pace of the discussion. Sometimes a teacher can point out a really important concept that will help the students later in their learning or the teacher can help the students drill down into the text to find deeper meaning than they may find on the surface. For example, Bibliodrama, a way of personally encountering the stories of the Bible is an extension of the study group. Here a teacher can guide the discussion to bring out the ways that the stories of the Bible are also the stories of our own lives. (See the book, “Our Fathers' Wells” by Peter Pitzele, Harper Collins Press 1995, as an example). The organization “Storahtelling” in New York ( ) can provide a good kickoff for this kind of a group or a way to renew a group that is struggling. 

Adult learners should be encouraged to examine and write out their Jewish journey, the journey that has brought them to study these texts. Sometimes these journeys can be an inspiration to others who are on a similar path. To know that the same need for meaning and the same search for faith that drives one adult are the same motivations that drives others is a powerful way of helping adults to connect with their learning. This is not the esoteric learning of college nor the practical learning needed to improve skill sets on the job. Adult Learning at the synagogue should be the kind of life changing learning that helps us understand better who we are and where we want our lives to go. It is unique to religious learning and we need to make better use of it for the benefit of those who are searching. 

I like to think of this kind of adult learning as participating in the longest running classroom discussion in the history of the world. Jews have been studying these texts together for thousands of years. It is an honor to be able to study these texts together and the enterprise is filled with meaning for the students