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  • God and Twitter: Helping Clergy Do What They Do Better

    Posted on June 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments

    A few weeks ago, Rabbi Marci Bellows (@moosh2) got into a bit of trouble with the members of her youth group. Her sin? Not sending out a Shabbat Shalom tweet on a particularly Friday night. She was a little surprised by the outcry of disappointment. In the many months of sending out these Friday messages she had never heard back from any of her youth group followers. She was not in the least bit sure they were paying attention to her many Twitter missives. But clearly they were.

    Twitter is a social media that allows users to broadcast short messages no longer than 140 characters and followers to track these short bits of news and commentary. In October 2009, I (@rabbiruth) made some predictions on the ways Twitter might be used in a congregational setting. At the time there were a handful of rabbis, cantors and educators to be found using Twitter. While the specifics of that post have not materialized, Twitter has become a valuable tool with particular benefits in Jewish professional life. Today, there are many HUC-JIR alumni on Twitter, not to mention, accounts for HUC-JIR (@hucjir & @hucinci). Talking to some of those that tweet, it is clear that Twitter is playing a powerful role in the ways Jewish professionals do their jobs and live their lives.

    Avid Twitter users are often, like Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr (@FrumeSarah) who blogs and uses Facebook, or Rabbi Mark Hurvitz of (@rebmark) who has a professional focus technology, are heavy users of social media more generally. But experimentation and exploration is part of Twitter. At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) is a clergy leader when it comes to social media. He is still figuring out how best to use Twitter, as he explains, “I don’t think five years ago I understood power of Facebook or the potential. So when Twitter got into our consciousness I got this feeling I would get it, I wanted to get in earlier in the game, so now I have a presence and I’m taking a wait and see approach.”

    Even as he experiments with Twitter, Kliger has a clear strategy of mixing short personal and professional missives. Sharing about his kids and the upcoming adult b’nai mitzvah is part of his larger strategy for reaching out to families with young children. Rabbi Elizabeth Wood, (@lizwood1982) of Reform Temple of Forest Hills, New York, employs a similar approach. As she explains, “I tweet both personal and professional things from my account and I do so consciously and conscientiously.  I want my congregants to know I’m a person with a life…  Similarly, I post about our congregational activities because who I am is tied to my professional life as well.”

    One of the strong benefits Twitter allows Jewish professionals is the ability to broadcast their message far beyond their immediate community. As Wood explains, “we are quickly learning that people may not walk into our doors on a whim, but they will look us up online and when they can follow our activities on Twitter, they get a great sense of who we are.  People have told us they’ve come in to our events because of Tweets they saw.” For Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) of Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, a bricks and mortar congregation that sponsors the online, Twitter is an essential element of building the virtual Jewish community. The first year, they tweeted updates from the Seder as each of the rituals took place in real time. “We heard from all sorts of people that this was the only Seder they had,” says Baum. Now tweeting the Seder is a regular practice as is tweeting Shabbat services and the High Holy Days. When Bellows writes an article she is able to use Twitter’s system of tags to alert groups, like those working for marriage equality or women’s rights, that she has posted a piece on the topic. This reaching out has helped her build a following that extends far beyond the traditional synagogue crowd and is global in reach.

    Twitter also creates real communities of support and connection for Jewish professional. Hurvitz points to the ability of Twitter, which unlike Facebook does not expect one to know someone before connecting, to allow him to “meet” “people from various Jewish “flavors” and in parts of the world that I had not encountered before.” Though not everyone chats with others on Twitter, those that do speak of strong ties that develop. Einstein Schorr does not necessarily expect those who don’t tweet to fully believe the depth of connection she has felt from a virtual community but for her the coming together has been significant, “At times of profound sadness, I have felt a kinship with a global community that was completely unexpected.”

    Twitters limitation, that you can only use 140 characters, which as Wood explains, means that “it’s hard to always get your point across in a way that you know can be either meaningful, or even useful.” But as Kliger points out, “the structure of the 140 characters is an interesting limitation on how we convey our thoughts with hands or paper we would have had difficulty limiting. It makes you mindful of how you communicate your thoughts and ideas.”

    Twitter is enhancing the work that many Jewish professionals do. Still sitting on the fence about whether to get involved? Hurvitz says, “Just do it!” Though Einstein Schorr warns, “It’s addictive.”

    Next week: Twitter and God Part II: Opening Up New Possibilities, a discussion of how Twitter is creating new modes of Jewish engagement.

    If you are looking for information on how to get started on Twitter, you can follow the step by step instructions written by Twitter or a great informative post on the topic, or  follow this link for a short video.


    For those already on Facebook and looking to consolidate a variety of social networks in one place consider a service like or


  • What the Bible Teaches about Modern Media

    Posted on December 13th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    News Feed:

    Erev Rav: God, this dessert is awful, there is ABSOLUTELY NOOOOOO food worth eating

    Moses ben Amram: Wondering, yet again, why I ever took this job…..

    God “the one and only”: You are such a kvetch. Meet up in 30. Bring 70 of your closest with you.

    by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.

    The world of online social networks is complex and persuasive. The fluid nature of the medium makes it both compelling and problematic. Even as governments struggle with how to navigate the open platforms that allow national secrets to be shared world wide, the traditional challenges of adolescence and identity formation are amplified in an era that blurs the boundaries between public and private. Things that might have, only a few years back, remained knowledge between a close group of friends, such as a first kiss now become the news of thousands of ‘friends.’ A misspoken remark or bullying in the playground, now gains permanency creating havoc for the victim and the perpetrator. Young people, parents and educators are increasingly concerned about how to help children navigate the complexities of this new social and media reality.

    While it is impossible to inoculate children against all the challenges of modern media consumption, clergy and Jewish educators have an important tool in our box that is often overlooked in the complex discussions about living on-line. The Bible, though clearly very much “old media,” is a great tool for helping young people consider the value and weight of their words.

    Overwhelmed by the sheer volume and content of what they are exposed to in the media, and still developmentally grappling with the concept of consequences, the permanence of the online world can be hard for young people to grasp. The Bible shows us some of the enduring impact of writing down our every action. What is it that we know about Avraham Avinu at this distance? Yes, we know he was chosen by God but we also know that he passed his wife off to the King of Egypt and that he tied his son up and prepared him for sacrifice. When working with young people I ask them if they think that Abraham would be happy with the record we have of his actions. How would he like to be remembered? How would they like to be known in the world?

    While it may seem flip, it is not hard –as I did above -to read much of the narrative element of the Tanakh as a series of facebook or twitter posts. Frequently, the biblical narratives come not in long flowing prose but in short burst – often, dare I say of less than 140 characters a passuk. One of the great joys of the brevity of the biblical narrative is that it leaves much room for commentary. We are left to guess at the motivations at the contexts. And we do.

    David ben Jessie: Just saw the most beautiful woman bathing on her roof

    Commentator one: Seriously man, you’re married.

    David “father of the Messiah” ben Jessie: I’m just looking…

    Commentator two: Go for it Dave, after all you’re the King, whatever you do is cool

    The short pieces we see in the Bible regarding events, such as David’s sighting of Batsheva, make it possible for us to layer meanings onto the text. While that has provided many generations of learned Jews with much to work with, I’m sure that the “reality” of the original events was lost long ago. Today, such commentaries on the short bursts of information that we put out about our daily lives accrue with lightening speed. We don’t wait generations between Rambam’s and Rashi’s thought but seconds between Susan’s and Deryck’s responses. Reality can get lost quite quickly as can our control over the perception of events.

    Gone are the days of the long meaningful missive. Short texts with a series of Roshei Tevot communicate volumes in an economy of space and leave much to the imagination. Going back to biblical commentaries is not going to change the mode of communication but it can be a means by which we help young people unpack their use of modern media.