by Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
A parent is upset about how their child is treated by a summer camp, and wants the situation rectified. In 2012, how does a parent deal with this situation? By blogging about it, of course, and sending the link to the blog out to all of his friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter. Since the post has a catchy title and hinted at an injustice done to a disabled child, peoples interest is piqued and several thousand clicked on the link to read the blog post and then send it on to others though their social media connections. Helping a parent fight or the rights of his disabled child becomes a small cause celeb. Within 24 hours the camp has apologized for its actions and the situation is rectified.
This is how business gets done today. This situation which took place at Camp Ramah Canada last week is a great example of the culture we now live in. Several current sociological phenomena are exemplified in this story.
First, the power of the individual over an institution. As documented in Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody, with the rise of social media an individual or a small group of individuals can come together to topple huge institutions. One of his examples is how social media allowed a small number of people to bring attention to the issue of pedophile priest it the Catholic Church. The attention brought to this issue has led to a severe decline in Catholic affiliation and church attendance in the Northeast. According to the American Religious Identity Survey of 2008, between 1990 and 2008, the Catholic population proportion of the New England states fell from 50% to 36% The church had managed to cover up this issue from decades, but the power of the internet exposed it and ended the practice.
This new power accorded to individuals plays in to another trend highlighted by Steve Windmuller in his recent post on eJewish Philanthropy where he writes about the decline of denominationalism, and religious and social movements in general. He cites a Washington Post article that “In the 1970s, religious leaders inspired somewhat greater public confidence than did leaders of other institutions, but their relative position has since declined. People now express as low a degree of confidence in religious leaders as they do, on average, in leaders of other major institutions.” In general people now harbor a distrust of large institutions. Not surprising in an age that has seen, the scandals of the pedophile priests, Penn State, and the current economic crisis.
The institutional Jewish world has yet to figure out how to respond to these trends. As interesting as it was to read the initial blog post about Camp Ramah, I found it even more interesting to read the reactions to the blog. Most people clearly supported the father and showed their support by reposting and tweeting his blog. However, a number of different voices also emerged. One strong current was the horror many expressed that this issue was even made public in the first place. One person commented, “As I truly believe, there are 3 sides to every story, the truth lying somewhere in the middle. I was more shocked and stunned at the way that social media was used to bring this issue to light. There were many other avenues that could have been pursued before dragging this issue through the cyber airwaves.” I saw this theme particularly touted by rabbis and other Jewish professionals. Another person posted, “we should never air our dirty laundry publicly” and another, “This is lashon ha’rah – gossip – in its purest form and will hurt innocent people.” There is some truth to all of these statements. But in today’s world, they simply do not matter. Anyone can sit down at the computer today and issue a rallying cry and literally topple long standing governments, as we saw during the Arab spring last year. The Jewish community is not going to be immune from this trend. And the sympathy will always lie with the individual trying to fight the big institution.
The leaders of institutions in the Jewish worlds need to become as fluent in the use of social media as individual constituents are. As the number of reposts of the initial blog and comments multiplied, the silence from the National Ramah Office was deafening. It took the National office over 24 hours to issue a response. In the old world, this would have been considered quick action. But not anymore. With each passing hour more and more people heard this story. Yet Ramah did not avail itself of the social media power it too could have unleashed. I realize that this was an extremely sensitive situation and that all the facts were not known. Ramah had the responsibility to protect this family as much as it could and going on the attack was not the answer. However, a few statements issued immediately to get the message out that they were working on this delicate situation would have been extraordinarily helpful for Ramah’s reputation.
I have led social media training for rabbinic groups across the country. More and more rabbis are joining the bandwagon and learning how to use social media in sophisticated ways to build community and as avenues for outreach. However, I have also encountered deep resistance. “I don’t have time for that.” is one major lament. To which I answer, “You do not have time to ignore it.” If Jewish communal leaders do not learn how to deftly use these tools we will become obsolete extremely quickly. And not only one person in an organization should be the “social media person.” Everyone should be trained to use it and know how to get out the message they want. Another is, “But if I allow anyone to post in my Facebook page who knows what will happen. I can’t control it.” This is true. You can’t, that is part of the power here. But in my experience very few people have abused a Jewish institution’s Facebook page. And if someone is checking it regularly, as you should be, inappropriate comments can be quickly deleted. It is far better to open a door for communication than to ignore the medium all together.
Given the current distrust of institutions and religious leaders, the organized Jewish community will be scaling a mountain to get its messages out to the world. But we must, as individuals and organizations join the fray and use the tools available to us to get our messages out there quickly and constantly. Because by tomorrow there will already by another story everyone is talking and blogging about.
Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu is the Director of Rabbis Without Borders at Clal. She blogs at myjewishlearning.com/rabbiswithoutborders, tweets @rabbirebecca and @rwbclal, and can be found on Facebook as herself and Rabbis Without Borders.