by Ross Kasper and Bryan Schwartzman
Most Sundays, about 100 worshipers show up for Mass at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, an ornate structure built in the 1890s that sits across the street from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But last Sunday, at least 400 people filled the pews nearly to capacity. Once upon a time, this trendy, gentrified neighborhood was a working class, Irish-Catholic community. Now, on a Sunday in the neighborhood, one is more likely to encounter a jogger on Kelly Drive or someone sipping a cappuccino on a Fairmont Avenue sidewalk café than a parishioner coming out of church.
For those of you still doubting the power of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like, a powerful social media outreach campaign known as a “Mass Mob” was responsible for the high turnout. So, what can we in the Jewish community learn from this? What about starting a “Torah Troops,” “Shabbat Shindigs,” “Abraham’s Army,” “Davening Droves,” or the “Mob of David” to get crowds into synagogues on Friday nights or Saturday mornings?
First, some background:
An obvious play on the term “Flash Mob,” the Mass Mob concept originated in Buffalo, N.Y. According to Gregory Witul, one of the founders of the group Buffalo Flash Mob, the goal is to highlight the architecture and splendor of the more than half dozen Catholic churches on Buffalo’s East Side, which at one time was a Polish-American enclave. The idea is that, at least for one Sunday, for a sanctuary to teem with life and energy as it did in an earlier era, said Witul, who writes for the Ampol Eagle, a newspaper targeting the Polish community.
The campaign, he said, is more about reclaiming urban spaces and neighborhood than it is about religion, and they are reaching out to “Christmas and Easter Catholics” and even non-Catholics to take part. The Mass Mob idea has spread to other locales, including Cleveland and now Philadelphia. All of a sudden, attending mass is practically hip.
“I would love to see a synagogue mob,” said Witul, in a recent interview. “You need to have historically and architecturally interesting buildings that are being under attended. And you need to have a community large enough to take people from the suburbs and bring people to interesting buildings in the city.”
We all know that, like Catholic churches, synagogues of all denominations have for decades suffered from low attendance at weekly services – especially when there’s no Bar Mitzvah or other major event taking place. We can adopt and adapt the “mob” model through targeted social media and word of mouth campaign. The synagogue version wouldn’t have to be about urban renewal per se; it can easily be about bringing lively crowds to our suburban mega-synagogues. Mass Mob presents the perfect opportunity for the Jewish world to borrow something started by our Catholic brothers and sisters and adapt it in a way that suits our unique communities.
We are aware that, in certain cities, the logistics of such an enterprise might be complex. Why would one synagogue get chosen and not another? Yes, inter-communal dynamics sometimes get in the way of big things being accomplished in the Jewish world. For example, the Philadelphia area is home to dozens of synagogues. Imagine how difficult it would be to coordinate with all or many of them on a social media campaign. And then there are the logistical issues that Shabbat presents. For example, to have observant Jews “mob” a particular Orthodox shul would involve lots of pre-planning so folks would have a local place to spend the night. But this idea is too exciting to let communal politics, infighting or logistics get in the way.
We sent a flurry of emails and made a bunch of calls to folks in the Jewish world looking for reactions. Many people hadn’t yet heard about Mass mobs. Some were excited by the possibility, but others were skeptical. One well-known rabbi who is considered something of an innovator wrote in a quick email that the flash mob idea “reflects an interest in Jewish worship that fulfills one’s personal needs rather than the needs of the community. It is a manifestation of what I have called Playlist Judaism.” That may be true. But couldn’t someone hear a segment of Puccini and then decide to take in an opera?
Even if 400 people show up to hear the Torah read one Saturday, the number is likely to fall back to 50 the next week. One could fairly ask: Would anything change as a result? What could synagogues do to capitalize on such energy?
For more than a decade, Susan Kasper has served as Executive Director of Tiferet Bet Israel, a large Conservative congregation north of Philadelphia. (Kasper also happens to be Ross’s mom.) When asked if a one-time attendance boost would be meaningful, she replied that if “10 or 20 people are affected by the service and make a connection” it would be more than worth it. From her point of view, as much as she would love for them to become active in the TBI community, it would still be positive if they ended up attending or becoming active in another congregation, because they would be experiencing their Judaism and it would benefit engagement in the larger Jewish community. The key factor is the synagogues would need a formal plan with how to follow up and present those who are inspired by the “mob” experience with a path to deeper connection and engagement.
Now, synagogues and Jewish organizations have certainly employed digital technology in a myriad of ways. A number of Reform congregations have made a regular habit of broadcasting services via the Internet. Some utilize multiple cameras and sophisticated recording equipment to enhance the viewing experience.
Andrea Glick, director of marketing and communications for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said a number of Conservative congregations around the country have become known for their adept and constant use of social media.
“From my observation,” she wrote in an email “synagogues vary widely in their use of social media. Some have become very sophisticated, using Facebook, for instance, as a real tool for engagement rather than just for broadcasting events. Many are producing YouTube videos, and a lot of rabbis are blogging and doing podcasts. Fewer are on Twitter, though many rabbis are. That said, a lot of other synagogues are just dipping their toes into social media, often because they don’t have the staff or resources to devote to it.”
And, with 37 million viewers last year, Chabad.org has led the way with pioneering uses of websites, social media and mobile technology.
We’re not saying that the Jewish world is hopeless when it comes to employing social media and mobile technology, just that more could and should be done.
Is the mob idea a gimmick? Absolutely, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In an era of endless choices, houses of worship need to use everything appropriate at their disposal to bring people into their doors and offer a meaningful and compelling experience. An idea doesn’t need to transform Judaism for all time as long as it is suited to a particular moment. Too often, we think of Judaism, of religion, as something that is eternal and carved in granite or limestone. But sometimes, the power of prayer, the power of community, is not about eternity but about an instant. It is sometimes about capturing a moment.
Our Catholic friends have presented us with a perfect opportunity. Let’s make sure we don’t let the moment pass us by.
Ross Kasper is a consultant at the EHL Consulting Group; Bryan Schwartzman is manager of marketing and communications for the same firm. The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin, principals of the firm, are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. Learn more at www.ehlconsulting.com.
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