How to Create a Meaningful Jewish Community Online
By Ruth Schapira
We are thankfully in the midst of some re-openings, however, our situation will not revert to more innocent times or change radically soon. So, we will need to adjust our thinking and reconfigure options for the most probable scenarios of the ways in which we come together since online gatherings are here to stay.
How will it be possible to develop real and meaningful connections when limited to on-screen interactions?
When content alone is not enough
Many organizations have been preoccupied with developing creative content to interest existing and potential members online, with options ranging from virtual lectures, tours, study sessions, and concerts to cook-offs. I get it. Offering programs online has been pretty much an essential activity since we’re not meeting in person.
Virtual offerings (for the most part) tease us with the prospect of an enriching experience but, like participating in a massive trivia contest, the time passes but not much is gained. How would your members answer the following questions:
Was this program of lasting value? Has this experience helped me become a better person? Has this allowed me an opportunity to interact with others?
No matter how flashy and attention-grabbing, or intellectually appealing they seem, online programs are not helping to form a sense of community among those attending.
Ironically, after attending an online program whose goal is to uplift, people may feel instead an acute sense of loneliness, exacerbated by the lack of interpersonal connection. There is little to make the experience feel personal and the empty, unfulfilled feeling might affect future connections.
Success is not defined by how many people attend and the diverse places they represent. Nor is the amount of texting-length exchanges in the chat box an indication of interaction.
Online programs are set to deliver a product for a consumer mindset where we expect to get something when we give something. What is being offered is simply part of this value proposition.
The “Register Here” button on every program feeds into the consumer mentality even more when it is free. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions and google calendar scheduling, people might miss the event and have no compelling reason to watch the recorded segment (a sometimes banal endeavor) since it most often is a one-way conversation.
Despite the potential for deeper experiences with meditation and spiritual teachings, they too tend to be one-way broadcasts and do not work in forming community.
Can we yearn for something different?
People need to feel a sense of community more now than ever before.
Rather than spending precious resources in developing content we need to work instead on ways to deeply engage people with us and with each other. Otherwise, we face irrelevance.
Using these times as an opportunity will change the game. Rather than people considering themselves consumers they might act as co-creators of a rich, shared experience.
Offer education instead of information.
Education versus Information: Tip the scale
Begin to rethink how much learning you’re really providing. Are you just providing information, which gets lost without a context and an opportunity for discussion? Wouldn’t you rather provide an educational opportunity for people to be personally engaged and moved by your content?
When weighing the scales between content versus participation, tip it toward interactivity. Try some of the ideas below:
- Offer online content with a strong facilitation component. It is well known in education circles that learning does not have staying power unless there is an effort made by the individual to integrate the learning. You can offer the content as a trigger and afterwards engage participants in responding. How was this for them? Was there a learning? An informational nugget to take away? In what way will this information be helpful? Begin a conversation among participants. If there are many participants, you can devise break-out rooms in many existing platforms like Zoom.
- If the your leaders are not comfortable or effective in this role, consider reaching out to those whose skills match the moment. Or re-train those you already have on board. In these times, it is an essential skill to be able to facilitate effectively in an online environment.
- How well do you know your members? Conduct a brief survey of members, either via an online survey or decide to conduct a town-hall type meeting virtually to gauge members’ thinking about changes they would like to see.
- Decide to launch a ‘chevruta-initiative’ to study text. The synagogue or organization provides the matching service and those who are interested in learning on a weekly or monthly basis would be paired up with another member to learn a text of their own choosing or as part of an organizational-wide initiative. All the details (phone or zoom, this text or that) would be worked out individually. Host a monthly online check-in as a way to share learning and build momentum.
- Personally interview members with a sample script as well as optional questions like: what about being a member of our community particularly works for you? What might not work so well? Share results online in a community forum.
Ruth Schapira is a Jewish educator and consultant who facilitates educational experiences of personal impact. She writes a blog called “Reclaiming Judaism,” listed among the top 50 Jewish blogs on Feedspot. She is currently completing research for her doctorate in Jewish education.