Networked Congregations: The Stanton Street Shul
by Barry Camson
There was a series of highly interesting, recent articles on eJewish Philanthropy which illuminated various aspects of the current dilemma facing synagogues and educational institutions.
Dr. Beth Cousens and Cantor Adina Frydman wrote about “connected congregations” and the need for the synagogue to become more meaningful to the synagogue member. Ken Gordon wrote about the JEDLAB network and Dr. Idana Goldberg and Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman spoke about the RAVSAK network. Rabbi Michael Wasserman wrote of building a deeper sense of community based on shared responsibility at The New Shul in Scottsdale Arizona. Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer wrote about the need for new leadership models and Dan Brown wrote about the ROI Summit and the network that ROI represents.
If I had to identify an overall theme from these various articles, it would be the need to create a place – “a sacred space” that can help people access life’s meaning where there are quality relationships and conversations, various modes of access, the possibility of new ideas, that uses contemporary leadership models and which is financially sustainable.
In my various conversations with rabbis throughout the country, I know that there are such places – congregations in the process of experimenting with new ways of being a kehillah. As time goes on, I hope to share what I am learning about them. Like ROI, RAVSAK, and JEDLAB many employ a network approach. At this point, I would like to speak about one of these.
The Stanton Street Shul is an Orthodox synagogue located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Its community and building are over one hundred years old. The rabbi is Joshua Yuter. This is a synagogue that has both a bricks and mortar and online existence. Its various discussions and engagements go beyond the immediate community including people outside the geographical area as well as alumni. The synagogue maintains connections with people who spent some formative part of their years as part of the synagogue, who have memories. As a result, the shul can continue having an impact later on in life.
People find the shul in person and online. The online community consists of Jews of various observance levels across various denominations – some in America, some in Israel.
Rabbi Yuter believes in the importance of having a defined mission and living by it. The mission of the Stanton Street Shul is “all are welcome, all feel welcome.” This message is projected to the online world. The synagogue attracts a diverse crowed of people. “Jews of all stripes can come in and feel welcomed.”
The Stanton Street Shul has deep and resonant ties with the surrounding community. There are collaborations with people in the community. The Jewish Art Salon put on a show at the synagogue which also reflects the large number of artists that the congregation attracts. The succah was put in the community garden outside the synagogue and welcomed people from the neighborhood. There is a Remembrance Group about people who lived on Stanton Street at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
What particularly distinguishes the Stanton Street Shul is the nature of the online engagement and the role that the rabbi plays in this.
Rabbi Yuter points out that the online presence is a reflection of what happens in person. The shiurim that happen in person are also put up on the web. There have been over 50,000 downloads of podcasts. The pastoral counseling that happens in person also happens via email and in online conversations either public or private ones via Twitter or Facebook. Rabbi Yuter points out, relationships are in many cases built online. Hopefully in whatever media is used people will think “this is a rabbi that I can trust to think this through.”
Of his online presence, Rabbi Yuter points out, “Going online is like going out on a street corner. You go where the Jews are. Because I am online, I am much more accessible. It is relationship building. It allows people to ask questions that would get them thrown out of other synagogues. There is security and safety that people have.”
Another role played online is the role of the Orthodox rabbi to offer opinions (posken) on situations involving Jewish Law (Halacha).
Recently, the synagogue did a crowd funding campaign on “Lucky Ant.” In a month, they raised $10,000. A lot came from the network outside the synagogue. Rabbi Yuter thinks that is in part due to the connection to the mission of the synagogue.
Rabbi Yuter commented on the growth of the Stanton Street Shul network. People will seek you out online. The more that you produce content, the more that you will foster connections. By putting out the content, you can demonstrate how you operate. You can make warmth and engagement apparent. “It is a lot more effective if you feel engaged than if we you tell you.”
Rabbi Yuter tells an interesting story based on a 1975 article in The New York Times. Moshe Feinstein a prominent rabbi on the Lower East Side said people would ask him questions and he would give them answers. How did he have such a great reputation? “People ask me questions. I give them answers. They like the answers. They ask me more questions. I am there and accessible.”
Rabbi Yuter says that “the best I can do is try to ensure that I can give you a Jewish message that makes sense.” This is best appreciated by visiting “Yutopia: The Online Home of Rabbi Josh Yuter.”
My visits to “Yutopia” are like entering into a universe – a utopia of Jewish learning. There are articles on various aspects of Halacha, discussions of current events through a Jewish lens, guitar chords for Jewish songs, and access to podcasts. There is also a “donate” button. It all seems to be set out with a tone of accessibility. Rabbi Yuter is available as a real person, often seeing things from their humorous side. I find it easy to experience him as an online rabbinical presence.
In conclusion of one post on this site dealing with a class he taught, Rabbi Yuter comments, “On a personal note, I am grateful for the opportunity to have been able to teach such a class and I found the entire experience immensely gratifying. I hope you find these classes informative and intellectually stimulating, and I welcome all questions and feedback.”
The role that Rabbi Yuter sees himself in is as the hub of networking. “So many people come to you that you increase learning and competence. There are colleagues of mine who have particular expertise, I say speak to those people.”
The nature of networks in the real world is that hubs develop because some people (or ideas) are seen as fitter in meeting the needs of others which attracts connections which in turn leads to attracting other connections. People are attracted to others with lots of connections. The open feedback between the hub and others linking to the hub ideally enables the hub to become even fitter to meeting the needs of others. Hubs also have value as bridges to others which then acts to further extend the network.
As for the future, Rabbi Yuter says that he wants to continue to foster a sense of community, that you are part of something. Online helps here because people are not always in the synagogue though he would prefer the network would take place in the synagogue. The reality is that people are in front of their computer a lot of the time. He would like to remind people of their connections, to help them see themselves as part of something bigger.
Barry Camson helps organizations, congregations and people utilize network approaches as a means of achieving their desired purposes in effective and humane ways. He can be reached at BCamson@aol.com