On the Web: High Holidays or Groundhog Day?

by Yoram Samets

As we approach the High Holy Days – the most important of all Jewish holidays, the time of year we solemnly ask for forgiveness from our loved ones, take on the deeply moving task of spiritual self reflection and introspection, and welcome our estranged family members to experience these days of awe in our synagogues – is your Jewish institution’s website any different than it is at say, Tu B’shvat or Groundhog Day? I mean, really different?

For synagogues, JCCs, schools, federations, bureaus of Jewish education and other Jewish institutions and organizations, this is a time of year when new faces appear, new relationships are formed, new commitments are made, old friends are brought together, and leadership and activity can shine.

In other words, this is the one time of year that engagement is handed to organizations. The only question is how do you use it?

Here’s the challenge: View your website as if you just moved into the community. Gather a half dozen passionate members of your organization, and create a task group that will represent the variety of interests of the community and then reflect that energy and depth online. Here’s a quick brainstorm:

  • Hurry, get the children ready! Fill a section of the website with stories, songs and activities for kids. It should be a fun place to learn about the High Holy Days (and a low stress place for parents to become more informed and engaged.)
  • Community mitzvah. Share how your synagogue, school or JCC is using this occasion to help the needy and what others can do to help too. Can someone donate money or time?
  • Who are these people? Community members want to share their stories and learn more about each other, so create and rotate stories on how different members of your community observe the High Holidays.
  • What does this mean? Create an enrichment course. Develop an eight-week online series of articles that your members can link to for further study and growth. Perhaps you want to focus on traditions, triennial Torah reading, self-reflection materials and exercises in preparation for the High Holy Days, and include a weekly discussion on the articles.
  • Let’s eat. Create a contest in your community for family High Holy Day recipes. And publish them all online. Provide links to international holiday menus and other resources.
  • A guide to your services. For synagogues, take each day and elaborate on the context of the services; explain the building blocks of the different parts of the service; what services mean to you and why the confessionals are spread out; translate Hineni in such a way that we can’t help but tremble before God as the chazzan speaks for us, transfixed as it were.
  • OK. I need something else. Alternative services: What could this mean for your community? Multiple children’s services, young family service, a tent outside with a more experiential service, a newcomer’s service, etc? The Isabella Friedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut offers a good example at isabellafriedman.org.
  • Derech Haeretz. What do I wear, do I need to pay, will I be asked to do anything?
  • The Holiday feeling at home. Offer ideas for what people can do in their homes to deepen their connection with the holiday, traditions, blessings, customs, etc.

This list is at best a beginning for your brainstorm. If you end up with two or three sections on your website that engage members beyond the basics, you will have tapped into the opportunity of the holidays.

These sections can be filled with links to material your task group finds appropriate. Once you have created these – or any – new website sections, let your community know. Use your existing community connections to direct people to your website. And once you have told them, tell them again and again.

Use these High Holy Days as the start of a year-round engagement with your membership and constituents. And if you end up with someone visiting your website and saying, “Hey, it’s Rosh Hashanah,” even better.

Yoram Samets is the Founder of Jvillage Network in Burlington, VT. He is a frequent writer and blogger on using digital technology to grow membership and engage and build Jewish community.