Passover 2009 – A Critical Observation

I went online over the weekend to look for some interesting Seder ideas and, while doing so, checked out how Jewish organizations were communicating to their various publics about Passover 2009.

A Google search for “Passover” offered the usual online resources – Chabad, My Jewish Learning, and a few lesser known and less dynamic sites. They each offered some fresh ways to celebrate the holiday and many had great lists of new videos both funny and helpful.

A search for “Jewish in….” (name your city) usually delivers near or at the top of the list, the local Jewish federation. So, I looked at about a dozen federation sites to see what these bastions of Jewish community were offering visitors to help them celebrate Passover 2009. Notable among them are: the Jewish Federation of St. Louis; the Jewish Federation of Phoenix; the Jewish Federation of Memphis; and the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia. Most of these federations made good use of a Passover resource mini-site developed by United Jewish Communities (UJC), but the St. Louis Federation online Passover goes far beyond even this good resource and truly makes you want to start preparing your Seder meal now!

UJC also provided federations a super Passover video “This Passover, Symbolism Isn’t Enough” a powerful message about the growing need for basic human assistance this holiday season. Yet, as good as the UJC video is, it and the federations that are using it, failed to offer viewers an immediate way to respond. (The video closes by sending you to another web site). I wanted to immediately make a donation to help needy Jews make their Passover celebrations a little better but there was no donation page or any guidance on how to help.

That experience and a story in the March 29th Sunday edition of The New York Times about how City Harvest, a nonprofit that stocks food pantries around New York City, was struggling to meet the growing demand among New York’s needy Jews for kosher Passover food supplies, led me to wonder if our network of Jewish federations could do more using their online resources. How easy would it be for federations to at least publicize and link to local efforts like City Harvest? Couldn’t they go even a step further and mount community-based virtual kosher pantry drives during holiday seasons?

For example, UJA-Federation of New York, an important funder of the NY Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty (an affiliated agency), could provide a link from its site to the Met Council web site, building awareness and support for the agency and the growing numbers of hungry Jews it feeds. But beyond that simple step, UJA-Federation could also create and promote an online campaign to fill the shelves of Met Council’s food pantry. Imagine a site where you literally make a gift and watch the shelves of the kosher food pantry fill up! Needy people could also receive vouchers (provided through the generosity of local merchants and campaign donors) so they could shop for their Passover supplies with their dignity intact.

The Passover Seder is the most observed Jewish experience. This year (and probably the next several ones) Passover presents an extraordinary opportunity to help the growing numbers of unemployed and poor elderly in need of food and comfort. While some Jewish organizations have made strides in making Passover more accessible through their web sites, too many organizations’ sites still present no holiday message at all. If I had trouble finding information, imagine what a less connected Jew might experience.

Unless you specifically search online for “Passover assistance” you would think no one in our communities is addressing this difficult situation. We all know that is not the case. What is true is the lack of imagination and determination to leverage our organizational on and offline capacity to engage more friends and visitors and connect them to the obvious need for help and the joy that comes by doing something good for another Jew.

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional, with deep experience in both the public and private sectors. She currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.