U.S. Synagogues Lag in Use of Web and Social Media Technologies

Most American synagogues are not using websites to most powerfully and effectively engage members and build community, challenging their survival and threatening their place as an entry point for Jewish involvement, according to a national survey released today.

Sixty-three percent of synagogue officials who participated in the survey indicated that their institutional website offers either only the most basic and low-level information, or is not a tool to inform and engage community.

And while two-thirds of them report the existence of a synagogue Facebook account, more than four-fifths do not use Twitter to reach existing and potential constituencies.

Of those synagogues limiting or avoiding use of social media vehicles such as Facebook and Twitter, more than half, or 59 percent, cite a lack of understanding on how to best use them for engagement, and a clear majority, or 86 percent, cite little volunteer or staff time to devote to it.

The web-based survey, sent to 2,500 synagogue executives, administrators and rabbis across the country and across denominations, was conducted in July and August by Flint Springs Associates, a research firm based in Hinesburg, VT. Survey findings have a margin of error of seven percentage points and a 95 percent confidence level.

Of the synagogues that responded, 51 percent identified as Reform, 33 percent as Conservative, seven percent as Orthodox, and four percent as Reconstructionist. The remaining were either unaffiliated or a combination of Reform and Conservative.

Findings underscoring a generally weak web presence by synagogues have serious implications for institutions, and the Jewish community more broadly, as they seek to retain existing members and engage new ones, independent observers said.

The findings reveal that few synagogues are placing a premium on website design by, for example, engaging a professional web designer to create an Internet presence. Forty-four percent of synagogues rely on volunteers for website design, while 29 percent have hired professionals.

Furthermore, just over half, or 51 percent, report that their sites have not been redesigned or reengineered for at least two years, if at all, during a time when web technology and design elements have changed dramatically.

Still, synagogues do appear to put a premium on updating information on websites. Two-thirds of them say new content is added daily, several times a week, or once a week, although the rest report that new content is added sporadically or never, creating static web presences.

In fact, little personnel is devoted to the task of website maintenance, as 71 percent of synagogues say that this task is in the hands of either a designated staff member or a volunteer, who often have other responsibilities and priorities.

And whether due to lack of time, resources, or understanding, two-thirds of synagogues fail to use any type of website analytical tools to determine how effective certain website features are in reaching and engaging congregation members and constituencies.

Still, whether their websites utilize such features or not, synagogue officials say they recognize the community interactivity and institutional enhancement offered by robust website.

Asked to rate the importance of various features, respondents indicated that those allowing for online donations, event payment and registration, membership applications and volunteer opportunities were the most important, along with Jewish-themed content.

But only a bit more than one-third of synagogues report that their website is using technology effectively or very well to engage community and capture additional members.

Overall, the survey findings suggest that synagogues and other Jewish community organizations operating on the grassroots level should put more of a priority on website and Internet technologies to ensure survival and growth.

The study was commissioned by Jvillage Network, a mission-driven, for-profit company based in Burlington, VT, which works to grow the membership communities of synagogues and other Jewish community organizations by designing, building and hosting customized websites with content and features encouraging member interactivity and engagement.

The complete report, Engaging Jewish Communities through the Web, is available for download.