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Shuls become bloggers and tweeters

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Participants at Darim Online’s social media boot camp on Long Island in October learn to tweet, among other skills. Courtesy Darim Online

Cong. Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nev., webcasts its bar and bat mitzvah services for family and friends who cannot attend.

The preschool director at Cong. Beth Israel in Charlottesville, Va., tweets from the classroom several times a day, so parents can get a sense of what their children are learning.

Within this past year, synagogues, religious schools, and other Jewish groups have been signing on to Facebook, blogs, Twitter, and other social media eager to learn how new technology can strengthen their organizations and improve their outreach.

Faith-based organizations have been “the last to the social media party,” say experts at NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network. Now they’re jumping in with enthusiasm — even the pope has a Facebook page, with nearly 80,000 fans.

What they’re finding out is that these tools are transforming who they are and how they operate. That can be scary to leaders comfortable with old organizational models.

“Social media changes the way people look at their faith-based institutions,” says Lisa Colton, founder and president of Darim Online, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps Jewish organizations get over their trepidation and understand new media’s potential. “Organizations don’t have a monopoly on organizing anymore. People can talk to each other directly.”

When synagogues and religious schools first turn to new media, Colton says, they tend to use them to perform typical tasks, just more efficiently. They send event invitations by e-mail instead of snail mail, or create a Website that clergy and staff use as an online bulletin board. The messages arrive quicker at homes and without stamps, but it’s still one-way, top-down communication.

By delving deeper, Colton continues, Jewish clergy, educators. and others discover that these media tools demand a different way of talking and listening, encouraging active participation and grass-roots involvement.

“Even at the simplest level, social media tools allow people to come together around a shared idea and shared goals in a decentralized and asynchronous way,” Colton says.

Fancy words, but what do they mean?

For Gabby Volodarsky, program director at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Calif., they mean being able to rally support quickly for someone in need.

Someone posted a note recently on the synagogue’s year-old Facebook page saying that she was “praying for the speedy recovery” of two new members. Volodarsky wrote back immediately and found out that the couple, who didn’t know many people in the congregation yet, had been in a car accident.

“Within an hour they got calls from all our clergy and me,” Volodarsky reports. “I asked what our Caring Community could bring them. Because I saw that posting, I was able to reach out and make them feel cared about. Now they’re among our most active members.”

People often share information online that they would not share face to face. That’s especially true of younger people, says Rabbi Jonathan Blake of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., who uses Facebook to keep in touch with his religious school graduates when they head off to college.

When he first set up his page, Blake was pleasantly surprised that so many of his former students “friended” him. Now the rabbi is an ongoing presence in their lives, a link to their hometown Jewish community.

“I’m not there to spy on them,” Blake says. “But I know more about what they’re doing Friday night than their parents.”

If they’re involved in anything dangerous, he can step in — as a pastor, not a parent.

Social media enable congregants to talk to one another as well as to clergy or staff — a fact used by the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington to help promote its Chanukah cooking contest. Instead of sending out a straightforward invitation, the staff used Twitter to create online buzz, tweeting about the potato dish one woman planned to bring and linking to her blog.

Readers of her blog were linked back to the synagogue’s Web page — better advertising than anything else the synagogue might have come up with, says Meredith Jacobs, director of family programming.

“Why do young people come to synagogue? For community,” Jacobs posits. “With the Holy Chef contest, I saw them tweeting back and forth. They could see who else is going and get the word out fast.”

Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., did something even riskier — the congregation gave its senior rabbi a flip camera.

Although many older folks hesitate to use new media, Rabbi Alan Lucas took to the gadget immediately. Last month he posted his first YouTube video showing him at his desk discussing the Chanukah song written by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). His video has generated dialogue even outside his own congregation: One person gently accused him of taking offense that a Mormon dared write a Jewish holiday song, to which Lucas responded he thought Hatch’s decision to write the ditty “a bit strange — but I love it.”

Lucas already is preparing a second YouTube video, says Rabbi Jeni Friedman, who works with Lucas at Beth Sholom. Friedman attended Darim Online’s first Social Media Boot Camp at UJA-Federation of New York’s Long Island office in October, and is a huge fan of how new technology can help synagogues stay vital.

“I anticipate these videos will be a regular part of our congregational life,” Friedman says. “Our congregants are already on Facebook. They are using these tools, and it behooves us to get on board.”

JTA

 
 

Facebook is home to a new kind of Holocaust remembrance

Anne Frank’s Facebook page looks much like any other teenage girl’s: The profile picture shows Anne leaning against a wall; her hair is tucked behind her ears; and she stares off sideways, daydreaming perhaps, a slight smirking smile lifting up the corner of her mouth.

The comments on her “wall” are typical, too.

“We share the same birthday!” and “I hate this girl.” A string of teenage commentary follows every one of the many photos that have been posted to the page. One, in which Anne is standing outside in shorts and a sunhat, elicits this remark: “she had long legs! woah! model” In response, a prepubescent boy named Ricky laments, “she did have long legs……i hate hitler.”

Whether the fact that Anne Frank has a Facebook page (one set up for “fans”) strikes you as creepy and inappropriate or as completely normal and even charming will depend largely upon your age and the number of hours you spend on a laptop each day.

But the reality is that Holocaust memorialization is moving onto social-networking sites like Facebook and presenting new opportunities for remembering the victims — and bringing a whole new set of complexities. One of the most popular and disorienting forms that this new virtual commemoration is taking is the Facebook profile. Even the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is now involved with providing information to fill out the details of some of these profile pages.

The desire to personalize the identities of the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust is not new. What is novel is the combination of this desire with a platform that is premised on empowering anybody to project his or her individuality far and wide.

There’s no more successful example of this fusion than the Facebook profile page of Henio Zytomirski. A small boy who must be no more than 7 or 8 years old appears in a black-and-white photo in the box provided for a profile picture. He looks full of joyful young life. But Henio has been dead since 1942, killed in a gas chamber at the Majdanek concentration camp when he was 9. On March 25, which would have been his birthday, dozens of Facebook users wished him a happy birthday on his “wall.” As of April 12, he had 4,989 “friends.”

One element unique to Henio’s profile is that it is being used to recount a narrative of this little boy’s life. In status updates written in Polish, Henio seemingly tells his story in his own voice. On Sept. 29 of last year, for example, this entry was posted: “Winter has arrived. Every Jew must wear the Star of David with his last name. A lot has changed. German troops walk the streets. Mama says that I shouldn’t be frightened, and always that everything is just fine. Always?”

The person posting in Henio’s name — and with the knowledge of his relatives — is Piotr Buzek, a 22-year-old history student from Lublin who works at the Brama Grodzka Cultural Center. According to Facebook’s policy, profiles of people other than oneself are allowed only with permission from the profiled person or, in this case, from that individual’s family. Buzek set up Henio’s page in August 2009, and since then he has been dutifully adding “friends” and posting photos and frequent updates. The center where he works was set up to promote the multicultural heritage of Lublin and has an archive of information and material on Henio’s life. It is from this that Buzek has created his virtual identity.

Buzek doesn’t think it strange that he should be speaking in the voice of a long-deceased Holocaust victim. As he sees it, this is a way of engaging a younger generation with what he calls “our tragic history.” Focusing on Henio and in essence bringing him back to life through Facebook is his way of making the Holocaust real.

“We can’t commemorate 6 million people,” Buzek said when the Forward reached him in Lublin. “I can’t imagine this number. But I can imagine one person. This boy was one of them. I can imagine him. And if you want to feel something deeper, you should concentrate on one person. You can touch it. You can’t touch 6 million people. You can touch one.”

Henio Zytomirski’s Facebook profile got some attention for being one of the first to use the site for that purpose. More than a few people were puzzled that Facebook could become a place for memorializing.

“The thing to remember is that many of these new social-media platforms are fluid, and information posted on them is very ephemeral,” said Evgeny Morozov, a blogger and contributor for Foreign Policy magazine. “What is it about Facebook or Twitter that makes them suitable for commemoration? I can’t find anything because they are built on the opposite principle. All the most recent stuff comes first.”

Those engaged in the more traditional forms of Holocaust remembering — namely, museums and physical memorials — are mostly skeptical of this new, looser, virtual form.

David Klevan is the education manager for technology and distance learning at the Holocaust museum. He was one of the organizers of what was called an “un-conference,” a gathering last December of museum professionals partly to try to figure out how to better use new social-networking platforms in ways that don’t trivialize the content.

Klevan looks a little warily at the Facebook profile phenomenon because he worries that those posting and those reading the posts don’t have access to a full historical context. Young people respond directly and sometimes thoughtlessly to the image or words in front of them — like the photo of Anne Frank in shorts. The pieces of information presented are disconnected from a larger narrative, and in a way that does not allow for any follow-up questions or further study.

“We prefer to maintain as much of the context as possible,” Klevan said. “If people are going to learn the stories of the victims, it’s preferable that they have easy access to supporting information and also being aware of where the content is being encountered.”

But the Holocaust museum has been providing information on the individual stories of victims to a Website called footnote.com, an online service that is trying to digitize historical documents and use them to create virtual memorialization projects. One of the service’s bigger endeavors is a complete online simulacrum of the Vietnam Wall Memorial, where information can be added to fill out the identities of those who died. Footnote.com has used the information provided by the Holocaust museum to create 600 Facebook profiles for Holocaust victims.

Unlike Henio’s profile, the Facebook pages created by footnote.com are different than the pages that individuals make for themselves. But they do still have all the usual features — a profile picture and a “wall” where pictures and comments can be posted, and attempt to do the same thing: create a virtual space for the individual victim to emerge.

“Our running tagline has been, “History is biography,’ “ said Chris Willis, vice president of social media for footnote.com. “If we are changing the form that that biography is being presented, it is only to make it more accessible. It’s going to make it easier for people to add more information about a life, maybe even add the kind of information that will help that life seem more unique and, in the end, much more compelling.”

This story first appeared at Forward.com.

 
 

Day schools laud Ridgewood principal for Facebook stand

It seems like everybody these days is on Facebook — well, almost everybody.

Anthony Orsini, the principal at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, made worldwide headlines last week after he sent an e-mail to parents urging them to take their children off the social networking site. Speaking to The Jewish Standard earlier this week, Orsini said the general reaction from the local community has been one of gratitude. Some parents have heeded his advice while others have ignored it, he said, but his e-mail succeeded in getting people to talk more about Internet safety with their children.

“I was simply imploring them to look out for the safety of their kids,” Orsini said. “I also made very, very clear that obviously it’s a family choice and I respect any choice a family makes.”

The Standard turned to area day-school leaders to see if they agreed with the principal’s actions.

At Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, Facebook is blocked on all of the school’s computers. Social networking, said Robert Smolen, general studies coordinator and middle school director, is meant to be face to face.

“We know that the Ridgewood principal is correct,” he said. “The use of the Internet for communication that can be very negative and bullying and provocative is something we are not in favor of. We have gotten feedback from time to time about children using it inappropriately and taken them to task for that.”

Smolen acknowledged that Facebook can be used positively. But children, he said, don’t always keep things in perspective, and the site can have a negative impact and lead to cliques.

A recent “South Park” episode lampooned those who get so caught up with the site that their non-virtual relationships are defined by their popularity status on Facebook. In the episode, the main character Kyle befriends a third-grader named Kip Drodry who has no other Facebook friends. Kip is ecstatic, but Kyle watches as his own friends count drops because of his association with this perceived outcast.

At Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, the sixth- and seventh-graders receive formal education in Internet use, said Larry Mash, principal of SSDS’s middle school.

“Our position is we encourage smart use by our students and we encourage careful oversight by parents,” he said. “The parents need to be aware of where their kids are on the Internet and how much they’re using the Internet.”

The Moriah School in Englewood holds a program every year, with local police, on the dangers of Facebook. The school has in the past urged parents not to let their children use the site, but realizing that’s not always realistic, the school asks parents to monitor their children on the Internet, said principal Elliot Prager.

“What a child does in his or her free time, if it involves another child in the school [negatively], Moriah will take all necessary steps, including expulsion from school if necessary,” he said.

Last year Moriah instituted a new cyberbullying policy, considering cyberbullying an offense whether it takes place in or outside of school. After letters about the policy were sent home the school issued a handful of suspensions for violations, but has not had to respond as harshly this year.

“From what we can see and what we know, the policy has had a very positive impact on the behavior of the kids,” Prager said.

Arthur Poleyeff, general studies principal at high school Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, not only agreed that middle school students should stay off Facebook, but added that high school students should not use the site either.

“There is very little benefit for students being on Facebook in middle school or high school,” he said. “Parents should take control over what their kids are doing online and not allow them to have computers in their bedroom where they’re locked away all day and night.”

Gerrard Berman’s Smolen urges parents to closely follow what their children do on the Internet. Facebook, he said, is just one of many opportunities children have to interact online and if it’s taken away, they can easily find another vehicle.

“Parents have given their children a tool, and the children need to have an accountability for that tool,” Smolen said. “IPhones, iPods, and iTouches all have Internet capability. It’s like giving them the keys to the car and letting them go wherever they want.”

Orsini said he has heard from more than 100 parents about his e-mail. Some have disagreed with him but most have been respectful. He is amazed, he said, that news of his request has grabbed international headlines.

“It hit a nerve,” he said.

 
 

“Everybody draw Mohammed Day”

Rebecca Kaplan Boroson
Published: 27 May 2010

May 20 was “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” on Facebook — and one young man of my acquaintance (no, not a son) took part.

In an e-mail from an undisclosed location, he wrote: “I wanted to be a part of it. I don’t like that people are afraid, and I wanted to help change it somehow.”

For visitors to this site from Mars, people who have drawn images of Mohammed — any depiction of him is against Islamic law — have come under virulent and sometimes violent attack.

More than 10,000 people reportedly drew the Muslim prophet for Facebook, and Pakistan banned the page (Facebook eventually took it down),

My young friend reported that his cartoon, as of Tuesday still on his own site and on a Flash portal site (whatever that is), had “had a few hundred views,” drawing “only positive reactions so far.”

I asked him, “Were you/are you a little bit/a lot afraid of Muslim reaction?”

“No,” he wrote. “Harming me for the cartoon would only embarrass them publicly, with another barbaric act of violence. I want the Muslim community to understand reciprocity first and foremost. Any rational person who looks at my cartoon knows that I mean no disrespect.”

I also asked, “Did you do this as a political statement or for some other reason (like it just seemed like fun)?

“Honestly,” he answered, “both. Right now, people are afraid for their lives to use freedom of speech, which is a dangerous path to be on. I wanted to make a statement against that fear.”

In answer to my question as to what he felt he had accomplished, he said, “I certainly enjoyed a spurt in traffic, and I think the large number of participants in the event will at least get things rolling, as far as making more people aware of the extent of the atrocities in the Middle East. I also sharpened up my animating skills again.”

RKB

 
 
 
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