A Century-old Congregation Puts its Faith in Social Media

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Beth Elohim, a Reform temple in Park Slope, follows its rabbi’s example in embracing digital technology to build its sense of religious community

Last spring, several leaders at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope heard about a competition for a $250,000 grant being offered by Partners in Preservation, the first-ever citywide conservation campaign determined by online voting. The Reform temple indeed needed money to refurbish its 103-year-old stained glass windows.  The chance of a congregation made up of 800 families winning seemed to be a long shot.

Rabbi Bachman in his Park Slope office

Rabbi Bachman in his Park Slope office. (Clodagh McGowan/The Brooklyn Ink)

But, following the example of their tech-savvy rabbi, Andy Bachman, the congregants launched a social-media campaign. One vote per person was allowed daily, leading the members to use Facebook to reach family in Florida or Twitter to remind their followers to vote for the synagogue. And in May, Beth Elohim was awarded the $250,000 grant, after gaining eight percent of the popular vote.

Congregation Beth Elohim is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, no small feat for any religious institution. The synagogue was built in 1909 and its Temple House in 1929, earning both buildings New York City landmark status. The sanctuary’s Classical Revival style architecture and enormous stained glass windows contrast with the brownstone lined streets in the vicinity, catching the attention of many neighborhood visitors and the unfamiliar passerby. Yet what is making it distinctive in 2012 is its embrace of digital technology, which starts at the top.

Rabbi Bachman, 49, writes a blog, entitled “Water Over Rocks: How Things Change,” on his personal website www.andybachman.com. The rabbi created the blog in 2004 and updates his page frequently, posting thoughts on life, death and always incorporates Jewish tradition into his anecdotes.

“Technology throughout human history has always been a tool,” said Bachman. “Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai orally; eventually there was a generation that wrote it down on a scroll. During the time of the early formation of the rabbinic period, the time of early Christianity, people were writing on wax tablets. Eventually the printing press was invented. So, computers screens and iPads are just another iteration of technology.”

Facebook has become an outlet for religious institutions, as well as individuals hoping to connect with others who share their same belief system. According to AllFacebook.com, an unofficial Facebook marketing blog, religious-themed Facebook pages rank as the three most-engaged pages on the site. Jesus Daily, a page for Christian devotees, has over 13 million likes and receives more activity or interactions than any other page on the Facebook network.

Bachman personally has more than 3,000 friends on Facebook. Congregation Beth Elohim has also created a Facebook page, with a respectable 426 likes and 481 check-ins. The page acts as a community bulletin board, providing information on upcoming events, just as the corkboards of the past have served prior generations of congregants.  Bachman said the congregation will use Facebook and e-mail blasts in the weeks leading up to the “Yamim Noraim,” or the High Holy Days, to keep worshippers up-to-date on religious services.

“With the advent of Facebook, I also use this tool to start conversations, arguments and organize,” said Bachman.  “It’s an amazingly simple tool if used correctly; can be a lazy crutch if abused.  So I try to use it ‘strategically,’ though I hesitate to use that word since I haven’t a clue what real strategy is.”

Jacob's Ladder pictorial window

Stained glass window depicting Jacob’s Ladder, a story from Genesis. (Clodagh McGowan/The Brooklyn Ink)

The community strategy was apparent during the Partners in Preservation campaign, when the 800 families that make up the congregation used social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter to urge family and friends to vote. According to Leanna Miller, the 24 year-old development associate at Congregation Beth Elohim, no one was too young or too old to get involved with the initiative. Many of the older members of the congregation made their first Facebook or e-mail accounts simply to vote. The children within the CBE Early Childhood Center and the Yachad religious school learned about Jacob’s Ladder, a story from Genesis, depicted in the stained glass window that will be restored with the grant.

“I think there was a sense that we were definitely an underdog in this competition,” said Miller. “I don’t think that anybody thought a synagogue would win it, but I think it really think it speaks to the love and devotion people have to this place and our reach.”

External view of the Jacob's Ladder pictorial stained glass window.

External view of the Jacob’s Ladder pictorial stained glass window. (Clodagh McGowan/The Brooklyn Ink)

Congregation Beth Elohim’s reach goes beyond just on-line interactions and communication. While Rabbi Bachman is obviously no stranger to the benefits of technology, he is also working to bridge the distance created by the overwhelming disconnect that some may attribute to social networking. Nine years ago, Bachman and his wife Rachel founded Brooklyn Jews, an outreach program aimed at forging connections within the 20’s-to-30’s age group.

“It says essentially that young people want a meaningful connection to Jewish life,” said Bachman. “We began in 2003 in living rooms in Brooklyn, with conversations and text study about Jewish history and identity.  That grew to holiday events in bars and an occasional Shabbat service.  It was clear that this low
barrier, easy entry into Jewish life model would work.  Now it’s once a month Shabbat programming, High Holy Days services, basketball games on Saturday afternoons, and a number of social justice projects.  Think of it as a great AAA baseball team, for synagogue life and Jewish life in general to flourish; we need a venue to develop talent.  Brooklyn Jews does that.”

For the past three years, Rabbi Marc Katz has served as the lay leader of the Brooklyn Jews organization. He believes that groups similar to Brooklyn Jews are especially helpful in the transplant society encompassed throughout New York City and particularly in Brooklyn. The group has around 900 members, of which 250-300 people are considered very active participants. The group sees its largest turnout during the annual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, which are held in the Prospect Park Picnic House.

“I think that New York is this strange entity, that I imagine many other urban areas are,” said Katz. “What we have found is it’s very hard to meet new people in Brooklyn. One of our jobs is to connect people up so they can forge these relationships, so they can become a little less lonely. As long as we’re bringing community and meaning into people’s lives, we are fulfilling a specific role.”

Congregation Beth Elohim's synogague

The Congregation Beth Elohim synagogue on Garfield Place. (Clodagh McGowan/The Brooklyn Ink)

The sense of the Beth Elohim community is visible, whether through the number of likes on a recent post on their Facebook page or through the group partaking in the weekday “mincha minyan,” or afternoon services, huddled in the small temple, chanting the same prayers that have connected their ancestors for thousands of years. While the congregants who helped to mold the foundation that is Congregation Beth Elohim most likely could not imagine the span of technology available in 2012, Rabbi Bachman hopes their values and traditions will carry over to future descendants.

“We’re responsible for our generation to leave the institution in a better condition than we inherited it, so that the future generation can find their way as well,” said Bachman.  “They’re going to ask new questions, but they’re also going to be using our traditional texts, and our traditional ways of prayer and access to wisdom and knowledge to hopefully shed new light on future dilemmas that will be faced by future communities. You know, we’re answering questions that were inconceivable to the generation that founded this place. It stands to reason that 150 years from now, we can’t even anticipate the questions that people will be asking. Hopefully, they’ll be doing it inside the synagogue and in some of the same structures that have sustained our people for 3,000 years.”

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