Tag: Facebook

How a Whole Congregation Wrote its Rabbi’s Yom Kippur Sermon

The Genesis of a Social Sermon

Utilizing a process called the Social Sermon, I developed my Yom Kippur morning sermon this year in partnership with Facebook Friends, TED talkers and a group of insightful congregants. To be blunt, this year, the whole Congregation Or Ami wrote its rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon.

Where Great Sermon Ideas Come From
Rabbis explore sermon ideas from within the Machzor (prayerbook) and Torah, through conference calls organized by Jewish non-profit organizations, and at sermon seminars run by local Boards of Rabbis. Ideas are generated from Jewish text study, current events, issues in the public sphere, bestselling books, and powerful movies. Some clergy ask friends, colleagues, congregants for ideas. Deciding upon topics and themes for High Holy Day (HHD) sermons can be a multi-month process. The social sermon encourages rabbis to engage the congregants (and other contacts in the social media sphere) in the process of exploring the topic and teasing out important themes.

Fleshing out a Topic
Over the summer, as our community struggled to deal with illnesses and deaths of beloved congregants, I knew it was time again to explore Unetaneh Tokef, the haunting HHD prayer most remembered for its opening lines: On Rosh Hashana it is written and on Yom Kippur it is Sealed… Who shall live and who shall die. I read this text as a cosmic wake up call: God reminds us that “stuff” happens. Unetaneh Tokef forces us to face this reality and to decide: how are YOU going to deal with it?


The prayer offers three responses to the severity of life’s decree of misfortune, pain and death. We may reach around (teshuva or repentance – by fixing our relationships with those around us), reach inward (t’filah or prayer – by finding our center and the truth within), and reach up (tzedakah or charitable giving – by lifting up others we lift ourselves).

But how did this play out in real life? What lessons do people learn from enduring the hardships or challenges that life throws out way?

Facebook Friends Chime In
For assistance, I turned to Facebook (and Twitter) where my personal and congregational pages yielded some poignant answers to the question, What did you learn from going through hardship or challenge? Responses poured in from all around the congregation and around the country. The question struck a few heart strings as people posted publicly and some privately about the tsuris (problems) in their lives. Face-to-face conversations with other community members elicited many significant lessons learned. From these responses, as well as those from people I spoke with over the course of a few months, three categories of hardship rose up as being particularly challenging: financial ruin, turmoil from dealing with children with special needs, and horrible medical diagnoses.

TED Talks Provide Inspiration
Around that time, I was watching some TED Talks and became inspired by the stories I heard. About people in challenging situations, who found meaning and purpose nonetheless. The most moving sermons include powerful personal stories to illustrate the central message. It occurred to me that rather than my telling those inspiring stories, I would ask a few congregants to tell their own stories. After all, High Holy Day services offer just the forum for Jewish TED Talks. Thus was a sermon born.

I invited three congregants reflect on what they learned personal through their personal challenge. Their initial drafts were poignant. Each participant had learned powerful lessons on how to overcome the “stuff” of life on which Unetaneh Tokef focuses. Guiding the speakers to understand how their experiences embodied teachings similar to those in Unetaneh Tokef, I worked with them to weave references into their sermonette.

Simultaneously, I crafted a short introduction – utilizing a sledgehammer, if you believe it – to sharply make the point that Unetaneh Tokef comes as a Divine wake-up call. Like a sledgehammer, Unetaneh Tokef comes to break down the walls of naivety and denial that keep us from accepting a simple truth: that between this year and next, so many will live but many will die. Some will experience success; others failure. So many will encounter the unpredictability and pain of life. We are left to discover how do we keep ourselves from becoming angry, embittered, and crotchety, from giving up?

Congregants Tell their Own Stories
At different points in the service, these congregants and our President shared their stories:

Their presentations were poignant. Worshippers sat at the edge of their seats, listening in silence. Certain moments were unforgettable: When Eric and Jill Epstein spoke just after their 14 year old son Ethan led the congregation in prayer. When Mike Moxness was moved to tears as he recalled the overwhelming mix of sadness and gratitude. When Congregation Or Ami President Hedi Gross, in the traditional end-of-service Presidential sermonette, recounted her Jewish spiritual journey, including their struggle with fertility issues, unexpectedly reemphasizing the theme of the sermon and service.

Suffice it to say, the responses to the Jewish-TED-talk/HHD-social-sermon touched and moved so many worshippers.

What Lessons were Learned?

  1. Social Sermons Work: A number of worshippers later described the Facebook discussion on Facebook as a meaningful way to get them to prepare for the Holy Days. Others reflected on the Facebook discussion as an inviting way of previewing am upcoming sermon theme.
  2. Jewish TED Talks Inspire: In comments about the High Holy Days, this multi-speaker sermon topped the list of worshipper kvells (positive comments). Unanimously, post-service comments called the congregant presentations inspiring, powerful, very real, and intensely thought-provoking.
  3. Rabbinic Tzimtzum Fosters Deep Reflection: As clergy “pull back” from their up front role as sermonizer to work in partnership with congregants to craft a Jewish teaching, the message becomes that much more influential. In an increasingly DIY (Do It Yourself) Jewish world, involving other Jews in the teaching/preaching/liturgy leading roles cements their relationships to the community, the synagogue and the rabbi.
  4. Weaving in New Technologies and Methods Animate CommunitiesDarim Online and The Convenant Foundation introduced me to the Social Sermon. TED Talks inspired me to invite congregants to speak. Just Congregations of the Union for Reform Congregations taught me about listening campaigns. eJewish Philanthropy constantly pushes me to explore new perspectives and methods. Visual T’filah of the Central Conference of American Rabbis propelled me to rethink the entire worship experience. Finally, Rabbi Eugene Borowitz’s 1973 essay, Tzimtzum: A Mystic Model for Contem­porary Leadership, has long goaded my rabbinic style to pull back to invite others in.

What’s next? Already, congregants are wondering which congregant speakers will elucidate which themes next year.  And so am I!

But I do not expect to wait until the High Holy Days to invite my congregation to write my next sermon!

Weaving Social Media into the High Holy Day Services

When the Jewish High Holy Days arrive, is it necessarily more appropriate to log out of our social media apps, or can social media enhance the spiritual experience of these traditional days? Must Twitter, Facebook and texting just pull us back into our own private (even narcissistic) world or can they provide individual connections to a communal religious experience?

Recently, the New York Times reported For Young Jews, a Services says ‘Please Do Text‘ on one synagogue’s experimentation in a service for Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. Congregation Or Ami, always open to innovation, similarly experimented with Facebook, Twitter and texting during this year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur morning services.


What is the Shofar Sounding Saying to You?
As profiled in JTA’s In some shuls, congregants encouraged to keep phones on during services, Or Ami took a leap of faith to engage the faithful:

Rabbi Paul Kipnes [planned] to encourage congregants with smartphones to use Facebook to reflect on the shofar after it is blown for the second time during the service. “Maimonides says, ‘Awake sleepers.’ Most of us hear the shofar and continue sleeping through it,” Kipnes said. “It’s [not] a show, not an alarm clock. I’m saying OK, everybody, sit up, wake up, reflect.”

Given that so much of the High Holidays liturgy is in the collective — “We have sinned” — Kipnes says it is appropriate for congregants to share their thoughts collectively during the service.

“Prayer,” he said, “is not supposed to be a spectator sport.”

On Rosh Hashana morning, dozens of texts, Facebook messages and tweets responded to the question, What is the shofar sounding saying to you? Worshippers responded:

  • It reminds me that I have a chance to redeem my past actions to work toward a brighter year.
  • The shofar sounds like an ancient song coming to us from thousands of years ago.
  • We need to wake up and see what is happening in the world we live in. We are at a tipping point and at stake is the existence of both the State of Israel and the life we cherish.

For the first time in a long time, people did not clap after the sounding of the shofar. Does this mean the invitation to respond by social media turned them inward? It was unclear. While such innovation can be meaningful, such breaks with tradition can also alienate others. We did hear how social media engaged some participants more deeply in the experience. One Or Ami congregant texted after the service, “Thanks so much for today. The texting during the service was engaging.”

There is Holiness When…
On Yom Kippur morning, we twice invited the congregation to interact through social media, promising that their thoughts would become part of the sermons. As LA Weekly reported in Texting During Yom Kippur Services? How One L.A. Rabbi IsBringing Social Media to His Synagogue,

…giving congregants tacit permission to mentally check out of
services was not Kipnes’ intention in bringing social media to the bimah (the
stage); in fact, it was quite the opposite. “Look, worship is supposed to
be an interactive experience, but in many places it stopped being that,”
he explains in an interview.

Before a particularly inspiring prayer-song on kedusha (holiness), we invited worshippers to complete the sentence “There is holiness when…” The responses, shared as part of a drash on holiness, included:

  • When I am with family and friends, people I truly love.
  • When we are humble.
  • When you realize you have wronged another and you then correct that wrong with a right. That is truly holy. 
  • When you wake up every morning and walk out of bed and get ready for the day ahead.
  • When we all come together to pray to the One who gave us the power to pray. 
  • When all hatred fades, when all differences dissolve, when all judgment dissipates, and when we can all look at each other as one under God. 

To Me, the Brit (covenant) with God Means…
Lisa Colton, Founder and President of Darim Online, has been agitating for rabbis to experiment with the Social Sermon, wherein rabbis announce topics ahead of services and invite social media conversation during the week. The sermon that is preached (or the Torah discussion that ensues) on Shabbat, incorporates the discussion that has preceded it. The Covenant Foundation similarly has blogged about grassroots-driven preaching, in Twitter + Community + Jewish Education = Social Sermon.

Marrying the social sermon with our willingness to push the boundaries of traditional prayer, we wove  a d’var Torah in realtime as the congregation responded to the statement “To me, the brit (covenant) with God means…” Since Or Ami like many Reform synagogues reads Nitzavim (Deut. 29-30) on Yom Kippur morning, the slew of social media messages allowed a wide ranging exploration about our connection today to the brit between God and the Jewish people. As worshippers explained, “To me, our Brit with God means…”

  • To stay with it NO MATTER WHAT. To never give up on the truth of our souls. 
  • Dedication to an unbreakable chain.
  • To do the right thing when no one is looking, and to pass down our value system to the next generation.
  • That God does God’s part and we must do ours. 
  • Our covenant is continued, when our Torah breastplate, rescued from the ashes of Kristallnacht, still adorns our scrolls and dances through Jews 74 years later.
  • That we can even question our brit with God.
Is Social Media Integration into Worship the Wave of the Future or Just Techno-Heresy? 
Initial comments following services about these social media experiments during the High Holy Days were overwhelmingly positive (but not unanimously so). Still, we heard that some participants preferred to leave their electronic umbilical cords turned off. So whether Jewish worship is flexible enough to integrate Social Media in an ongoing, meaningful way has yet to be seen. Or as LA Weekly’s Amanda Lewis wrote: 

On a holiday meant to generate inward reflection, does it
make sense to ask congregants to take out their phones but avoid the plethora
of temptations, distractions and push notifications?”

What do you think? Wave of the future or Techno-Heresy?

Most Parents Monitor Their Kids’ Facebook, and You Should Too!

Most parents (especially of younger children) are on Facebook, monitor their kids’ Facebook pages, and even have their passwords. We insisted that our kids “friend” us and provide us with the widest access to their Facebook feeds. This allowed us to monitor their use during homework (and bedtime), and to ensure they were being “appropriate.”

The following graphic reveals the results of a significant survey of parental use of Facebook. Read the full article here.

Click here to view the graphic.

Jewish Spiritual Seeker: A Facebook Experiment in Spirituality

A few years back, we started a Jewish Spiritual Seeker website.  About a dozen of us participated regularly, posting and commenting on each other’s posts.  Once a month I would post a question about spirituality and invite congregant-volunteer-bloggers to respond.  Each blogger was also asked to comment on 2-3 posts by others.  We had a great conversation about spirituality.   The blog won an inaugural North American Union for Reform Judaism Techie award since it engaged congregation members in Jewish conversation using a blog as the medium.  (I would share the URL but the site has recently been hacked and until we figure out the fix, I don’t want to give the “medical pills” website any more business.)

Since Facebook is the medium of preference for so many, we thought, why not experiment to see if people would participate in serious spiritual conversations in this online community. Thus the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook community was born.

An Idea: What kind of conversation could we create if we brought together a dozen adults to explore, over the course of a year, their thoughts and experiences on the Jewish spiritual journey? 

The Technology: What if we could harness technology – a Facebook Community – to provide the opportunity for these adults to reflect upon their Jewish spiritual journey? (Meaning: no meetings, just think your thoughts and go online.)

Monthly Questions: What if every month a question was posed – about spirituality or holiness, about how you pray, about questions you have about God, about when you feel most spiritual – which you could consider and then reflect upon by writing on the Facebook community page?

We are preparing to kick off the discussion within two weeks.  We have already a dozen who are interested.  

Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person?  Are you willing to engage others in conversation about what that means to you and them?  Then check out the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook community page, and if you are willing to take a chance, LIKE the page.

Questions? Contact me through the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook page.

And may the conversations to come be inspiring and uplifting.