As a grandson of a holocaust survivor, I have a very specific lens by which I view the religion of Judaism. As a student of technology and media, one of the millennial generation, I also have a specific lens by which I view the intersection of religion and our present day culture. A culture that is driven by real time communications, personalization, social networking and extreme amounts of multitasking. This post is about that intersection between religion and present day culture as it relates to philanthropic outreach in the Jewish community.
Recently, there has been debate in the philanthropic Jewish community about how Judaism can be relevant and provide substantive educational opportunities to its members. It is the idea that by using smart outreach programs the Jewish religion can become a more important role in the lives of many. A recent article by Edgar M. Bronfman frames this debate by discussing intermarriage while referring to the recent marriage of Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvkinsky and ultimately, he concludes that:
We must do more than open the doors to newcomers in the Jewish community: We must reach out to them.
But I’m afraid this point is of little practical use to the folks in charge of doing the outreach and to the folks that must ultimately create meaningful connections with the members of the community. To date, the philanthropic Jewish community has relied heavily on issues such as the Holocaust and antisemitism to create a connection, but in a world where survivors are less in numbers and in a world where antisemitism is as commonplace as air, finding new “issues” to leverage is becoming increasingly difficult. Add in the fact that today’s communications are literally living off of 140 character messaging systems (e.g.Twitter) and new languages like, “idk how 2 make sense of all diz, LOL” and you have a recipe for a, dare I say, indefinite fast of successful outreach programs.
So, what are the Jewish Federations, the Hillel’s, the Jewish Day School, the Yeshivas, or any other religious entity for that matter supposed to do in today’s environment where the goal is outreach?
Ultimately, I think it boils down to 3 main components that if understood, could help shape the future for these groups and its respective communities.
1. Understanding Judaism, Facing Reality – Cultures and Traditions vs. Religion and Laws
I was recently asked the following question by a coworker of mine:
Which is more important to you and Why? The Culture and Traditions of being jewish or the religion?
What is important about this question is not the question itself. What is important however is the fact that there is a distinction between culture and religion. It is the fact that these two topics are viewed as very separate entities. With that said, the very first thing that must be done when asking questions like “How do we keep our children Jewish?” or “How do we make Judaism relevant” is to understand what in fact it means to be Jewish.
When I was on birthright this past year it was very clear that people were there for different reasons and people connected with Judaism for different reasons. As I said earlier, my “Judaism Lens” is painted with dark colors due to my connection with the Holocaust but there are many instances of bright colors as well. And those bright colors, for me, circle around family, traditions, culture, and love for one another. This is a very different view than someone who attends temple every day for daily prayers.
With that said, I believe that Judaism today fundamentally falls into two groups: Cultures and Traditions vs. Religion and Laws. And before any “outreach” can be organized, it is necessary to understand which group is being targeted. So which group matters? Asked another way, which group is bigger and can make a difference through network effects? When I was asked the earlier question by my coworker “which is more important,” I responded with “Culture and Traditions, hands down” to which she responded, “Couldn’t agree more. I dont believe in religion. I do however believe in Community and tradition.” This is the reality we live in and it must be understood and embraced.
2. Understanding Cultural Influences – Mass Media and “Push” vs. Personalization and “Pull”
America is a Santa Clause nation. Just look outside and you’ll see Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. Turn on the TV and you’ll see advertisements that wish you a Merry Christmas while other, less frequent advertisements wish you “Happy Holidays.” And like the Jewish religion, there are no doubt those who celebrate Christmas that really don’t have an affinity to the religion itself per se, but do in fact love the traditions, holidays and customs. Let’s face it, when I was younger I remember asking my parents for a Chanuka bush due to the cultural influences around me. We also hung up blue Chanuka stockings above the fireplace.
Now let’s consider these two, brief stories as a contrast:
Neil Lazarus, an “internationally acclaimed expert in the field of Middle East” and strong advocate for Israel gave a talk and in it described his relationships with Judaism while he was growing up as a child in Britain, and later, described his relationship as an adult and as a father. He said that as a child he had no real connection to Judaism and as adult, still had little connection to the religion itself. However, as a father, one day his children came home from school and touched their hand to the mezuzah upon entry. This was not something he taught them, yet due to their cultural surroundings, his children absorbed this cultural act and subconsciously ingrained it into their daily lives.
The second story is about a colleague of mine who is not Jewish, although he still sends his children to Jewish day school because that particular school is one of the best in the area in terms of pure academics. His children came home from school one day and begin to sing Jewish songs. Again, this is another instance where the daily cultural surroundings affect the behavior of an individual. The song singing is second nature and happens as a result of cultural surroundings and influences, which in this case, is a day school that conveys Jewish traditions from the early morning until the afternoon.
The point is, in both stories the cultural influences are a result of “mass” media. It is the situation where for better or worse, a certain theme dominates the others due to its sheer size of distribution and presence. It is no different than listening to the radio and all you hear is Kanye West when pretty soon, you subconsciously begin singing “and I ain’t messing with no gold digger.” This happens because the content is “pushed” to you over the airways. This same concept applies to other mass media channels like broadcast television and print.
But we now live in a world where “mass” media is on the decline and “me” media is on the rise. Sites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube let you personalize your experience and “pull” in the content you desire. In today’s world, people are able to curate their own experience and define their own cultural existence from behind their computer or from their mobile phone. Consider the fact that, according to eMarketer:
Consumers now spend as much time on their mobile devices as they spend reading print newspapers and magazines—combined. And while time spent on mobile devices grew 28% in 2010 to reach an average 50 minutes per day, time spent reading print magazines and newspapers decreased 9% in 2010.
We are now at a place where the conversation is bi-directional. This is a place where we can easily engage and interact with small groups or large groups of people in very unique, customized, and personal ways. But in order to fully leverage these new mediums for outreach, activists must be smaller, nimbler, more tactical, and must be prepared to experiment with new forms of communications.
3. Actionable Measures to Influence Personalized Culture
Now that we understand the need to properly segment the audience and understand the need to adopt newer communication strategies, we must look at some specific examples and consider their implications so we can learn from them and use them to influence future philanthropic outreach strategies. These will all be brief.
Example A: A Public Service Announcement not approved by AJWS (link here – embedded below)
Watch the video below. It’s great. It’s funny. As of this writing there have been about 630,000 views of the video with most views coming from the United States. If we assume that there was about 1 view per person, than that’s about 630,000 people that watched this video. Furthermore, if we assume that all of these views were by people who are Jewish, than that means about 10% of all Jews living in America saw this video. Not too bad if your goal is to strengthen a relationship with a Jewish audience.
I heard a story recently of someone who, after seeing this video, disclosed the fact that they were Jewish to another person. That’s power. This video is powerful. It illicits strong personal feelings of emotion and joy to the point of public action. From this example, we can see that humor is a powerful motivator and should be considered in outreach programs.
Example B: Candlelight – The Maccabeats – Hanukkah (link here – embedded below)
My sister sent this video to me. She is 20 years old. At the time of this writing there have been 3.6M views and if we use my logic from above, that means roughly half of all American Jews have seen this video. More powerful than the video above perhaps. But more importantly, I think the value of this video lies in its creation. This was a group of students that banded together to express themselves in song and video using Judaism as the content. There are a number of other examples of this artistry as well. Take for example the Wu Tang Clan’s member, Remedy Ross. A Jewish rapper who created a song called “never again” referring to the Holocaust. Or the more famous example, Adam’s Sandler’s “Chanuka Song.” But the artistry is not the important point here. The important aspect is that it is very easy to create independent and creative content and easily share it with the world. This sort of behavior can be used in classrooms and can be used as incentive to drive behavior. This concept should also be considered by philanthropic activists.
Example C: e-Cards & Digital Notes
There is an entire library of Hanukkah cards available at Someecards.com. It is dead simple for people to send each other messages using these types of lightweight technologies. This same tactic can be used with text messages as well because after all, who doesn’t carry a mobile phone these days? The point here is that lightweight, easy to use, easy to deploy notes and messages should be considered to stay top of mind and should be used on a frequent basis.
Example D: Facebook Groups
A Facebook Page called: The Bear Jew
Facebook pages are not the end all be all. They are simply a way to aggregate a group of like-minded individuals in one place. A focus group of sorts. From there, it is up to the group moderator to stir up the conversation.
Example E: Twitter Feeds
Twitter is just a short message real time communication system. Some people using twitter, like Amare Stoudemire, have a pretty decent amount of followers. This is a powerful tool if the right person is saying the right things to the right people.
Example F: Other
There are plenty of other tactics that can be used for Judaic outreach, but unless comprehensive strategies are used on the right people, in the right way, and with the right message, successfully deploying philanthropic outreach programs will be nearly impossible. I hope this blog post helps paint a better picture of Judaic Philanthropy in the Facebook world.