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Rabbi taps into social media to write new kind of sermon
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Rabbi taps into social media to write new kind of sermon

On-line experiment helps shape message heard from the pulpit

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

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What would happen if the congregation helped to write the rabbi’s sermon?

One area synagogue found out recently when their rabbi decided to experiment with the tools of modern social media. One part Wikipedia, one part Facebook, Rabbi David Levy’s Jan. 21 sermon at Temple Shalom in Succasunna drew on on-line conversations among and comments contributed by congregants.

The “social sermon” is the brainchild of Darim Online, a 10-year-old organization whose mission is to figure out new ways to use technology to help Jewish communities. Over several weeks beginning Jan. 7, Levy introduced the idea of a social sermon on his blog, and then posted texts about Judaism and the environment on Temple Shalom’s Facebook page.

Two people responded to the first text; five responded after a second was posted. (Others “lurked,” following the postings but holding back from making contributions — but pledged to participate in the future.) Levy then used the community comments “like a primary text,” he said. The experience, he said, “inspired me to think in directions I might not otherwise have taken.”

The finished sermon wove together the on-line conversation, with excerpted quotes, into a larger message. The finished product was posted after the fact for those who could not attend the service.

“It was untested ground,” said Levy. “You have to be willing to take the plunge and put yourself out there.”

He was also thrilled, he said, because four of the five participants are not adult education regulars.

“If people can fit virtual study into their lives right now, they don’t have to wait for a time when they can fit in-person study in their lives,” he said. “This is going to be foundational for the Jewish future.”

Levy said he is fascinated by social media and was using technology tools with congregations long before he arrived in Succasunna in July 2006. He met Darim Online founder Lisa Colton at the biennial conference of the Union for Reform Judaism in late 2009. “The sermon is no longer developed in isolation,” explained Colton in an essay on the concept by the Covenant Foundation. “Rather, the Social Sermon allows participants to feel represented in the rabbi’s sermon, or a teacher’s presentation or a Torah study, for that matter. That we can own and shape these teachings and ideas collectively is very powerful.”

In an e-mail conversation she wrote, “We find that many people are nervous about opening up the process to the community, but when they do it, they are pleasantly surprised.”

Levy will be featured next week when the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis holds a webinar about using technology to serve the Jewish community.

Levy is already planning another social sermon for March. He’s encouraging younger congregants — whom he calls “digital citizens,” in contrast to “digital immigrants” — to participate.

He also hopes some older congregants who have less comfort with technology won’t be as intimidated the second time around.

“The social sermon is not something I’d want to do every week,” he said. “But it’s a nice addition to the variety of sermonic material people hear over the course of the year.”

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