Connecting with Bill Sobel

Think "religious leader" — and you probably do not think "social media" in the same breath.

But then you haven't met Laura Baum, a founding rabbi and the chief operating officer of OurJewishCommunity.org and a rabbi at Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio.

An expert on social media and the changing needs of the Jewish community, Baum has created an innovative model for engaging those seeking new ways to connect to Judaism. She challenges assumptions about the nature of Jewish identity, community and religious ideas.

Through OurJewishCommunity.org — named by Slingshot as one of the top 50 innovative Jewish organizations — Baum works to engage Jews through social media and other technology.

You don’t have to be Jewish or even religious at all to learn from her expertise in social media. "If we can revolutionize a 3,000-year-old product, I’m pretty sure almost any product or service can be re-imagined," she said.

Making the Most of Social

2014-12-June-RabbiBaum.jpg

Educated at Yale, trained at Hebrew Union College, and having completed an MBA at Xavier University, Baum is constantly on the move teaching, writing, lecturing, tweeting and leading services. She is recognized as one of the top 50 female rabbis in the US by the Forward, regularly appears in the news and has been featured on CNN.com, NPR, the New York Times, and the Jerusalem Post.

Sobel: You are regarded as one of the leading rabbis in the US. Can you tell us more about your unique journey?

Baum: I surprised a lot of people when I decided to become a rabbi. I was a psychology major at Yale, but decided to spend one of my spring breaks shadowing a rabbi through Yale’s externship program. That really sparked my interest in the rabbinate – and is a good reminder of the role mentors play in our lives. I quickly realized that being a rabbi would combine so many of my interests: teaching, learning, doing social action, building community, working with diverse groups of people and running an organization.

When I was ordained, I landed a job at Congregation Beth Adam, which is an independent congregation that has always been visionary and operates “outside-the-box.” We decided to build an online congregation – even though at that time, we could barely imagine what that would be. It was awesome to have the opportunity to build something entirely new with the support of an organization that already had an entrepreneurial spirit. At that time, I also decided to get an MBA, in part because I have an addiction to learning and in part because I knew the skills I would learn in business school would serve me well in the work I was doing.

Sobel: Your website, OurJewishCommunity.org is an award-winning online community using social media and technology to create an evolving, dynamic and engaging experience for Jews today. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Baum: Using the tools of the time, we wanted to create a Jewish experience that met people where they are. Keenly aware of changing demographics (e.g. people affiliating later and less often, being increasingly mobile, etc.), we created an entirely new model. We no longer asked people to show up at a particular time and place, but instead brought a Jewish experience to people on their computers, tablets, and smartphones. OurJewishCommunity reimagined Jewish organizational life.

Over time, other rabbis have started doing pieces of what we do — they might blog or stream services or have a podcast. But no other synagogue has opened its doors to people around the world and created an expansive online Jewish community as we have. It’s my job to be a rabbi to anyone, anywhere in the world, who wants me to be his or her rabbi. I don’t know of anyone else who is lucky enough to say that!

Sobel: In addition to your work with OurJewishCommunity, you and Rabbi Robert B. Barr lead Congregation Beth Adam. How do you divide your time between your work at Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org? What are the main differences between a live community and an online community?

Baum: I increasingly spend my time on OurJewishCommunity.org – mostly because our online community grows so quickly. But, there’s also a great synergy between the offline and online congregations. I’m a better rabbi to my congregation because of my online congregation — and vice versa.

One of the things that makes OurJewishCommunity.org unique is that we don’t simply take what we do in a bricks-and-mortar congregation, put a camera in the room and post it online. Instead, we recognize that content needs to be presented differently for different audiences. So, for example, we don’t live stream our weekly Beth Adam service from the sanctuary. Instead we video stream a separate online service from our studio, and for that service the rabbis interact with people chatting in online.

People often ask me if an online congregation is somehow inferior to “in real life.” The reality is each has advantages and disadvantages. One of my favorite stories comes from the first High Holidays we streamed — a daughter living in Washington, D.C. and a mother living in Florida were sad that they were not together for the holiday. So each of them turned on our services, as they sat on the phone with each other. They said there were no words to describe the power of that moment. That, like so many others, is a great reminder that an online community can accomplish what bricks-and-mortar community cannot.

Sobel: A couple of years ago you talked with our mutual friend Dave Kerpen of Likeable Media. The essence of the conversation was about corporate transparency. In the video with Dave you say that companies can’t hide from public disclosure and must adapt to the new transparent culture. Social media is the ideal platform for providing company information and can be used to facilitate open and honest relationships with consumers. How does that relate to the non-profit sector such as your synagogue and website?

Baum: Whether I’m teaching Judaism, using social media or running an organization, transparency is a value that informs of all of my work. Many businesses have embraced transparency — and I think it’s equally important in the nonprofit world. Social media is a great way for nonprofits to put information out about their governance models and financial structures. An organization’s budget should reflect its mission, vision and values, so it’s important for that information to be available for stakeholders to see. There’s even some research that shows that organizations that are more transparent online are more likely to receive donations. So that’s an added benefit as well!

Sobel: Finally, you're a connector and innovator who has built your rabbinate outside the box. Through your website you reach hundreds of thousands of Jews, not to mention your awesome twitter handle @rabbi. As an expert on social media and the changing needs of online communities, you have created an innovative model for engaging those seeking a new way to connect with communities. What can others learn from your experience?

Baum: Rabbis are known for being long-winded, so let me try to take some of what we’ve learned in six years and attempt to put it in (almost) tweet-length bullet points:

  • Keep evolving — If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re going to get the same results. Instead, think of new models. If we could revolutionize a 3,000-year-old product, I’m pretty sure almost any product or service can be re-imagined.
  • Avoid the shiny object syndrome — Just because there’s a new technology doesn’t mean it’s right for your business or organization. For us, technology is the tool – but at the end of the day, our philosophical messages are primary.
  • Know your community — We built OurJewishCommunity.org only after a series of strategic planning sessions, online focus groups, surveys, and extensive demographic research. We continue to do all of those things to make sure we are meeting people’s expanding needs.
  • Recognize you need to think differently online — When thinking about streaming an event, teaching a class, or writing, really consider how to do it differently for an online audience.
  • Word-of-mouth messaging is important — I assume very few people wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll Google online Judaism today.” Instead, we’ve reached hundreds of thousands of people because they have “bumped into” us — through friends, through social media and through other websites.