Allison Josephs made her first YouTube video in 2005 and felt she had “stumbled across an idea that had potential to change the Jewish world,” she recalls.
She had been working for Jewish outreach organizations and noticed she spent a lot of her time correcting misunderstandings about Orthodox Judaism. Her response was to create Jew in the City, an organization dedicated to “portraying the Orthodox community in a more nuanced, authentic way” than what was seen in the general media.
“I wanted to break down the perceived wall that stood between the greater Jewish community and Orthodox Jews,” she says. As it turns out, social media has been the perfect platform for her mission.
“Having personal, one-on-one conversations takes a long time,” she says. “But posting something and having 50,000 people see it is powerful. You can influence people and slowly shift their thinking. It’s a model that works.”
The many challenges of social media are well documented, but in the world of Jewish outreach it’s being embraced as an unprecedented opportunity. From Twitter to Facebook and Instagram, social media claims billions of users globally, across most demographic groups. And researchers estimate the average person’s daily use is now about two and a half hours.
“If that’s where people are listening and learning, that’s where we should be,” says Susanne Goldstone Rosenhouse, social media coordinator at NJOP (formerly the National Jewish Outreach Program). The person behind @JewishTweets, Rosenhouse was instrumental in helping NJOP become one of the first Jewish organizations on Twitter. “In the very early days of social media, a consultant suggested we could be a voice for Judaism online,” she recalls. “Fourteen years later, that is still what we’re doing. We are raising the level of Jewish conversation.”
A fundamental aspect of outreach, according to Rosenhouse, is “meeting people where they are at. Once people were spending more time on social media, it became a no-brainer for us to be there too. We’re letting positive Jewish content be part of the social media experience.”
Long before social media, Aish encouraged people to learn and share what they knew with other Jews, says Jamie Geller, chief media and marketing officer at Aish Global. “Our presence on social media is a direct extension of that,” she says. “We’re helping Jews engage with and share timeless Jewish wisdom.” To that end, Aish maintains a presence on seven social media platforms in three languages.
According to Geller, reaching as many Jews as possible and helping them strengthen their Jewish knowledge is the main purpose of Aish’s social media presence. “As a Jewish community, we’re losing people because they don’t know anything about what it means to be Jewish,” she notes.
In the early years of social media, Geller notes, many established kiruv organizations struggled to get on board with the concept, simply trying to leverage the platforms to get more people to attend traditional programs like classes, Shabbat tables and trips to Israel. That approach, however, has shifted.
“Demographic studies show that 72 percent of the Jewish population in North America doesn’t particularly care about Israel or Judaism,” says Geller. “They’re not going to come to a program. That’s who we’re talking to online. These are Jews who are largely unreachable by the Jewish establishment. We’re giving them what they want, where they want it.”
Ideally, she says, Aish’s online efforts will bolster people’s understanding of Judaism—which in turn will help “fill the seats for the many worthwhile local kiruv organizations out there.”
Rosenhouse admits that a significant goal of her organization’s social media presence has been to “funnel people to our in-person programs. It’s been extremely positive for NJOP,” she says. “Just the other day, someone messaged us on Facebook, ‘I’ve always wanted to learn Hebrew. Do you have classes?’ I answered, ‘Yes, we do!’”
However, getting people in the door isn’t the primary focus. “People are interested in exploring, and they’re comfortable online even if they wouldn’t go to a program in person,” says Rosenhouse. “That’s their first step in learning more about Judaism. The fact is, fewer people are going to synagogues. They’re finding online communities instead, and they’re having positive Jewish experiences that way.”
Geller agrees that especially for many young Jews, Jewish engagement on social media “can be the beginning and the end.”
“People want digital experiences.” What’s remarkable, she adds, is that substantive content consistently gets the most engagement online. “It’s clearly not just about entertainment,” she says. “Using social media platforms absolutely can have an impact. And what’s more—it can be scaled. We can make a sea change in Jewish identity.”
Once people were spending more time on social media, it became a no-brainer for us to be there, too . . . . We’re helping Jews engage with and share timeless Jewish wisdom.
Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, social media editor for Chabad.org, points out that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, encouraged the use of radio and satellite broadcasts and the nascent world wide web as platforms to teach Torah and promote acts of goodness and kindness in the world. “Chabad’s presence on social media is part of that continuum,” he says. “These platforms are there for us to share Torah and mitzvos and encourage people to grow as Jews.”
Any skepticism about the effectiveness of social media as a tool for kiruv is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose, says Rabbi Lightstone. “There is a conception among some that Jewish outreach is about total life changes,” he explains. “Rare is the person who alters the course of his or her worldview based on Twitter or Facebook—at least not in any healthy way. But if the goal is to connect to people, answer questions, break down stereotypes and inspire even a single extra mitzvah—it is incredibly powerful. These moments of Jewish connection are not merely one-off events. They’re empowering people to connect to Hashem and Yiddishkeit in really profound ways.”
Additionally, some of the aspects of social media that sound alarm bells for some—such as anonymity and disinhibition—have a potent flip side, Rabbi Lightstone notes. “There’s a seductive power to social media,” he says. “It removes our inhibitions, allowing for fast and surprisingly personal conversation. As Jewish educators, this means that people who otherwise might be uncomfortable approaching a rabbi or rebbetzin may open up to real heartfelt conversations on social media.”
Josephs agrees that the inherent nature of social media is what makes it such a valuable tool—not only because it’s a helpful way to reach more people. “What works about social media is the personal touch to it,” she says. “It’s the feeling that you’re making a friend. It’s truly all about being social. For example, in real life, people connect through storytelling or sharing a laugh. That’s what inspires us. And those experiences translate very well online.”
Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, director of education for NCSY and host of the popular 18Forty podcast, agrees that individual voices are what people relate to most on social platforms. He maintains an active social media presence and is a well-known personality in the Jewish Twitterverse. “Kiruv has always been about building relationships,” he says. “Now people are reaching out to me because they follow me on social media—but we’re having the same conversations we would have had even without it. Social media has effectively transplanted an older system to a new platform.”
While the success of Jewish outreach online can’t necessarily be quantified, those working in the field have no doubt that they are, in fact, inspiring other Jews.
“In this business, you don’t always know your impact,” says Rosenhouse. “We get success stories, for sure, but we assume there are many more we’re just not hearing.” She recalls a person she encountered in her early days of @JewishTweets. “He’d ask questions, and we’d answer them,” she says. “I’ve been following him on Twitter now for years—he’s become a frum guy. I’ve been watching him grow.”
When she travels for speaking engagements in communities around the country, Josephs often gets to meet her social media followers. “People have told me they’re religious today because of Jew in the City,” she says. “I have heard from people that they realized there’s a way to be Jewish that they never knew.”
After all these years devoted to outreach, Josephs says it’s still powerful when she comes across someone she has never met in real life who tells her, “You changed my life.”
Rachel Schwartzberg is a writer and editor, who lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.