The Conspiracy

Will Technology Save the Next Generation of Jews?

At a post-GA-meet-up yesterday, Jeff Finklestein, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, threw out this question: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing your generation? He meant this in a Jewish context, and attendees’ answers touched upon leadership (or lack thereof) in our age group, and delegitimization of Israel (that was me), and the meta-answer of acknowledging all of these issues, and not necessarily choosing one that is important.

I actually liked that last answer the best, and I’ll give Mia Jacobs credit here. She’s the outgoing president of the Hillel JUC’s student board for the University of Pittsburgh. I liked her answer for recognizing the complexity and diversity of issues our generation faces, and how we can still be so divided even in our community, even in our age group.

I think one of the challenges that my generation faces is the idea of a congregation — finding one, joining one, paying dues, making that commitment. All of these discussions make me think about how technology is increasingly changing our world, and especially our Jewish world. My favorite and most recent example: ShulShopper. I can’t recall how I stumbled upon this new tool, still in its beta-testing phase, but I promptly forwarded the URL to several people that I knew would appreciate it.

Essentially, ShulShopper is a online tool that helps Jews find a synagogue (or equivalent, like a minyan that meets in someone’s home). If you’re from out of town, recently relocated, or just searching for a “more fulfilling prayer service” (their words, not mine), ShulShopper will probably be able to help you. According to their website, you can:

search for congregations in your area, browse through flavors and affiliations, add a congregation to their directory, collaboratively manage a congregation’s profile, rate and review congregations, and connect wth other members of your community.

Sounds pretty solid, right? It’s getting there, but the creators still have a lot of work to do. They even acknowledge that fact in their To Do list. As a test, I did searches for Pittsburgh, PA and Columbia, MD, two cities I’m familiar with. It seemed as though most of the congregations were listed, but there was hardly any information or reviews about the congregations. It’s an interesting project of Jew It Yourself, and one that seems distinctly of the millennial generation. Maybe ShulShopper will help bring my generation of Jews of all sorts together.

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7 Older Responses to “Will Technology Save the Next Generation of Jews?”

  1. Daniel Sieradski
    December 6, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    Thanks for your flattering post. If only we had a drop of funding for ShulShopper or maybe some volunteers the site would be in a far better position than it is at the moment. Unfortunately, because the Jewish funding world was afraid to lend credence to the notion of publicly critiquing synagogues, we couldn’t raise the capital to fix the site’s outstanding bugs (I poured $5k of my own money into the site last year and it’s still broken) and it is therefore inoperable at the moment. I’m working on a proposal for Mecon Hadar to take it over, seeing ashow they’re the indie minyan hub and it’s a great fit for them, but until I make the case to Rabbi Kaunfer, the site will sadly continue to lie fallow unless another funder or a volunteer with Ruby on Rails skills takes interest.

  2. manolo
    December 6, 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    Caroline, you really need to do your homework! ShulShopper has been in beta for literally years. I can see how one might think it’s a good tool but it never really caught on for several reasons. Bottom line? Most young, tech savvy Jews don’t care. They’re not looking for shuls. Those that do care prefer to tap their existing social network for the lowdown on appropriate places of worship. As for Jew It Yourself, the site received some funding and they had a preliminary video contest where they solicited DIY instructional Shabbat videos. The prize was a flip HD video camera and if I am not mistaken, the contest received 2 entries in total. Dan Sieradski, creator of Shul Shopper and Jew It Yourself was in fact named to the Forward 50 this year on the theoretical strength of his ideas, but it is clear that those ideas do not resonate sufficiently. Of course we practically live online on social networking sites like facebook etc., but at the end of the day, many of our most important and personal interactions take place in the real world with real people. ShulShopper and Jew It Yourself place far too much emphasis on the power of technology to “Save the Next Generation of Jews.” Technology is a tool and it can’t sufficiently address the myriad issues at the root of our current generational malaise.

  3. David A.M. Wilensky
    December 7, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    Shul Shopper is not new and it will never leave beta. It was created by Daniel Sieradski a.k.a. Mobius, one of the benevolent creator-deities of the Jewish blogosphere. This is one of many little projects started-then-stopped by Sieradski that litter the web. He has neither the time nor money to finish shulshopper.

  4. Caroline Kessler
    December 7, 2010 at 11:07 am #

    David, thank you for your comments and information. My apologies to any readers who also realized my mistake in thinking that ShulShopper was a new innovation. It seemed as though there had been some updates to congregations (on their right-hand text box) but clearly, those the updates I thought they were.

  5. Daniel Sieradski
    December 7, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    Manolo:

    I think your estimations of the success of my projects are understandable based on the publicly available data, but unfair without knowing either the context or the inside scoop.

    “it is clear that those ideas do not resonate sufficiently.”

    I could not disagree more with that characterization. The reasons that the video contest did not go as hoped are, first of all, unknowable without any kind of quantifiable survey of those who were exposed to it. That said, my general assessment from actually having spoken to dozens of people about it is that a) the bar for creating videos is too high for the average Internet consumer (only 2% of Internet users actually contribute content and when you then narrow your target audience to 2% of the U.S. population, the actual number of content producers becomes minuscule); b) without actual examples of the kind of content they should be creating people didn’t really know what was expected from them and weren’t sure what to contribute.

    Therefore, I am moving forward with producing my own content and partnering with over a dozen other Jewish organizations to create original content for the site. The fact that thousands of people visited the contest page, that I received a dozen emails from people who intended to contribute but missed the chance to do so, that I am receiving broader philanthropic support for Jew It Yourself than any of my other projects to date, and that I have secured commitments from so many organizations to partner on content, is actually quite encouraging.

    ShulShopper stalled primarily because I made the mistake of having it built in a programming language that I am not comfortable with and therefore became dependent on the work of others with skills in that language to make changes to the site. Because I cannot find a Jewish Ruby on Rails developer passionate about giving people choice in their prayer experiences to volunteer their time, it costs an exorbitant amount of money to make the most minor changes to the code. The success of the idea, if not the website, has been quite promising as well, even if it was ahead of its time, as my ShulShopper inbox receives a dozen emails every day from new people asking why the site is broken. Another issue is that I have been unable to convince funders to take on the project because they fear a backlash from synagogues and denominational movements. Funding conversations with the UJA Federation of NY’s committee on synagogue life, for example, stalled when Rabbis from various Long Island synagogues raised hackles about the site’s open comment policy. I cannot help the fact that the money isn’t there to pay for the project. Birthright Israel has trained young Jews to believe they don’t have to pay for anything Jewish, and older funders are too conservative to support something as controversial as criticizing synagogues.

    I agree with your remarks that “Those that do care [about shuls] prefer to tap their existing social network for the lowdown on appropriate places of worship.” One of the explicit purposes of ShulShopper was to create a social network for synagogue-goers that revolved around their congregations and which allowed individuals to discover congregations where their friends and/or likeminded folks were praying. The vision for ShulShopper for Facebook (http://31days.tumblr.com/post/328265628/10-shulshopper-for-facebook) is precisely that.

    I also agree with you that “Technology is a tool and it can’t sufficiently address the myriad issues at the root of our current generational malaise.” That’s why Jew It Yourself is a content initiative focused on producing high quality, accessible content for Jews alienated from traditional modes of Jewish education, and not merely another stupid YouTube clone with a magen david slapped on it. All I can say is, wait til Q2 2011 and you’ll see for yourself.

  6. Manolo
    December 10, 2010 at 6:10 am #

    Daniel,
    I am surprised that a net savvy person like yourself even undertook to run a video contest knowing the facts that you just mentioned. Every day is a new learning experience. Too bad you’re giving up on user generated content. Partnering with organizations will require the watering down of your original vision on order to accommodate all the myriad organizational agendas that you are partnering with.

    Good to see that you’re done with Ruby on Rails and we look forward to seeing, well, anything from you. That works I mean.

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