Creating Community, Part 1: The New Digital Connection

By Hannah Lee

This series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 will focus on a contemporary approach; in future articles, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; a focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion; and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

In June 2007, I launched the LMShuls list-serve for the Orthodox community of Lower Merion.  It was immediately embraced and, as of this writing, there are 1,195 subscribers.   No, there are not that many shomer-mitzvot Jews even if we are more identifiable by our festive garb on Shabbat and Yom Tov (the Jewish holy days).  
The popularity stems from the list-serve’s ability to forge a new sense of connectedness, so now we have subscribers — both Orthodox and otherwise — who live in Cherry Hill, Elkins Park (which recently launched its own list-serve) and Northeast Philly.  We even have non-Jewish subscribers who’d heard about this free service from their Jewish friends and neighbors as a great way to publicize their intent to sell their home.

Several years ago, there was an attempt to create a city-wide directory of Jews and Jewish services, but it was costly to publish and it was quickly out-dated.  A list-serve is uploaded quickly — as quick as the attention of my webmaster,  Eitan Dvir — and it can be read instantaneously or in a Daily Digest format (which I recommend unless you have a terrific thirst to find out the latest real-estate scoop).  So, what is a list-serve?  I think of it as an electronic bulletin board which is monitored.  

What are our guidelines?  

From our webpage, our policy is clearly stated:

  • Always appropriate: community events in Lower Merion; notices of institutional news and events; events of interest to members and non-members; shiva (week-long period of grief and mourning) notices; community blood drives.  
  • Generally appropriate: houses/apartments for sale or rent  in Lower Merion and Philadelphia; cars for sale; Lower Merion business events; Lower Merion garage sales; lost and found; parlor meeting in private residences; information about sports leagues; housekeeper/maid inquiries; rides to a funeral/carpool requests; Lower Merion playgroup inquiries; job postings; backyard camps; babysitting.  
  • Never appropriate: jokes; offensive or disparaging e-mails; lashon harah (gossip); posting for an event whose kashrut (kosher certification) is not acceptable to the Orthodox community; and views, opinions, and political news.

Since becoming the Webmaster, Eitan has not become the local celebrity, although he and I get approached by neophyte users, usually the older, less technically savvy members, about sending and receiving posts.  No, I do not want to get your desperate appeals while I’m driving, so my daughter knows not to give out my cell phone number.  Eitan scans every proposed entry during mental breaks from his day job as founder of E-agle.com for web development and Search Engine Optimization (what Netflix uses to tell you what other movies you would enjoy!).  Even with the public guidelines, Eitan estimates that about 50% of the submitted entries are not acceptable and another 25% of the submissions need additional information.  As Coordinator, I have the less time-intensive but dubiously more enjoyable task of being Enforcer of our policy.  Since I have chosen the Daily Digest format, I receive the posts the next day, about 5 am, and, if need be, I chase the culprit down by e-mail (environmentally, with no high-speed car chases) and remind them, gently, not to abuse the sensibilities of our subscription base.

I first heard about a community list-serve from the Teaneck Jewish community, where a rotation of five web monitors serve a subscriber base of 50,000 (tally supplied by Eitan).  Eitan cut his teeth working with the Monsey list-serve where he’d lived previously.  I proposed it to the board of my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue, which approved it but has not underwritten our costs, absorbed charitably by Eitan himself.  The first month, we had only two posts, but the very next month, the tally of posts went up to 75, and since then we’ve gotten as many as 345 notices this past month of May (definitely a reason to choose Daily Digest).

What were Eitan’s most memorable posts?  He cited the one by a bachelor who offered over-ripe bananas.  Silly?  Note that the poster got 13 responses and someone retrieved the items before Shabbat.  Bakers know to freeze the ripe fruit until there’s a banana bread emergency.  Another of his favorites was the time someone’s fridge went on the fritz and wanted a temporary cooling unit and the family received four offers and got a loan two hours before Shabbat, when religious Jews cannot run to the store for more ice cream.  My favorite notice was the time an Israeli family came for a consult at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and was told their child needed emergency care.  The LMShuls list-serve identified for the family an available apartment and furnished it with donated items.  Another one was by a woman who needed to send medicine to her son who was studying in yeshiva in Israel.  Several people who were flying to Israel that week agreed to be her courier, people whom she would not have known to be traveling or would agree to undertake this humanitarian mission.

What is the most frequent offense?  Spam (unsolicited electronic mass messages), including requests for tzedakah (charity).  The posts garnering the most chatter are the quirky ones, like the offer of black bananas.  An example of a quick response via this list-serve occurred recently when a woman posted a warning that “some of the ACME cookies (like chocolate chip) usually packaged as OU pareve are no longer marked as such.  There is a sign by the front display at the store– but you may want to check packages purchased.”  Jan Moskow, the Lead Mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at that store location wrote back publicly:

“Thank you for calling this to our and the community’s attention.  The bagged cookies in question were actually pulled off the display before your notice got posted.  ACME uses only one style bag for all its bakery cookies and even though there was no Kosher labeling on these bags, in addition to the non-kosher signage at the display, the Mashgichim saw the potential for confusion and had the cookies repackaged in an entirely different container.”

This is a brave new world, and you can use or abuse the new technology available to us.  Our Rabbi carries a Blackberry so that he is technically always on call, except for Shabbat and Yom Tov.  Our list-serve is available to our subscribers to reach out and connect.  This is one way we build community in Lower Merion.