community, conferences, presentations

Unlocking Community Conversation: Cantors Assembly Keynote Address

0 Comments 07 July 2014

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This May, I delivered the keynote address to the Cantors Assembly, the Conservative Movement’s annual cantorial conference entitled “Unlocking the Community Conversation.” Cantors touch almost every member of the community through their work, which includes leading services, singing religious liturgy, teaching bar and bat mitzvah students to read from the Torah, working with a choir, and conducting weddings and funeral services. For the keynote, I drew a thread between the science of people connecting briefly, creating opportunities for online connections that move offline (and vice-versa), and using “the power of personal” to create real online/offline communities. (The complete slide deck is embedded at the bottom of this blog post.)

The Science of Connecting

The New York Times published an article summarizing several studies on the effects of strangers interacting, and how these interactions correlated with increased feelings of happiness. If every connection is an opportunity to increase happiness, then the important takeaway for social media practitioners is to create opportunities for those connections. Community can only develop as a result of interpersonal connections.

Defining Community

Traditionally, community was defined by place you lived. The spirit of the word “community” has expanded from a place you live on the ground to include a group of people with shared interests, activities, values, etc. Synagogue leaders ask:”How do we convince Jews to join synagogues again?” I think that’s the wrong question. The question should be “how do we create a place where Jews to feel part of a community again?” Online communities can create connections where there were none and strengthen connections between existing members.

In February, The Mussar Institute holds Generosity Week, a week devoted to studying and discussing the trait of generosity. Instead of discussing generosity (or pushing out ideas about generosity) through the Mussar Institute’s Facebook page, they created a closed Facebook group (called Generosity Week) with the intent of encouraging discussion around both the daily video issued during Generosity week, and the practice of generosity during the week. It worked — members discussed how they practiced generosity, what it meant to them, and they supported each others’ choices and considerations. This community shared values, interests and activities. In other words, they became a community. More than that, strangers connected and, I’m just guessing here…happiness increased.

Unlocking the Conversation

More than a year ago, Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach experimented with changing things around: they began proactively asking community-focused questions on their Facebook page. They asked questions connected to mission and the congregants, such as “Who made you feel welcome at Temple Torah?”and “What is your favorite Hebrew or Jewish song?” They wanted to connect different membership segments (pre-school parents, youth service participants, older congregants, snow bird congregants, etc.). Congregants responded, and it became their “AHA!” moment. Fans they connected with each other by commenting on each others’ answers. The Rabbi took it to the next level, integrating some of these conversations into his sermons on the ground. What we had here was a community beginning to build.

What is it that your community wants to discuss with each other and with the organization? What is the conversation that creates and invites connections between people? And for your organization: what is the best thing that could happen if there were real conversation and community online?

When you think about what the community wants to discuss, over and above all else, that’s it.

The intersection of you and them is the conversation.


Supporting Online Community

Finding the conversation doesn’t build the community. You have to be prepared to support that conversation:

  • Does the online space encourage what the participants want to talk about?
  • How will the member contribution valued?
  • Is the online space conducive to creating a sense of community?
  • Are we committed to continually supporting the online community?

Facebook pages are not community-centric, but Facebook events and groups can evolve to become communities. If Twitter is the preferred channel, think about how a Twitter chat or hashtag can be used to promote community. If Instagram is the preferred channel, then consider using hashtags to develop a conversation around them. There are examples of these in the slide deck at the top of the page. On LinkedIn, it’s LinkedIn groups. Make the online space conducive for community.

Strangers Connecting

Which brings me back to strangers connecting. It’s not a coincidence that I started the keynote talking about these studies (and Humans of New York). We all want connections, and to be valued and heard. Even a conversation with a barista at Starbucks can increase our happiness. If we can “unlock the community conversation” in our online social spaces, then doesn’t it follow that it’s a hop-skip-jump away to increasing connectivity within our offline communities, to strengthening a sense of community (new definition and old), and to creating the groundwork for long-term viable 21st century communities?

What’s your conversation?


[Many thanks to Allison Fine for suggested additions to this slide deck]



Debra Askanase is an experienced digital engagement strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She works with mission-driven organizations to develop digital strategies and campaigns that engage, create trust, and move stakeholders to action. Debra speaks at conferences worldwide on the intersection of technology, social media, and nonprofit organizations.

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