Categories
Death Technology

What I Have Learned Officiating at a Funeral Over Zoom

Many rabbis are being called upon to perform funerals remotely or online during the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Rabbi Daniel Cohen shares learnings from holding a funeral over Zoom. For reflections upon shivah minyan held over Zoom, Rabbi Mara Nathan has shared her experience here.


Aside from Jewish values and the decision that need to be made regarding virtual funerals, I have found that some seemingly mundane elements can make the difference between a service that feels smooth and hopefully, comforting, and one that feels like just another Zoom call. Here are some of practical considerations I’ve embraced.

Perhaps the most important thing I do during the initial intake conversation is reframe the entire approach. I acknowledge directly the sadness of not being able to be together. Often I have shared the Talmudic dictum not to publicly display the chanukiyah at a time of danger. We are not only encouraged, but instructed, to find a path that mitigates the risk. This explanation has been effective in helping families feel they are “not doing anything wrong.”

The rest of the intake tends to run pretty similarly to in-person funerals with the exception of being clearer than ever that I need to know who is speaking, and in what order, well before the actual funeral, not only so I can determine how many and which readings to include, but also so I am clear who I will be calling on and unmuting during the service.

Here are some steps that have proven most effective in our community:

  • Create a Zoom link that the family can share with others.
  • Set Zoom settings to require that everyone remain in the waiting room until we are ready to begin.
  • Make sure participants are muted when they arrive.
  • Select the setting that does not allow people to unmute themselves.
  • I ask the family to send me photos of their loved one. I put together a Powerpoint of those pictures along with Kaddish and other prayers, Psalms, or readings I want people to be able to participate in. Showing some pictures before we formally begin the service has been a powerful way to help close the physical gap people are feeling.
  • Ask the family to log into Zoom 15 to 20 minutes early. This helps make sure they are all comfortable with Zoom and allows their windows to be at the top of the screen when the “speaker view” is selected.
  • Five minutes before the scheduled time, we cut k’riah. Our funeral homes have not been providing families with ribbons, so people are cutting their shirt or pinning a strip of cloth on their clothing to cut. I’ve asked our local funeral homes to begin providing ribbons to families.
  • Once people are admitted from the “waiting room,” I show the family pictures, welcome everyone, and acknowledge to all attendees that this is far from ideal, but that it is a fitting tribute to a loved one to do everything possible to keep people healthy and safe.

In most cases, by the time I have finished the initial conversation with the family, they have decided not to have anyone at the cemetery except the funeral director. For a recent funeral, one of the adult children went to the cemetery but stayed in his car. I have yet to be asked to be physically present at the cemetery.

I verbally call on and unmute each person when it is their turn to speak. A few times families have taken advantage of Zoom by sending me a short video montage to share during the service. It initially struck me as odd, but it has been such a powerfully beautiful tribute that I’ve started suggesting it to families.

I have El Malei and Kaddish on Powerpoint slides and put those up when the time comes. For Kaddish, I share that having everyone read together creates a cacophony, but that the power of hearing others outweighs the awkwardness. I unmute everyone and then lead Kaddish with them all reading as well. It’s chaotic, but it’s also quite moving.

After Kaddish, I put up a slide that has information about sending donations in the deceased’s memory and any shivah information.

Most families have wanted to have the chance to spend time together on Zoom after the service. To accommodate this, I have identified someone who will take control of muting and unmuting speakers. That allows me to leave, but it also ensures there is some structure and that they can stay on and spend time together. The first time I did it, a granddaughter of the deceased volunteered to manage it. After the service she became emotional, realizing that she was so focused on the technology, she wasn’t able to be fully present. It was a powerful insight neither she nor I expected. I have since begun asking the families to identify someone who is not a family member to assume this role.

A few conclusions:

  • By acknowledging up front that a Zoom funeral is far from ideal, and offering a values-focused rationale for the approach, people become quite understanding and appreciative.
  • By including photos and prayer slides, families not only feel “invited in,” but they also appreciate the additional effort. That, in turn, helps them feel cared for.
  • By rigidly structuring the speakers, I’m able to keep some semblance of order.
  • By including the Kaddish slide and unmuting everyone, the family feels surrounded by the love of family and community.
  • By allowing people to speak after the formal service is done, the mourners feel that love and connection even more.

Zoom funerals are far from ideal, but every single time I have done a Zoom funeral, the family has later shared their surprise at how meaningful and moving the experience was.

We all have to take into account the religious boundaries we have set for ourselves and deal with other philosophical issues. In this time of COVID-19, I have chosen to focus more on the emotional and spiritual needs of mourners at a time when they cannot embrace one another. This is what has driven my approach.


Rabbi Daniel Cohen is the senior rabbi at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, New Jersey.

Categories
spirituality Technology

Klei Kodesh: New and Old Tools to Create Holiness

The extraordinary disruption and stress of facing the coronavirus has impacted my rabbinate in ways unlike almost anything I have experienced in over twenty years in the pulpit.  

However, in a sense, the work and the primary goal is still the same: to create meaningful and sacred moments for the members of my congregation and for the broader community.  

I have found myself reflecting on the tools I am using over the last several weeks. Each day, I learn more and refine my skills. Each day, I encounter both satisfaction and frustration in these efforts. 

I have been using computers ever since my ordination in 1999, however the depth and breadth of that activity has grown exponentially over the years.  It has become routine, for example, to communicate with people through email, and to post information on our temple website.  

In these last weeks, email has become even more critical, with the absence of in-person activities. I find myself asking a question, though, each time I start to write an email: Does this need to be a phone call or video chat?  Whereas before emails were a valuable tool that gave me flexibility and efficiency, I find that now there is a hunger to connect in the most direct way possible. I am making many more phone calls than I have in a number of years.  

Part of my Shabbat practice for many years has been setting aside my cell phone and computer. This wasn’t so much about my understanding of the halachah of using electricity as it was about my need to create a certain restful and inward focused space on Shabbat. Simply put, I needed to unplug.

Now, my cell phone has become a critical part of offering robust and meaningful Shabbat study and worship. My colleagues and I are leading from three different locations. On Pesach morning, we offered a service jointly with our sister congregation, and we led from six different locations!  

My cell is now a tool that helps me create holiness. When we text one another, it is a powerful way of coordinating and ensuring that the prayer experience happens the way we want.  

I never thought of tech support as a sacred task, but when I use my cell to text with a congregant to help them log on to a service or study session, it is a powerful tool in the sacred work of engagement. 

Using Zoom and other platforms for meetings, worship, and pastoral counseling is a new and challenging activity. Here too, rather than set aside technology, it enables me to forge connections that are so critically important right now. The computer becomes a tool that can alleviate the isolation felt by everyone, especially those who are living alone.  

But, of course, what happens when the internet connection fails in the middle of a service? Or when screen sharing doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?  

In the thousands of services I’ve led, I’ve never had an experience with a conventional service where my fellow service leader disappeared right in the middle of the service! Or where all of a sudden the prayerbooks vanished from everyone’s hands at once!

When these things happen, I try and remind myself that these are just unique parts of using these tools to create holy experiences. The holy experience comes when we open ourselves up to those who are in need, when we extend ourselves to those who are facing challenging circumstances. Each time we use these tools, we get better and better, and things run much more according to plan.

It is a reminder to me that “smooth” is not the ultimate goal. In a conventional setting, we may finish the service or class and be pleased that everything went smoothly. We started on time, hit all our cues, and everything unfolded the way we hoped.  

Now, in this new reality, I try and focus on something bigger. There may be pauses or glitches or even the need to change something on the fly. But, the bottom line is that these new technologies, these new klei Kodesh, enable us to honor Shabbat, to retain Torah study as a nourishing part of the community, and to bring people together, even when we are physically apart.

For most of my rabbinate, I have done the Torah reading by taking the scroll from the ark with the traditional ritual, opening to the weekly portion, and reading and translating the prescribed chapter. I have done so out of my fervent belief that my role was to transmit the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While musical and comfortable with the cantillation, I rarely chose to chant through the portion.

With the shift to Zoom services, I quickly realized that one of the elements of the service that would be hardest to replicate would be the Torah reading ritual. With everyone in their own homes, we didn’t have an ark or a scroll.  There would be no hakafah and no hagbahah.  

I wanted to provide a sense of continuity and connection to tradition. And so, what I’ve done each week is put up on the screen a picture of the inside of the scroll for everyone to see, and I’ve chanted the portion for the congregation for everyone to hear.  

I believe this enables everyone to receive the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While they can’t touch and kiss the scroll, every single person is able to see the sacred calligraphy of the Torah. Even while sitting in their homes, we are all able to hear the powerful sound of the Torah, just as it has been heard for so many years.  

So, even in this brand-new world, and with the use of all these technologies, I am finding anchors in the continuing ancient traditions. The blend of old and new is what has always sustained us and is still the case now.  

Many years ago, when I was living in Jerusalem, I was attending Friday night services at a synagogue that was just in the process of building their building. One week, right in the middle of our singing and praying, the electricity went out. We found ourselves sitting in the dark!  

After a momentary pause, we simply continued singing and praying and honoring Shabbat, relishing the tangible sense of connection. We didn’t need anything other than our voices…and one another. It was a transcendent and sacred experience I will always remember.  

We have many tools at our disposal. I celebrate that we are using our phones and computers and so much more to sustain and even deepen our communities during this most challenging time. Let us continue to have the flexibility and openness to learn how to use all of the tools that we can.  

When we see these technologies as tools that help us create sacred experiences and sustain holy connections, we strengthen our communities.  If this moment is indeed part of the beginning of the next era in how the Jewish community functions, we can be part of a bright future. We have all that we need to come through this time stronger and closer than ever before: we are in this together.


Rabbi Stein is the senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York and an adjunct faculty member at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He is the outgoing Dues Chair for the CCAR and the Vice Chair of the CCAR Convention Committee.

Categories
Technology

Circular Rainbows, Fractals, and Spiritual Technology

“Renew the old and sanctify the new.”  – Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

The thoughtful use of technology can enhance Jewish spiritual practice and engagement. This summer, I was privileged to witness and facilitate a few exceptional examples of this while serving as faculty at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.  At this overnight summer camp, currently celebrating its 4th year, campers and staff utilize science and technology as tools to strengthen Jewish identities, develop Jewish community, and enrich Jewish practice.

One Shabbat afternoon during an all-camp picnic, electrified chatter began to spread through the community. Campers and staff excitedly pointed to the sky.  I ran out from under one of the large oak trees shading the main lawn to witness a sun halo, or circular rainbow surrounding the sun.  Many exclaimed they had never seen such a marvel, let alone known that something like this was possible.  After capturing a quick photo (which will be published in PopSci), I ran over to the mic.

Fortunately, I have the CCAR Daily Blessings app on my phone, which contains, among others, the blessing recited upon seeing a rainbow.  After giving a short explanation of the importance of rainbows in Jewish tradition, I was able to lead everyone in the blessing.  This unexpected experience was enhanced and transformed into a Jewish teachable moment by technology, which allows us to access innumerable resources at a moment’s notice.

Even the more traditionally routine moments of Jewish practice at camp are enhanced by the spiritual use of technology.  Each Friday night, we pray together using a Visual T’filah that contains videos of campers sharing their thoughts on the week’s scientifically-focused Jewish value. (This week was kesher, connection.)  Campers who might otherwise be too shy or nervous to get up on stage are able to share their thoughts, and to marvel at their larger-than-life participation in Shabbat services.  Because the camp utilizes a Visual T’filah Template, the director of Jewish life (a self-declared novice at PowerPoint) is able to easily refresh and expand the Visual T’filah each Shabbat, even when I’m not there.  Visual T’filah, like the other spiritual technologies I help develop at the CCAR, offers new opportunities for engagement and meaning in Jewish practice.

Perhaps my most impactful contribution to camp this summer, however, was the short teaching I gave during Boker Big Bang (the morning ceremony during which a blessing from Nissim b’chol yom is studied, and, using chemistry, something is blown up).  Our blessing for the day was “she-asahni b’tzelem Elohim,” who has made me in the image of God.  I explained to the campers that I especially enjoy using scientific metaphors to help myself and others understand God.  This is, in part, because when I was their age, as a scientifically-minded youth, I had trouble believing in a god for which there was no tangible proof.  It was my awareness that someday I might believe in God that kept me involved in Jewish life long enough to recognize that even the early rabbis needed metaphors to try to understand God.  God as a king or ruler, one of our most popular metaphors, may have worked for them back then, but did little to aid my understanding of God in modern times.

 

One of my favorite metaphors for God imagines God as wifi. It surrounds us and with the right tools we can connect to it, each other, and the rest of the world.  Another metaphor I love is God as computer programmer.  In the same way that computer code can be used to create entire universes through 1s and 0s, I imagine God creating the world with 1s, 0s, and -1s (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons).  Finding a scientific metaphor to understand the notion of b’tzelem Elohim (humans being created in the image of God), however, was always out of reach.  Last year, a rabbinic colleague, who is also my wife, gave me the metaphor for which I had been searching.  After waiting more than half the year, I was finally able to share this metaphor with the campers at the URJ 6 Points Sci-tech summer camp.

The metaphor, which perfectly expresses how we were made in the image of God, how we are a part of God but separate, and how we are all connected to each other through God, is: Fractals!  In these complex images, elements are repeated on such a scale, that zooming in reveals that each smaller section looks equivalent to its larger counterpart, and each part is unique but still connected to and a part of the whole. This metaphor clearly had an impact because later that day, a camper in a coding workshop decided to write his own program that would draw a fractal. Another camper expressed that during my talk she felt as though I was speaking directly to her.

While these campers and counselors might be more naturally drawn to scientific metaphors and technological tools, they represent an important path of the future of the Jewish people and the trajectory of contemporary society.  And while some of us may find technological tools only applicable in work settings, or to be a distraction from certain aspects of life, intentionally integrating these tools into our spiritual practice can breathe new life into Judaism and usher in a new age where religion and technology are not seen as at odds with one another but, rather, as mutually beneficial.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the creator of Visual T’filah and the Daily Blessing app as the Manager of Digital Media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also serves as a founding member of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Camp Council.

Categories
Books Technology

High-Tech & High-Touch Visual T’filah at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy

A camp that blends Reform Jewish values with science and technology is practically a dream-come-true for me.  It only makes sense that as the Digital Media Manager of the CCAR, I should spend a week there on faculty.  I can confidently say that both the camp and I grew from the experience. I had conversations about apps & ebooks, Minecraft & Star Wars, and even gave a drash on how God is like wifi. But perhaps the most exciting part of my visit was spending time working with campers and staff to create the Visual T’filah for Shabbat services.dan 2

At the end of services, the camp director, Greg Kellner, climbed the steps to the bimah to address the community. I could see that he had been moved to tears.  When he asked all of the campers who played a role in creating the Visual T’filah to rise, we were all taken aback when roughly half the camp stood.  “I can’t believe so many of you helped create this Visual T’filah,” he exclaimed. “And I can’t believe how beautiful it is!”  Whether they explored camp taking pictures in the “Spiritual Photography” chug (elective) or we recorded a video of them explaining their own Jewish evolution, these campers were meaningfully engaged in crafting the payer service for all of camp.  And they were proud!

While Visual T’filah has already become a regular part of the Sci-Tech camp experience, I was fortunate to be able to bring my decade of experience creating Visual T’filah to raise the production and design to new levels.  The hardworking camp educator, HUC-JIR rabbinic student Rachel Heaps, has dodan 1ne amazing work so far. However, the finite amount of time she is able to dedicate to creating the Visual T’filah each week, given her other responsibilities around camp, meant that her scope was limited.  Now with the introduction of the CCAR Visual T’filah Template (which includes the text of Mishkan T’filah prepared and formatted for the big screen) as well as a few other stylistic and design upgrades, her task will be much easier each week.

I was also blessed to be able to utilize some of the special camp resources to explore some new techniques.  Campers were filmed in front of one of the camp’s green screens, allowing the campers to appear to be standing in front of the beautiful images taken by the campers in “Spiritual Photography.”  Campers faded in and out in succession to tell how their relationship to Judaism has been enhanced by rabbis, by camp, and by other people and events. Then as the last camper in each video group faded out, the prayers themselves appeared floating over the images selected to convey the meaning and spirit of the prayers.  The result was a seamless prayer experience, greater than the sum of its parts.

It is my great pleasure to experience and demonstrate how the use of Visual T’filah can increase engagement and participation, and play an important role in crafting a meaningful prayer experience.  To be able to offer my time and expertise to enhance a community’s prayer life is really a gift.  I look forward to seeing how the continued use of Visual T’filah at Sci-Tech engages and inspires the campers, and how Visual T’filah can continue to transform prayer in other communities as well.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Digital Media Manager at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  Check out his blog from last year’s camp as well

Categories
Reform Judaism Technology Torah

Na’Aseh V’Nishma: Podcasting the Aural Torah

In an age of video and universal sensory stimulation, podcasts are a strange niche. They require us to only listen, and as the success of so many of them has shown, there is an audience that wants to only listen. One of the greatest images of the Golden Age of America is the family gathering around the radio to listen – to the news, to the Lone Ranger, maybe even to a surprisingly realistic broadcast of War of the Worlds, with which Orson Welles displayed the true power of the spoken word, sending the population who was unaware of the fiction of the radioplay into a frantic tizzy at the news that aliens had invaded. Listening, as everyone with even the slightest understanding of Judaism knows, is one of the key components of our tradition. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  “We will do, and we will listen,” said the Israelites in acceptance of God’s covenant in Exodus 27:4, effectively founding Judaism.

It is therefore unsurprising that so many people most renowned for their podcasts are Jews: Sarah Koenig of Serial, Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, and the seemingly omnipresent Ira Glass of This American Life, just to name a few. This connection was not lost on us when we set out to make what has become Nü Rabbi, but it certainly added to our confusion as to why (at the time) there were no Progressive Jewish podcasts with similar structure. So, we set out to make one.

Initially, we thought we’d interview the rabbinic luminaries of our Reform world about hard-hitting topics. And then we tried to book those interviews. Needless to say it didn’t work out so well. But while trying to practice our interview and microphone skills on our classmates, we discovered something all the more precious: The voices and opinions of the up-and-coming rabbinical and cantorial students at our school. And thus was born Nü Rabbi – a play on “New Rabbi” and the oft-heard phrase “Nu, Rebbe?” when a particularly insistent question is asked of a Rabbi. In effect, what we have ended up creating is the beginning of a Mishna for our day and age. The Tannaim are ourselves and our classmates – discussing, windingly and in many different manners, some of the most pressing issues of our day. Our first issue was, just like in the Mishna, prayer.

Mahu t’filah?”– what is prayer– we asked ourselves and our colleagues, and the beautiful Torah spilled forth. But this was only the beginning of our journey. We then had to learn the editing software, to commission music and art, to figure out how to make it all flow together into something imminently listenable. As of now, we think we did a pretty good job. Four of our classmates (Stephanie Crawley, Dan Slipakoff, Harriet Dunkerley, and Samantha Frank) and a recent ordinee of JTS (Rabbi Jessica Minnen) all contributed the Torah of their hearts, and the combined product, the stitching together of all of them with the help of the connecting thread of Quincy Ledbetter’s wonderful music, is a rich aural page of mishna. Listen for yourself, and let us know what you think!

 

Andy Kahn and Josh Mikutis are both rabbinical students (’18) at HUC-JIR in New York, and are both three-time recipients of the Be Wise Grant in Jewish Entrepreneurship. This coming year, Andy will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple, and Josh will be working at the 92nd Street Y.

Categories
Books Technology

Beta Testing Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook with Sci-Tech Campers

I was completely geeking out!! There’s not much better for this rabbi than seeing young Jews who are passionate about their Judaism as well as technology. Getting to Beta Test the new Mishkan T’filah for Youth enhanced eBook with campers at the URJ Sci-Tech camp was more than I could have hoped for!

It was the peanut butter of Jewish life, and the chocolate of technology, coming together to create a most delicious experience.

And the verdict? They loved it!! (And they even found a few things that we need to work on.)  They had so many great questions and suggestions that the hour-long session flew by.

One of the main foci of the conversation was around apps vs. ebooks.  Each has pros and cons, and we must evaluate our goals and options when making a decision.  Here’s a great example:

One camper had the idea that when you open the digital siddur, it should automatically know what service you want based on the date and time.  This is definitely possible, and would be very cool, MTY-ebook-screenshot-2I explained, but to be able to have this feature it would have to be an app, rather than an eBook.  The challenge with custom apps, I continued, is that every feature we want to add, requires more resources and time. So, naturally we have to make choices based on priorities.  Would we rather auto-select the service (when we can easily select it ourselves) or have bookmarking & note-taking?  Conversely, if it’s an ebook, there are basic features of eReaders (like bookmarks & note-taking) that Apple, Kindle & Google already develop for their apps.

We also discussed that there are two basic ways of using the Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook (or app):

  1. In community services, along side the print version (aka “pBook”) and/or the Visual T’filah
  2. For personal study and/or private prayer.

MTY-ebook-beta-testers2Features like hearing the prayer read or sung while words are highlighted are clearly meant for someone on their own. On the other hand, could a non-musical service leader use the audio to help lead the singing? Would we feel comfortable singing along with the beautiful audio recordings on an iPad, rather than a live human?

Also, there are things like page numbers in an eBook or app, which are a bit anachronistic, but are important for “syncing” with others using the pBooks, and/or Visual T’filah.  It helps everyone be on the same “page” even if it’s a digital page or screen.

We discussed whether or not there should there be games in the siddur.  Would it be okay during services for a kid to play a game which involved the words, meaning, and/or themes of that prayer?

One camper (surprisingly?) pointed out that sometimes technology can distract us from a moment or pull us away from the community.  While anyone can daydream in services without an iPad, it might be a bit more tempting and distracting with an iPad in front of you.  As if on cue, at that moment, I looked over and noticed that one of the campers had stopped looking through the siddur and started surfing around online…

Another camper noted that it’s possible on the iPad to lock it to only one app.  And I said that it’s a really helpful feature, and that these kids would probably be the ones to figure out how to hack it.

Our conversation also attempted to look into the future and how we might use technology to enhance Jewish life and prayer.  I asked if they could imagine a future where members of a family all joined together for Shabbat dinner at home, and then went off and participated in their own services via virtual reality goggles.  The mother could participate in a yoga and meditation service in a pristine white room, while the father could join a traditional minyan at the Western wall.  One child could meet up virtually with his friends for a camp service, while the other could see cartoon avatars leading the songs and prayers in their kids service.  Who knows?!

In the meantime, we need to focus on those things that are possible, like finishing up the beta testing for the Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook, so we can offer it for sale in the big eBookstores: Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and Google Play Books.  Stay tuned!

At the end of our great session together, I concluded:  “Your generation will really be the ones that shape Jewish life in the future and how we utilize the benefits of technology.   No pressure. (But pressure.)  It is our job now to try to get our sacred texts into a format that is most accessible and flexible for your needs, and to pass on our passion for Jewish learning, life, and community.  And you will take these tools and fashion a bright future for all of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Publishing Technology Manager at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
CCAR Convention Rabbis Technology

Twitter for Rabbis: A Crash Course

Today starts the 125th Annual CCAR Convention.

Hopefully, that means that #ccar14 and #whatrabbisdo are about to become Trending Topics on Twitter.

If that above sentence made perfect sense to you, and you responded with a resounded cheer of “yes!” then you probably don’t need to read the rest of this blog post.

If that above sentence made your eyes glaze over with the # symbols and the word Twitter…read on.

How to become a quick-study at Twitter:

1. Go to twitter.com and set up an account. Choose a user name that isn’t too long, isn’t too complicated, and in some way helps to explain who you are. My username is imabima. (Get it?)

On Twitter, users are referred to by the user name, prefaced by the @ symbol. So my username is @imabima. The idea of “tagging” someone in a post actually originated in Twitter but expanded to Facebook.

2. Find at least 10-20 people to “follow.” This isn’t a huge commitment. It’s not like being “friends” on Facebook. It implies no special relationship. You follow other people in order to have something to read and respond to as you use Twitter. Twitter is ideal when there are people having actual conversations back and forth rather than just putting ideas out into the world.

I suggest you start with these rabbis who tend to tweet at the CCAR Conventions (this list is by no means comprehensive):

@ReformRabbis
@RabbiLevy
@Rabbiisa
@rebeccaschorr
@RavMoss
@DeniseEger
@lizwood1982
@rabbisteinman
@ravyair
@RavHeidi
@rabbikip
@ravbat7

The CCAR has a list you can follow for #CCAR14. Just click “subscribe” and you’ll see tweets from everyone on the list.

(There are so many others who tweet….this is just a sample, based on the front page of those tweeting at the CCAR right as I type this post. Also, there are lots of other non-Reform rabbis and other interesting things and people to follow on Twitter. That’s a different post for a different day.)

A single Twitter post is known as a tweet. The verb used to explain what you’re doing when you post on Twitter is tweeting.

3. There are two main kinds of posts in Twitter: your own original tweets and other people’s posts that you re-post, known as re-tweeting. “Re-Tweets” are usually prefaced by the letters RT. Most “good” Twitter users will do a nice balance or combination of their own tweets accompanied by RTs of other people’s stuff.

4. Hashtags: This gets people a little wiggy. It’s really less complicated than it sounds. Hashtags are a way to follow along a certain stream of conversation in Twitter, which can be a vast ocean of stuff. So in order to best follow what’s happening at the CCAR, users will post their tweets with the extra phrase#ccar14. This allows people to follow just this particular stream of information surrounding the CCAR Convention and differentiates our conversation from last year’s convention. You can get by on Twitter with ONLY this hashtag for the convention. You don’t need any other ones. As you get a little more advanced in your tweeting….you can learn more about these things.

5. In real life: Add your twitter username (known as your “handle”) to your name tag at the convention. Talk to other people about how they’re using Twitter. Don’t be afraid to follow people and to see that others are following you.

Twitter is worth exploring. There’s a lot to be learned and gleaned from the vastness of its information stream. It does seem a bit overwhelming and daunting when you merely look at how many tweets there are per day, per hour, all over the world. For specific uses and purposes, it can be a really useful and educational tool.

I look forward to reading all the #ccar14 tweets!

Rabbi Phyllis Sommer serves as associate rabbi at Am Shalom in Glencoe, IL. This post originally appeared on her blog: Ima on (and off) the Bima.