OU to Develop Websites for its Synagogues

December 22, 2011



Remember the days when synagogues depended upon their printed bulletins to get the word out about their programs, personnel, schedules, and announcements?

That was so twentieth century!

In this modern era, synagogues may still have bulletins, but for many of them, the primary means of communication has become their website. An advantage of a website is that people not yet involved with a synagogue, and thus not on its mailing list, can learn about the synagogue, its rabbi and its programming.

The problem, though, is that website design and construction requires special skills and in some cases, when there is no volunteer expert in the congregation, a financial commitment to an outside firm. Results, of course, vary considerably from synagogue to synagogue.

Now, as part of the wide range of services the Orthodox Union provides to its member congregations, synagogues can avail themselves of the skills of the OU Web Department, which built www.ou.org and a multiplicity of other Orthodox Union websites, to redesign and improve their own offerings, with only one start-up expense involved for the basic package. The website is easy to maintain and requires only basic computer skills to add and update information. The OU has announced the Shul2Shul Project, to use OU expertise to build and enhance their online presence.

According to OU Managing Director Rabbi Steven Burg, “The OU’s Department of Community Engagement services the Jewish people in a broad variety of ways. Many times we provide resources directly to the individual or the family, but just as often we work behind the scenes, providing tools for the synagogues or facilitating networking through which the synagogues can learn from one another. Shul2Shul is one of many such tools that the OU coordinates from behind the curtain. Helping to strengthen the shul benefits the entire congregation and the Jewish community in general.”

The project originated with the OU Web Department, under the leadership of Gary Magder, Director of Digital Media. “The Web Department understood that it had the ability to help shuls and to strengthen their online presence. As we’ve developed the OU website we’ve learned a lot along the way and the feeling is we should share this with our shuls,” he said.

An Enthusiastic Response

Gary Magder explained, “One significant advantage of Shul2Shul over other synagogue website systems is that it’s not proprietary, which means synagogues will have the benefit of continuous upgrades and improvements because it’s based on a very popular piece of software.”

The initiative, months in the planning, was made public at the recent OU Executive Directors Conference in Baltimore, where, according to Rabbi Judah Isaacs, the OU Director of Community Engagement, the response was enthusiastic and three synagogues signed up on the spot. “The idea behind this is to provide synagogues with a service which makes their lives easier and helps greatly improve the quality of the shul website,” Rabbi Isaacs explained.

Besides working with the synagogues on website design, the OU will make available to them special features from www.ou.org, which contribute to the worldwide appeal of the website. These include Torah articles, which the OU features in great number; personalized zmanim — sunrise, sunset, candle- lighting time — for their own locations; job offerings from the OU Job Board, and more.

“It brings the power of the OU in terms of having the zmanim, OU Torah and other features integrated into shul websites so that they are fresh and have newly updated content all the time,” Rabbi Isaacs said. Details can be found at www.ou.org/shuls, the newly created website for the program. Synagogues can also sign up there for the service.

Baron Hirsch Synagogue in Memphis was one of the shuls that accepted the offer on the spot at the Executive Directors Conference. “Baron Hirsch needed to refurbish its website, and the OU’s Shul2Shul project sounded like the perfect way to get the job done in a quick and affordable manner by IT experts who understand our needs and goals for the project,” explained David Fleischhacker, Executive Director of the shul.

Shul2Shul is based on a platform called WordPress.org, used by CNN and Fortune 500 companies to design their websites and blogs. WordPress offers “widgets,” an enormous variety of features, most of which are free, that shuls can choose to incorporate in their sites.

Calling the process “user-friendly” and “user-driven,” Rabbi Isaacs explained that “the OU is providing the hosting of the site, the ongoing day-to-day management, but the system will require the shul to have a dedicated volunteer or professional to maintain or keep the site up to date – a very simple process.” There will be a charge to move a shul’s current website into the new format, but there is no further cost to the synagogue unless it asks the OU to develop customized features.

In terms of what the OU and WordPress have to offer, Rabbi Isaacs compares the situation to using a high-end interior decorator or a high-end showroom to offer a variety of alternatives to the client, from which the choices are made. “We’re not dictating to synagogues what they put on it their site. We’re not creating one template; they get to choose. It’s very flexible – we want every shul to look different.” The common element will be the logo at the foot of the homepage signifying that this is an OU-member congregation.

There will be a reciprocal relationship between the synagogue site and ou.org. “The good news is that Shul2Shul will enable us to integrate local data from all over North America into our calendars; we will feature their material just as they will feature ours,” OU Director of Digital Media Gary Magder emphasized. “So not only are we taking the value of the Orthodox Union website and providing it to our synagogues, we’re actually bringing our network of synagogues into our own website and making their information available to everyone.”

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