A man en route from Miami to Jerusalem realizes that although the Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins shortly after his plane is scheduled to land, he hasn’t prepared a thing. He tweets his Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi in midair and arrives at his hotel to find a set of the Four Species waiting for him.

In Texas, a Michigan woman urgently tweets her husband’s rabbi back home: While attending a medical convention, he suffered a grand mal seizure. Within hours, his intensive care bedside is surrounded with unknown visitors offering comfort and support.

At undisclosed locations across the globe, young Jewish men don the prayer boxes known as tefillin after watching an instructional video posted on YouTube.

Such experiences and more could only have happened through the rapidly expanding use of social networking, a fact that has led rabbis and communal leaders to adopt tools such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare – once the domain of teens and young adults – in their pursuit of Jewish unity.

Among them stands Rabbi Zvi Drizin, who considers social networking essential to promoting the activities of InTown Chabad, his Dallas-based organization geared toward young adults who have finished college, but are not yet married. He makes extensive use of Facebook to announce events, share interesting links and idea, and post photos taken at recent programs.

“When you decide to go to any party, the first thing you ask is who’s going to be there,” he says. “People have always moved with their friends. If you have a good network, it expands your appeal.”

At a recent Shabbat dinner, Drizin planned for 80 people. After he posted details of the event on Facebook, 150 people showed up at his door.

“People see that their friends are attending by reading their wall postings,” he says. “It’s an extremely effective way of promoting your programs.”

But the value of such programs goes beyond keeping in touch with friends. Noting that Chabad teachings have long emphasized the value of every individual and stressed the importance of human interaction, Drizin notes that his Facebook network includes people he hasn’t even met yet. Any post of his becomes a de facto broadcast – sometimes informative, other times inspiring.

“When people I never interact with see my posts on Facebook, it reminds them that they’re Jewish,” he says. “It gets them in touch with their Judaism.”

A similar motivation led Drizin to post an instructional video to YouTube educating viewers on how to don tefillin. After news broke of a Jewish boy being removed from a commercial airline flight because of a miscommunication resulting from his wearing tefillin, the video went viral. News organizations embedded “How to Put on Tefillin” on their websites and broadcasted footage from the video on their news programs; within two days, 70,000 people had watched it on YouTube.

“Someone wrote to me saying that he learned to put on tefillin from that video,” relates Drizin.

Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, director of the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House in West Bloomfield, Mich., with social media advisor Chris Brogan at the 140 Conference in Detroit. (Photo: Jon Swanson)
Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, director of the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House in West Bloomfield, Mich., with social media advisor Chris Brogan at the 140 Conference in Detroit. (Photo: Jon Swanson)

Never Even Met

Rabbi Moshe Bryski, executive director of Chabad of the Conejo in Agoura Hilla, Calif., similarly marvels at the ability of a rabbi in one corner of the globe to effect a spiritual change in another. Thanks to the Internet, people he’s never met can attend live classes of his simulcast on sites such as Chabad.org’s video project, Jewish.TV.

“There are so many tools at our disposal now,” says Bryski. “Not a single human being can say he or she doesn’t have access to Torah study.”

A recent seminar produced by a national social networking expert featured not one, but two Chabad-Lubavitch speakers, both from West Bloomfield, Mich. Rabbi Yisrael Pinson, director of the Daniel B. Sobel Friendship House and its addiction recovery program, and Bassie Shemtov, director of the Friendship Circle, an organization that serves children with special needs, both presented at the Detroit conference.

On Twitter, Pinson is known as Recovery Rabbi and counts more than 2,000 followers. He approaches the technology with a strategy.

“Facebook is for people you know,” he explains. “Twitter is for people you want to know.”

The rabbi began tweeting when the terrorist attacks unfolded in Mumbai, India, two years ago.

“I was thirsty for information, and the most current information was on Twitter,” he relates. “I found it to be an amazing tool, more immediate than CNN. I was glued to my computer screen. Suddenly I was talking to people I would never have dreamed of talking to before.”

He says that the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, would likely have approved of the use of such tools in the advancement of Judaism.

“The Rebbe was a champion of using new tools for the promotion of Jewish values and spirituality,” explains Pinson. “His talks were broadcast over the radio when that was the revolutionary medium. So too, it’s fitting for us to be at the forefront of this revolution.”

Social networking’s value, adds Pinson, lies in its ability to connect seemingly discordant strands of humanity.

“The person you meet may not be the one who can help you,” he states, “but he may know the person who will end up helping you.”

Those words proved prophetic for Dr. Dan F., the Michigan physician. He got to know Pinson through the recovery program and when he suffered his seizure in S. Antonio, his wife tweeted the rabbi.

Immediately, Pinson tweeted Lisa H., a S. Antonio woman he communicated with on recovery issues. Within hours, word had spread through the local recovery community, and a constant stream of visitors kept vigil at the doctor’s bedside. They even conducted 12-Step meetings in the ICU. To this day, the doctor is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people whose only connections existed through a social networking site.

At the Detroit conference, Shemtov told the audience how social networking helped the Friendship Circle win more than $100,000 in a Facebook-based contest sponsored by Chase Community Giving. When the contest began, her organization had just a few hundred Facebook fans; by its end, Shemtov and other organizers were using Facebook and Twitter to spread awareness about children with special needs, promote their programs and achieve their fundraising goals.

There’s not a hint of sarcasm in his voice when Pinson extols the virtues of Internet-based interactions.

“Chabad and social networking,” he says simply, “is a match made in heaven.”