Rabbi Josh Yuter recently put his synagogue on Foursquare, the popular social networking site that allows users to “check in” and tell their friends where they are. Those few congregants of the Lower East Side’s Stanton Street Shul who actually noticed were impressed. “The fact that I’m aware of these things might make me more relatable,” Rabbi Yuter told me at a nearby café. The Orthodox rabbi acknowledges the irony of putting a shul on a location-based social networking site that requires mobile check-ins; he doesn’t really expect that people will be checking in often, since the use of electronic devices is prohibited on the Sabbath and, the rest of the week, is generally frowned upon.
But Yuter’s Internet presence is more than just an outlet for a self-proclaimed “geek” with a background in computer science. It is an important part of his strategy as a religious leader. Complementing liturgical and pastoral activity with a tech-savvy approach, Yuter seeks to engage online those whom he might not reach in his pews. After all, he explained, a rabbi’s task is to determine how to apply ancient traditions to the present. “It seems hypocritical to say you can engage in the modern world if I’m unwilling to do so myself,” he told me.
As proof of his belief that being religious means interacting with your world and your surroundings, Rabbi Yuter operates a lively Twitter feed and has regularly updated his blog for almost a decade. “Embracing Twitter is not in any way at odds with the religious side,” he maintained of his tweets, which are also synced to appear as status updates on his Facebook page (he’s been on that other social networking site since 2005, back when only college and graduate students were allowed to join and my grandpa wasn’t on it).
“If a rabbi knows Twitter, and knows it well, it’s reassuring for the people who engage with them,” he insisted. Although very few of his congregants are Twitter users, Yuter has gained quite a virtual flock: 1,399 Twitter followers, to be precise. With 9,262 tweets and counting (no, seriously—he’s probably tweeting right this second) since joining in 2009, Yuter has clearly embraced this new way to reach people.
A look through his feed reveals tweets about synagogue goings-on (“Shiur went for 1:20ish today, working on condensing the audio for uploading #whatrabbisdo”), general rabbi thoughts (“I really wish Rabbis would be better about footnoting their articles—sweeping statements w/o citations are not helpful”), and an awful lot of puns: “Don’t try riding livestock unless you know how to steer,” “Baritones and bassists tend to be low key,” and—my personal favorite—“The importance of Tu Bishvat in Judaism has gradually been reseeding.” Did I mention his blog is called Yutopia?
While Yuter credited Twitter with granting him access to a wider audience, he doesn’t think it’s the right approach for everyone. As a part-time rabbi at a small synagogue, Yuter has spare time to dedicate to his online efforts, including fielding various questions posed to him by random followers. And, of course, if someone discovers him on Twitter and then decides to check out Stanton Street Shul the next weekend, all the better (don’t forget to check in!) Still, he understood that his approach might not be for everyone. “I’m going to reach people that others can’t, and others will reach people that I can’t,” he said. “And I’m okay with that.”
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.