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In the Spotlight

Small-shul professional steps onto bigger stage

Inbar Robbins is still a bit shell shocked. She was in her office at the Perrineville Jewish Center (PJC) in Millstone, New Jersey, when she got a call asking if she would lead one of the panels for this year’s High Holiday Bootcamp organized by 70 Faces Media.
    The married mother of three who held two positions at PJC–education director and executive director–had never heard of the High Holiday Bootcamp. Neither did she know about 70 Faces Media. She did know about Hey, Alma and Kveller, two very popular online magazines. And she knew about JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which has been covering world news since 1917. All are part of 70 Faces Media, a nonprofit billing itself as “the largest and most diverse Jewish media organization in North America.”
    “PJC is a very small shul with only about 140 members that’s been in Perrineville since 1910, Robbins explained. “We don’t really have any staff. When the phone rings, the person who is closest answers. That person was me the day Jennifer Rubin called. She explained that she’s the sSenior producer for digital events for 70 Faces Media. Then she asked if I would like to one of the experts on a panel at their High Holiday Bootcamp.”
    The Bootcamp, a half-day Zoom conference on July 20, was designed to help synagogues across the country navigate the challenges and opportunities offered by technology for the dual purposes of helping them reach new audiences while recognizing that many have become accustomed to exercising options for how and even where they attend services.

Inbar Robbins

  The title of Robbins’ panel was “Produce Engaging Hybrid Services Online and In Person.”
    Predictably, Jennifer Rubin found Inbar through technology.
    “During the first few months of the pandemic, anyone involved in a synagogue, or any Jewish organization, was really scrambling, trying to figure out how to serve their congregations and meet people’s needs when we could not gather together or even see one another in person,” Robbins said.
    “I came across a Facebook group for people involved in different areas of Jewish life. It became a hub for people who were spit-balling ideas. And I joined in. Unbeknown to me, my comments and suggestions brought me to Jennifer’s attention.”
    Reached via email, Rubin said that Robbins “provided a number of realistic and informative tips about producing online and hybrid services.”
    “The two other panelists participating in the discussion were both members of the clergy, which made Inbar’s contributions even more relevant to the many communications professionals and administrators who were part of the audience for the High Holiday Bootcamp,” she added.
    “As I was also a synagogue professional in a similar role to Inbar’s before joining 70 Faces Media, I knew that so much of the work that goes into executing successful hybrid services really falls to the non-clergy staff at synagogues. Inbar provided great insight to our participants about the hands-on work that is involved in an undertaking that was really brand new to so many synagogues in the past few years.”
    Robbins’ suggestions were based on experience gained before the pandemic. Just before its onset, she had propitiously prepared PJC with the basic technology needed to enable it to offer remote services, which it did, quickly, although the initial experiences were not smooth.
    “In the beginning, everyone was home, looking for a way to connect,” she said. “But the Zoom learning curve offered a bit of a challenge. That first Friday night service, 100 people logged on and no one knew how to use the mute option. It was chaos. Week Two was better, and then we got into a flow.”
    As time went on, she and the rabbi decided to encourage congregants to take a more active role in the service, including leading individual prayers. Rabbi Sheldon Schevelowitz, while not technically savvy himself, encouraged every one of her ideas.
    “Inbar complements me in ways I can’t even describe,” said the rabbi, PJC’s spiritual leader for 34 years. “She sees things the way I do, and then makes them happen in ways I don’t even try to understand.
    “The best part for me is that, because of what she does, PJC is able to function as a modern synagogue should and I can focus on being a rabbi who loves to teach.”
    Neither he nor Robbins were quite prepared for what happened once the pandemic waned: Many congregants wanted to continue to participate in services from the comfort of their own homes. The challenge then was to figure out how to operate in a hybrid mode.
     Robbins’ solutions included investing in better technology, with some guidance from a local professional. For example, the synagogue now has a camera trained on the bima, so people at home can see what is going on without necessitating a laptop on the rabbi’s lectern.
    There have been unexpected benefits. For example, opening participation encouraged some Hebrew school students to learn prayers so they could lead them during services. Now, says Robbins, “All our students are totally comfortable on the bima. It’s something we all are proud of.”
    By last year’s High Holidays, the leadership made sure that every member had the same prayer book, erasing complications caused when some used a different book at home. Also, the services were completely scripted, with individual parts distributed throughout the congregation, another of Inbar’s ideas that Rabbi Schevelowitz completely endorsed.
    “I’m a teacher at heart,” he said. “So I love that congregants have improved their skills and learned the prayers well enough to lead them.”
     Meanwhile, Robbins is still a bit stunned.
     “I sort of feel like I’ve been plucked out of obscurity,” she said. “But I am really excited about participating in the bootcamp because it is proof that small synagogues all over the country are doing great things.”
     For more information on other offerings produced by 70 Faces Media for Jewish professionals and lay leaders, please visit www.jewishdigitalsummit.org.

JOANN ABRAHAM began chronicling Jewish life as editor of Monmouth County’s Jewish newspaper, now defunct, and has written for national and international publications. She is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.


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