Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Rabbis friending children on Facebook?

The titular question arises now because of a CNN video clip in which an interviewer asks whether teachers should Friend students on Facebook.

The teacher interviewed gives a definite No – teachers should not be friends with their students, not off-line and not on-line. From the sound of her words, friending a student would be the equivalent of inviting him/her over for pizza, a decided no-no in today’s age of impropriety and abuse.

So what about a shul rabbi? Facebook frequently suggests teens and pre-teens from my former communities as potential Facebook Friends. Do I offer to friend them? Is it, perhaps, less appropriate now that I no longer live there?

I see arguments on both sides:

• It’s the digital equivalent of going over to say Hello at kiddush – nothing intrusive or over the line, just a way to be friendly. Communities gain when kids feel like they have an open line of communication with the rabbi. Like it or not, the rabbi represents Judaism, and even Gd, for many children, and his availability and willingness to answer questions can have a tremendous positive effect.

• Even if kids will never use this avenue to connect with the rabbi, Facebook use – or use of its eventual successors – demonstrates that the rabbi isn’t some stodgy, regressive, cave-dweller.

• It’s creepy to be friended by your rabbi, particularly for kids who use Facebook as a real form of friendship, a club for socializing, and not just a utility for hunting up email addresses, as I usually do. (My other main use is ignoring suggestions I “like” or “fan” various causes. Sorry.)

• Being friended by your rabbi may be even worse than being friended by your grandmother – truly a sign that Facebook is about to become the next Friendster. It doesn’t mean your rabbi is hip; it just means that Facebook is yesterday’s news.

• What if it just seems like a pathetic attempt to be 'hip'? It could come off as patronizing rather than friendly.

So what do you think? Should the Rabbi be friending the children in his congregation? Or better to find other ways to connect?


  1. There were a few glaring headlines in our area yesterday about three teachers in trouble because of using Facebook, including an arrest for a relationship that went way over the line, and comments of a sexual nature. Despite its very public nature, it is all to easy to forget that Facebook isn't really private and what is said is open to interpretation or misinterpretation by hundreds or thousands of people you just might not want to be part of the conversation.

    My opinion re a rabbi using Facebook? Keep the interactions with younger members of a shul face-to-face rather than Facebook to Facebook. Might be a unique experience for some of our younger people, whose experience of conversation has become mostly digital rather than actual.

  2. 2 points:
    1) For an adult to "friend" a teen crosses lines, I believe. If the teen initiates the friendship, it's very different.
    2) My wife's rule is that she doesn't become friends with her seminary students until she's no longer their teacher.

  3. I've seen rabbis on FB doing things that are very unFB-like, presumably in order to straddle this line.
    They'll have posed pictures in a suit and tie, and sometimes even the First Name Rabbi (it's funny then when FB gets confused and tells you all about what your friend "Rabbi" did.

  4. I have to say "no" to the Facebook friending. The rabbi from my previous shul did this and it really made people uncomfortable. They felt they HAD to say yes to the friendship request or the rabbi would be insulted. What was worse is when the rabbi would then come up to you after shul and say something like "I hope you found that missing sock" or some other inanity which he could only have known about if he was reading your wall posts. He wasn't trying to be weird or anything, but it just came across as really strange. No one wants to worry that something silly they post to their friends is being read by their rabbi.

    In the same vein, if someone tries to facebook friend you, I'd deny the request and talk to the person face to face and explain you have a policy of not friending congregants since it may have bad implications but that other lines of communication are always open (you can give an email address and/or phone number).

    I've seen this approach from teachers and professors as well.

    I think it's professional, avoids awkward situations, and avoids creating an "in crowd" of people that are closer to the rabbi.

  5. I don't do facebOok and I'm not quite sure how friending works
    But a rabbi on facebook with congregants (of any age) has to prepared that he will be presented with info about his congregants that he would rather not know
    It's one to thing to know about congregant's unjewish behavior second behavior, in which vase the rabbi uses his discretion whether or not to confront the offender. But when his facebook friend "tells" him "directly" he might have more of an obligation to respond

    Or in a somewhat different way, sometimes ignorance is bliss

  6. "unjewish behavior second behavior" = unjewish behavior second hand

  7. I think that initiating the contact is wrong, you are in a position of authority over someone, and therefore asking to peer into their online life is intrusive. If the congregant initiates the friend request with you, it's different.

    A friend was a former youth director. One Shabbos he made a joke about being a Facebook friend, I commented that I was proud to be one of his only "friends" over 21. He agreed that it was "creepy," but that he only accepted the requests, he never initiated.

    Presumably, the teenagers know how to do restricted profiles. I have a restricted group that people can have that it would be awkward to say no to, but I don't want peering into my life. Presumably, teenagers that use Facebook more intensely can restrict things appropriately.

  8. ProfK-
    I definitely agree re: the value of face-to-face. And thanks for linking!

    Is #2 because of impropriety or because of her position as an authority figure in a classroom setting?

    Funny; a couple of years back, Facebook removed all profiles with the first name of Rabbi. There was quite an uproar.

    I definitely hear, and the advice on dealing with Friend requests makes sense. Consistency matters.

    Abba's Rantings-
    If only staying off Facebook saved me from seeing people's improprieties...

    Miami Al-
    I'm not sure; I think the JS approach above might be advisable, for the consistency it provides.

  9. I always make it perfectly clear with my kids that I am not their parent, however, if I see something in a photo that I would not want my own kids doing, they should expect a phone call to their parents. This way I state clearly that this is not different than religious school or shul and it is their decision whether they want to FB me or not.

  10. I am friends with more rabbis on FB than you can shake a stick at. But I have noticed that there posts are quite "vanilla" and that is ok.

    You need to be careful with what is put out there. But I can see both sides here, why it would be creepy and why it would be beneficial.

  11. R' Egolf-
    What steps do you take to make that clear? Do you do it at some initial time, or when you actually see something, or think you might see something?

    Please don't shake sticks at rabbis. It's not polite, and you won't like the response. Even on Facebook.

  12. Would you differentiate between what type of Rabbi jobs you have? Would you tell NCSY advisors not to friend their the NCSY'ers? What about a rabbi at a college Hillel? or a Rabbi who runs a birthright trip/followup, or for that matter any Rabbi working in outreach? Could the rabbinate really be more specialized than the way we conglomeritize it?(i just made up that word:)

  13. I think it's fine to accept friend requests with teens, but awkward to initiate them. If a facebook friend starts posting inappropriate material, I recommend liberal use of the "hide" button.

    Anyone (and kal v'chomer a rabbi) should expect that anything posted on facebook, or anywhere else in writing, no matter how private the settings, will eventually be seen by the most critical of community members.

    A rabbi should assume facebook is just as public as the rest of the fishbowl in which he (and his family) live.

  14. AnonyBrad-
    Definitely see a need to differentiate in terms of the utility of Friending, and also in terms of the negative concerns.

    Great to hear from you! And re: Fishbowl - you bet. I just had a great introduction for my next post nixed by my Rebbetzin for that reason...

  15. I will accept friend requests from teens/students in the congregation but I don't "friend" them myself.

    I start each year of my 8th grade class with (something like) "feel free to friend me, but know that it's just like if you're on the street in town - if I see you doing something inappropriate there, I will say something to you and/or your parents. Facebook is like walking on the street in Internet-land - you're out there and you don't realize who is watching." I use it as a way to talk about appropriate behavior online as well as off.

    The kids often put me on "limited profile" and it doesn't matter to me - I certainly don't go seeking their friendship and I don't usually comment on their stuff. It does help to know what's going on in their lives, though - especially if a kid or a family is going through a hard time.

    In terms of other congregants - I also don't tend to "friend" them unless they initiate. It just feels like I'm begging for people to be my friend, just because I'm their rabbi.

  16. ImaBima-
    Definitely with you on that comment regarding adult congregants!

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