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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Irreverent Twitter Account @RogueShul Tackles the High Holy Days

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Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Contributing Writer at the Jewish Journal. She previously was the Founding Editor at GrokNation.com. She is an experienced freelance writer and consultant specializing in social media, pop culture, grief and Jewish community conversation. She is frequently sought-after as a source on social media engagement and culture, and is known as a Jewish community social influencer.

If you think that Twitter is all about negativity, Russian bots and generally bad behavior, you’ve probably never heard of @RogueShul, aka, “The Shul Where It Happened,” an account that provides laughs and empathy by and for synagogue employees across the denominational spectrum. No one really knows who is behind the anonymous account, although its authors have previously self-identified as having grown up in the Reform movement. But the tweets speak truths that are all too familiar to anyone who’s worked at or with a synagogue or Jewish organization of any denomination. 

Founded in May 2019, @RogueShul has more than 6,200 followers, and posts that regularly garner double and triple digit likes and retweets. Their readership is wide, ranging from Orthodox to Reform “and beyond,” they write, noting that it includes non-Jewish readers, followers from other countries and people of all genders. The audience — and the targets of their tweets — includes rabbis, laypeople and synagogue administration and staff. “We love them all but our heart is with the admins,” they told the Journal in an email interview.

Many Jewish professionals and synagogue staffers are overworked and underappreciated, especially during the High Holy Days season. The stress can make them feel alone and unsupported, which the RogueShul team called “a rarely acknowledged truth. Absorbing the disappointment of others is heavy lifting and solitary. What RogueShul offers is a space for people to just not feel so alone — and then the community fills that space with their own humor, snark, sadness and joy,” they told the Journal. “Being able to laugh at the craziness when you ‘leave the office’ allows us to put the day in perspective and enjoy the work that really makes a difference. Laughter neutralizes the emotional effects of work that can be draining and lonely, and makes that one difficult encounter not matter so much. That’s not what we set out to do, but it sure has helped us.”

The decision to remain anonymous was an early one, as the creators (they say they are run by more than one person but “can’t make a minyan”) wanted to create a space to express daily frustrations and have some fun without having their names attached.  

“Now, our RogueShul community doesn’t want to know who we are because the anonymity protects the fun and because it matters that RogueShul is both no one and everyone,” they said. 

The anonymity has probably protected the authors from serious pushback from synagogues and other communal organizations, however, they do report that some readers “forget that it’s parody. But we don’t let it get to us,” they added. “In this field, we’re all a victim of taking ourselves a little too seriously. We call them Shulsplainers, but often a Shulsplainer is just someone who needs a vacation — and we love them, too!” Still, RogueShul’s Twitter profile warns that “Shulsplainers don’t get oneg cookies.”

The account presents truths that professionals cannot say aloud for fear of losing their jobs, like this one from July 3: “Shabbat Shout Out to the board who voted to decrease our salaries and reminded us that after the long weekend it’s time to ‘get back to work.’ ”

Past tweets have tackled difficult congregants, inconsistent shul policies and the double talk that sometimes inhabits these spaces. But it’s not just workplace kvetching. The RogueShul team also calls out messaging inconsistencies, such as synagogues that place a premium on human value but lack appreciation for its staff — by playing with Jewish concepts, phrases and holidays. For instance, one recent tweet was inspired by a commonly invoked mystical concept, “The world was created just for you // You are but dust and ash,” followed by the RogueShul take, “Your work is holy and meaningful // Please defrost the social hall freezer.” 

Another tweet points out the impact of the pandemic: “5780 Elul Programs: meditation, centering, healing. 5781 Elul Programs: primal screaming and faking Zoom outages.” Yet another pointed to the rabbinic penchant for mishearing or exaggerating metrics: “What we said: ‘There were 75 log-ins to Shabbat services this week.’ What the rabbi heard: ‘2000 people regularly tune in to Shabbat services.’ ”

“Synagogues are filled with incredible staff and laypeople,” the team said. “They are so funny, so creative, so dedicated and so good at what they do. We feel honored to be in conversation with professionals who have unique perspectives and stories to share even if they don’t know who we are.”

Recently, RogueShul has added more appreciative shoutouts to Jewish synagogue professionals and Twitter folk. 

“COVID era workplace trauma is real,” they tweeted. “To those of you who’ve been laid off or furloughed, or seen your colleagues go, or wondered if you’re next … we don’t have anything witty to say, but we’re with you and we see how hard this is.”

“Initially, in our eagerness for a space to share the frustration of the work, our tweets were sharper than they are now,” the team told the Journal. “… While the snark is still there, there’s an element of camaraderie that we didn’t realize was possible and important,” and therefore they now include “supportive messages of understanding and love.”

As High Holy Days have approached, some tweets have reflected that theme. A tweet proclaiming triumph for sending an email on time also admitted a failure to catch the typo “asking everyone to ‘Honor the Mammory of a Loved One’ in the Yizkor book.”

For 5781, the team is urging patience and forgiveness, both for the congregants and the staff members who serve them, as we all accept a new reality and “lean into what is not what was.”

“Everyone’s on the same team. Nobody knows what they’re doing and everybody is making it up. But somehow, you’re doing it! And you’ve been doing it since March! Give everyone a break, including yourself. We’ve survived almost 6,000 years — Zoom Kol Nidre isn’t going to take us down. Wine in the staff fridge. This will all be over October 12.” 

Will the world ever find out who’s behind RogueShul?  

“We’re under no illusions that this is a forever deal,” the team admitted. “We’re happy to have fun for as long as it’s meant to last. We’ll know when the time is right.”

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