HomeMay 2013Digital synagogue

Digital synagogue

The Internet has become the single most used resource for information and communication – and the Jewish community has made excellent use of it.  Jews frequently turn to the Internet to connect with the global Jewish community.  Whether writing a d’var on a Torah portion, looking for guidance on Jewish ceremonies, studying Hebrew or seeking a community in which they will receive a warm welcome, Jews and those who wish to learn about Judaism turn first to the Internet, where all the world’s resources are available with a few keystrokes.  Others use the web chat rooms to stay in touch with friends and family.  But the Internet can provide an even greater service.

In our world today there are several factors that may keep individuals from attending on-site Shabbat services.  Enter streaming video, which allows Jews to tune into services even when they can’t make it to a synagogue to do so in person.  For members of the military, people with disabilities and Jews in remote areas, streaming services provide instant access to a Jewish community they cannot otherwise reach, and an increasing number of people are taking advantage of it.
This is admittedly a Reform concept, because halacha (Jewish law) forbids an Orthodox Jew from operating a video cam on the Sabbath.  But the opportunity to attend services on Shabbat and High Holy Days as well is a rare opportunity for those who are homebound or far from a synagogue. Some sites also offer the possibility of downloading the service for later viewing.
Two congregations in Orange County have been streaming their services for a few years already.  Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton has been broadcasting its services live over the Internet since January 2009.  As the brainchild of Rabbi Kenneth Milhander, the synagogue was the first in OC to do so.  “I felt it was a way to reach out to our homebound Temple members.”  But Rabbi Milhander added, “It has blossomed into much more.”
Services are streamed every Friday night and also whenever there is a special Saturday morning service such as Bar/Bat Mitzvah, class service or Confirmation.
Anyone can log onto the website and click on Live Streaming Services and watch the services live or watch an archived service.  “On a technical level,” said Rabbi Milhander, “we have two cameras, which make watching the service more interesting as we can zoom in and out and pan back and forth and show whatever is happening on the bima.  It’s much like watching a television program.”
The response has been really amazing.  People have logged in from all over the country and the world.  For relatives on the East Coast and in Israel who cannot be here to see the children up on the bima, this is the next best thing.  “People watching really feel as though they are part of the congregation,” added Rabbi Milhander.  “Most of our Bar/Bat Mitzvah families let their relatives know.  We have also broadcast funerals, adult education classes, meetings and other events as well.”
The rabbi welcomes anyone who does not belong to a congregation to log on and experience the Shabbat Service.  “We welcome everyone to worship with us, even if it is virtually,” added Rabbi Milhander. He would like to see the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism) create a link on its website so anyone searching for a Shabbat service could log in.  “Perhaps Jewish Federation & Family Services would do the same,” he added.
“We had been talking about streaming for some time,” said Rabbi Heidi Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom, “but it really started because of family members of a Bat Mitzvah.  They were in London during the time of a volcanic eruption that prevented them (and thousands) from traveling to be here for the service.  The grandfather was going to miss his granddaughter reading from Torah for the first time, and this was not acceptable for me.  I brought my laptop to temple that morning and set it on a side table on the bima and using Skype, we called him and he was able to watch the entire service from a very front row seat.  We were able to interact with him, and he was so proud to be a part of this moment with his granddaughter that he almost missed.”  That was the beginning.
Later that year, TBS used Skype to share its Chanukah service with a Jewish serviceman serving in Iraq.  “During the service he interacted with the congregation,” said Rabbi Cohen, “and I knew we needed to do something more permanent.”
A recent widow had watched the Chanukah service and was very moved; she made a generous donation to help get the synagogue’s streaming service project off the ground.  Now, live services are streamed for every Shabbat and holiday service held in the sanctuary.  Services are then archived for a short period of time, so family and friends can go back and see them if they missed a family celebration.
“Two years ago I was honored to officiate at the funeral of Debbie Friedman, z’l,” said Rabbi Cohen.  “With our live streaming we were able to not only share the service with the 1,000+ who were in attendance, but also with over 7,000 others from around the world!”  In reality, there were many more who were able to witness the service since a number of congregations joined together to watch the service live in their buildings.  This service is archived online as well.
“The impact of our streaming services has been very beneficial in that we are able to reach those who are homebound, in rural areas and those who just want to reconnect with their TBS family,” commented Rabbi Cohen.  “I love hearing from college students who stream in for services just so they can be with their home congregation.  I hear from parents who see their adult children in the congregation at High Holy Days and feel like they are praying with their child again.”
Last November 16, 2012, live Kabbalat Shabbat services were streamed over the Internet to Israel’s southern communities who could not gather themselves due to the emergency situation.  The prayers were broadcast from the Tzur Hadassah Congregation near Jerusalem and led by Rabbi Myra Hovav, who presides over the IMPJ congregation Yuval in the city of Gedera.  Online participants attended from across Israel as well as from Budapest, London, Toronto, New York, Oklahoma, Brazil and more.
While the practice is popular within the Reform community, one conservative congregation in Northern California has had a camera broadcasting continuously from its main sanctuary since 2003.  One of its members came up with the idea in order to make services more accessible.
After studying Conservative “teshuvas” (rabbinic halachic opinions), the member said he believed using technology on Shabbat and holidays in order to virtually attend services was akin to the Conservative opinion that driving a car is permissible in order to physically travel to and from synagogue.  The services are not recorded, he said, which would be prohibited under Conservative law, and the congregants’ faces are not shown on camera while they are in the act of prayer.
Tamar Frankiel, president of the Academy for Jewish Religion, Los Angeles California, commented on that practice. “While the Conservative opinion that driving a car on Shabbat was originally allowed to enable driving to and from services, we know how that has evolved into driving to and from other activities the individual deems important.” If one is seriously concerned about Hilchot Shabbat (the laws of Shabbat),” she continued, “one recognizes that streaming services can become the same slippery slope as driving.”  As president of a trans-denominational school, Frankiel fields many of these questions, although, as she is not a rabbi, she declines to rule on halachic matters.  “Of course, “she added,” the desire to provide services to those homebound or in remote areas is commendable.  On the other hand, the Shabbat restrictions help us create a unique personal and communal experience once a week.  So I hope that each congregation considering live streaming would think it through beforehand.”
A number of people point out that beyond the limitations and circumstances that prevent some Jews from attending traditional institutions and services, the definition of community has evolved as well.  A community is no longer limited to the physical sense because connections are increasingly made online.  The Internet provides tremendous potential for reaching the many who do not have a local connection to their Jewish community for whatever reason.
But while technology may stimulate better observance of the commandments, influence Jewish thinking and lead to new ways of presenting ancient concepts — from a philosophical viewpoint, Judaism proposes a way of life that is not subordinated to technology, unlike life in general society.  So the hope remains that those connections made via the Internet can move beyond the virtual.
“Through streaming our services,” said Rabbi Cohen, “we are eliminating the walls of the sanctuary so that they are more inclusive for all to participate in Jewish life.”  While there are many ways for us to connect to one another, taking advantage of technology offers us another path to reach out to all Jews from all over.  “The goal,” added Rabbi Cohen, “is so that we can all be in the same tent once again.”

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