Last Passover, Dan Berkal spent the first seder dining with family and friends at the James Hotel in Chicago — chanting the prayers and songs of the Haggadah, sipping the four requisite glasses of wine … and updating his Twitter status.
“Suddenly four children enter the room,” he tweeted at 4:53 p.m. “Nobody seems to like the wise child,” he added a minute later, followed by the 4:55 p.m. announcement: “We tell the wise son, ‘No dessert for you!’”
And at 3:57 p.m. the following seder night, Berkal followed up, “This year we are slaves to Twitter: next year may we be free people.”
Clearly, that wasn’t the case. This year, loyal seder-goers are tweeting back for more.
Berkal, a 31-year-old marketing research consultant, will host his second annual Passover Twitter Seder — dubbed the “Tweder” — next week and hopes to attract many more followers than the approximately 1,500 he says attended last year. In 140 characters or less — the maximum character count on social networking site Twitter — Berkal tweeted each step of the Tweder, targeting an audience of 20- and 30-something diaspora Jews who are unable to attend a seder, regardless of location, age and mobility. During last year’s Tweder, Berkal said he constantly received messages about different elements of the seder, paraphrased them and re-tweeted them to his Twitter followers.
“I was tweeting [during] my seder from a laptop on the table. Everyone at my family was knowledgeable about what was going on,” Berkal told The Jewish Week. “[The Tweder allows us] to add a social element to Judaism to make it more relevant and more positive. It also allows those who can’t go to a seder to have a feeling of being part of a community.”
Berkal’s Tweder is just one of many new innovative approaches to the holiday, where Internet tools aim to connect households around the world through Twitter, video seders and Passover-friendly smartphone applications (see sidebar).
Bradley Dworkin, a 25-year-old film director from Toronto, followed Berkal’s Tweder for the novelty of it. “I chose to follow the Tweder initially out of general curiosity,” said Dworkin, who used to work with Berkal. “I’d seen it appear on some of my friends’ Twitter feeds, and I decided it made sense since I’d be missing my family seder.”
The Tweder fit his lifestyle as well, and provided him with a sense of community. “I was able to participate in a tradition that otherwise I would never have had the chance to,” said Dworkin, who was on a business trip during the seder. “I’m a film and commercial director, and I travel a lot on business. It was nice to not have to miss out entirely.” Dworkin added that as he was following Berkal’s Tweder he was also checking in on his own family’s seder via Skype, the online video chat.
Dworkin’s experience notwithstanding, the very existence of social platforms designed for Passover use is controversial. All Orthodox rabbis and even many Conservative rabbis oppose using electronic tools on yom tov days.
But religious rules aside, while Berkal and many fans of social networking applaud new technologies for their capacity to bring distant communities together, other Web experts argue that Passover is a time to disconnect from these superficial modes of social engagement and spend actual face time with family.
“Twitter, and to some extent Facebook, provide a yearlong ongoing chatter of minor news from friends to vague acquaintances,” argued Andre Oboler, new media scholar and founder of the Zionism On the Web site. “This can be a distraction and become the focus of our communication rather than time face-to-face with those we are closest to.
“Pesach, one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the shalosh regalim, is a time for gathering together,” he continued. “It is, perhaps, a time to disconnect from the world and focus on those closest to us and on a distant past well before the advent of the mobile phone and the computer. This night at least should be different from all other nights.”
But both Berkal and other Twitter seder proponents said they had received few if any objections to their activities last year and will continue as planned.
“Realistically, I’m not expecting the ultra-Orthodox to be jumping up and down for this, but you can’t please everyone,” Berkal said. “I think this serves a direct need for a community that seems marginalized.”
Next week, Berkal hopes that Rabbi Taka Potashnik of Chicago will be able to preside live over the seder, after providing input through e-mails and tweets last year.
“Twitter works well for a seder because it’s temporal — it has a pulse to it,” Berkal said. “It seems like everyone in the world has some BlackBerry or iPhone or a mobile tweeting device, so it’s very easy to get people in.”
In addition to Berkal’s Tweder, a second Twitter seder will take place next week in the Midwest. It will be conducted by Rabbi Laura Baum, a spiritual leader at Beth Adam in Loveland, Ohio, and director of the online “congregation” OurJewishCommunity.org. This will be her second attempt at tweeting a seder; last year she decided on an impulse to tweet a play-by-play of her seders.
“It was sort of a last-minute thing,” Rabbi Baum said. “I think someone said, ‘Can you tweet the seder?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ It became very interactive.”
Her Twitter seder attracted about 500 followers at its peak, she said, noting that people were constantly re-tweeting and responding to her posts. While she too aimed to attract followers who had no other seder to attend, Rabbi Blum found that her attendance was actually quite diverse.
“They may have just been home on their computers, but other people were definitely at their seders sharing the details of their matzah ball soup,” Rabbi Baum said. “I took a survey last year of whether people preferred floaters or sinkers.”
Rabbi Baum will be devoting her first seder night next week to her Twitter seder, while the second night of Passover will feature a full-fledged video seder for participants around the world, who will sign up ahead of time at OurJewishCommunity.org.
“Up to 1,000 people can come watch the seder live,” she said, noting that participants can opt to read sections of the Haggadah aloud by registering in advance.
For Beth Adam and OurJewishCommunity.org, the live streaming and Twitter seders are normal fare — the congregation is known for its free streaming High Holy Day services, as well as podcasts, blog posts and Facebook activity. Rabbi Baum finds that many of her congregants prefer to express concerns and ask questions online rather than in person, and that online events can connect people who otherwise wouldn’t partake in the community.
“Part of our goal with OurJewishCommunity.org is to bring Judaism to where people are,” Rabbi Baum said. “Things like the online seders are a great way to engage Jews, especially knowing that so many are unaffiliated.”
It’s part of what motivated Dan Berkal.
“This isn’t meant to be a way of getting closer to God, per se — it’s a way of being closer to each other,” Berkal from the Tweder said. “It brings the community together in a really novel and interesting way. I would love to have people tweeting in from far-away places this year.”
Bradley Dworkin, for one, is of two minds about the Tweder.
“I don’t think it is ready to take the place of a proper family gathering,” he said, “but it could certainly be a useful tool to get the younger, social-media savvy generation interested and involved.”
As for his seder plans next week, Dworkin said, “I may check out [the Tweder] later in the night, but I’d rather enjoy the company of my family than constantly be checking my smartphone at the table.”
Follow Dan Berkal’s Tweder at twitter.com/tweder, as well as Rabbi Baum’s seder at twitter.com/RabbiBaum.
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