Every individual has the right to access and express his or her Judaism in a personal and meaningful way. This is an expansive and inclusive vision, but mere platitude unless we move to make it reality.
Recently, Bay Ridge Jewish Center (BRJC) took a step forward not only for our synagogue, but for congregations everywhere that want to live the value of inclusivity, community growth and engagement.
Golda Seifer, a 101-year-old member of our synagogue, has been unable to attend services for many years. She is a sharp woman who is still fairly independent but is no longer able to leave her home.
Three members of our Chesed committee joined her on a recent Friday evening, armed with challah, grape juice, candles and an iPad, and through the use of Skype, Golda became an active participant in our synagogue Shabbat service.
Each month, as part of our Shul Skype initiative, some members of our community are joining a homebound individual and bringing Shabbat to him or her through an easy use of technology. An iPad or other tablet device and a Skype connection gives us all the ability to celebrate Shabbat, chagim and community events together, with no one isolated.
All members attending services at BRJC that evening, including the B’nei Mitzvah, were able to introduce themselves over Skype and greet Golda. She sang along to the prayers, led a reading, and even lit Shabbat candles with us. As Golda, said, “I feel like a queen; I didn’t know that anyone would ever do something like this for me.”
The joy present in our Shul Skype service was palpable. Due to the application of modern technology to our Shabbat service, Golda now truly feels in her kishkas that she is remembered and that her wisdom will continue to be accessed by everyone in the BRJC community.
Our congregation engages in a collective, introspective and continuing study to determine how to adapt Jewish law with the modern world. We have invited women to join the rabbinate as a reflection of the equal role women have in society. We have allowed congregants to drive to and from Shabbat services because the value of praying and being with community outweighs the advantages of following the law to not spark a fire or start an engine.
We find ways to be more inclusive and make the synagogue a place of acceptance and encourage others to come as they are. We have made great strides identifying those who can be a part of the Jewish community.
Still, reaching an entire population has been elusive, especially because with an aging population, many of our members are elderly, disabled, homebound, and/or ill. These individuals are unable to come to the synagogue and feel a sense of disconnection from our community.
Visits from myself and from others are appreciated, as seniors reminisce about the good old days when they came to shul every Shabbat and celebrated with the community. They often show me the candles they still light every Shabbat and yet I could see in their eyes that there was a part of their Jewish identity they were not able to access in isolation.
What could we possibly do to help these elderly members feel connected and help them recognize that they have not been forgotten? How could we help them and others see that Judaism continues to adapt as the world has changed?
Technology is often the answer, and it doesn’t need to be a complicated or expensive undertaking. As our new Shul Skype program shows, technology gives synagogues the ability to stay relevant by accentuating their role as community convener not just for those who can attend services or programs, but also for those who cannot.
It is time to enter into trans-denominational conversation about how to use modern tools to engage others, connect with those who are homebound, and continue to create an inclusive environment.
Judaism values the role of communal worship. We must take advantage of the most obvious and accessible technology to embrace disparate segments of our community and shatter the isolation.
Rabbi Dina Rosenberg is the spiritual leader of the Bay Ridge Jewish Center.