Houston — Just released from the hospital and too weak to attend High Holy Days services at her synagogue four years ago, Pearl Altman listened on the telephone. The congregation of Mrs. Altman, a retired teacher and investment banker, had made that arrangement for homebound members like her.
But the audio-only broadcast could not duplicate the in-shul experience, she says. Too much dead time, extended minutes of silence or of prayerbook pages rustling.
There must be a better way, said Mrs. Altman and her husband Sig.
This year they are providing the way.
The Altmans are the founders of the Chai Broadcast System (www.cantorial.org), a closed-circuit television broadcasting system, which this year will offer broadcasts of pre-taped High Holy Days services of one area congregation for hospital patients and nursing home residents in the Houston area, and live Web broadcasts over the Internet of another congregation’s services.
The Chai Broadcast System, which calls itself the only such Jewish closed-circuit venture in the country that carries a wide variety of religious and cultural programming, joins a small but growing number of cable television and online initiatives that offer High Holy Days services to those who can’t or don’t go to a synagogue.
The broadcasts and Web casts are not an option for observant Jews who do not turn on electrical devices over Shabbat or yom tov, but for the 80 percent of American Jews who do not abide by these halachic restrictions, an expanded Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur at home is a new possibility.
The electronic services fill a need for people who “are vulnerable, sick,” says Linda Burger, executive director of Jewish Family Services in Houston, which has helped the Altmans place their closed circuit broadcasts in local institutions. Homebound or hospital-bound people “need a spiritual connection.”
“This is excellent for the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “It indicates that Jewish life is moving into the technological age. It is always good when there are more Jewish resources available that are accessible and usable.
“The goal is not to bring people in” to the organized Jewish community, Rabbi Kula says. “The goal is to provide human beings who are seeking meaning and purpose resources to help them in their lives.”
Other tech-age High Holy Days worship services available this year include The Jewish Television Network’s (www.jewishtvnetwork.com) Web cast of Kol Nidrei services from Nashuva, a “soulful Jewish community” led by Rabbi Naomi Levy in Los Angeles; and the Web casts of Kol Nidrei services from the Temple of the Arts’ Temple of the Air (www.templeofthearts.com) in Los Angeles. In addition, there are such options as Temple Emanu-el of Manhattan’s annual broadcasts of its High Holy Days services over WQXR radio and wqxr.com and on the congregation’s Web site (www.emanuelnyc.org), seasonal music broadcasts on Sept. 29 and Oct. 9 over WNYC radio and wnyc.org, and Kol Nidrei DVDs offered by the Creative Arts Temple of Beverly Hills (email@example.com).
“We were the pioneers,” says Rabbi David Baron, spiritual leader of the Temple of the Arts. For seven years, his congregation has produced pre-taped “highlights” of the Yom Kippur evening service, which in the past has been carried by the Hallmark cable channel, for seven years. “This was initially for the homebound … as a goodwill gesture to the community,” Rabbi Baron says. “We found that we had a large secondary audience of the unaffiliated,” members of the Jewish community “who can’t or won’t go” to shul on the High Holy Days, “who balk at organized religion or at the price [of yom tov tickets].”
The away-from-synagogue services “are creating a connection” with the Jewish community, the rabbi says. “We’re trying to open a doorway.”
Is it likely that people watching services at home, without paying for tickets or a synagogue membership, will not feel the need to affiliate?
No, Rabbi Baron says. “Anyone who wants to go to shul is not going to substitute with a 30-minute television production” every year.
“What we’re doing is bringing more people to the synagogue,” says Jay Sanderson, chief executive officer of the Jewish Television Network. “We’re able to democratize spirituality – there are tremendous numbers of Jews who don’t have access to [in-person] services.” Last year JTN carried services from the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. “It’s a great outreach vehicle. You can watch these services anywhere in the world.”
The leaders of the worship services do not change the format in any way to accommodate the needs of broadcasters, Sanderson says. “We adapt to them.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenbaum, associate director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, has reservations about projects that make it possible for people to take part in High Holy Days services in solitude.
“It’s not being in shul. I’m in favor of people going someplace” to pray, Rabbi Rosenbaum says. “We should be shooting for making connections. Talking face-to-face is always better.”
Religious services on TV or on a computer monitor are “distant,” the rabbi says. “Because it’s just a screen.” And the voices are not the rabbi’s or cantor’s real voices. “Halachically, it doesn’t meet the standards.”
Such broadcasts or Web casts are advisable as “a one-time experience,” Rabbi Rosenbaum says. If they inspire people to go to a synagogue, he says, “the end result would be positive.”
In Houston, Pearl and Sig Altman have spent the months before the High Holy Days recruiting hospitals and nursing homes to install satellite dishes that can receive the signals that carry their network’s worship services.
The technological and bureaucratic logistics of setting up a closed-circuit system took four years, says Mr. Altman, a retired investment banker with no formal training in the broadcast industry. Hadassah’s Houston chapters have assisted, says Mrs. Altman, an active Hadassah member.
The couple has spent “quite a bit of money” on the network, they say, offering no specific figures. They say that they have called more than 300 hospitals across the country, offering their closed-circuit capabilities.
Many hospitals carry religious programming on their closed circuit channels, but little Jewish programming is available, Mr. Altman says. “We’re about 40 years behind all the other religions.”
This year, Mrs. Altman says, she is healthy and will attend High Holy Days services at her synagogue. But, she says, her heart will be with people in a hospital, or at home, who can’t go to services and can listen only over the radio, as happened to her four years ago. “I don’t want other people to have that experience.”