Lex Rofeberg estimates that he’s probably been to about 10 Jewish events at his JCC in the past few days. He’s not flouting social distancing rules — each of these events has been conducted online. And the JCC? It’s completely digital.
As the world settles into its new socially distanced reality, Rofeberg is part of a small group called jewishLIVE that has quickly built up a digital hub for Jewish life; Rofeberg compares it to a “digital JCC.” The project, which started as a Facebook group and launched as a website on Friday, hosts a continuous stream of digital Jewish programming as well as roundups of digital Jewish events from around the world.
“I think there’s a recognition that this moment is urgent and we need to be creating this digital infrastructure quickly,” said Rofeberg.
And Rofeberg isn’t alone in this effort. Working alongside him, thousands of miles away from Rofeberg’s home in Providence, R.I., are Dan Libenson, who hosts Judaism Unbound, a podcast about the future of Judaism, with Rofeberg, and Apryl Stern, a lay leader from Los Altos, Calif.
Launched last week, the project is the brainchild of Libenson, who lives in Chicago, and Stern. With synagogues and other institutions shuttered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, “All the Jewish events have been canceled, so there’s going to be no live Jewish events for months,” said Libenson. But he also sees this as an opportunity for people to engage in Jewish events and opportunities that they otherwise would not have access to.
The jewishLIVE Facebook group quickly grew to nearly 5,000 people. Within a few days of launching, jewishLIVE received a grant of $5,000 from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation For Living Torah. On Friday, it launched a website that hosts a live video stream.
On Monday, March 22, the group kicked off an “online Jewish culture festival” with a range of partner organizations, including the Jewish Emergent Network, Hadar, the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. The festival is set to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week with content from all over the world. The organizers are even discussing adding a “music stage” for Jewish musicians to perform or a “spirituality stage” for meditation and prayer.
“The other problem that we’re trying to solve is the Jewish isolation,” said Libenson. “Now, because of the internet, we might be afraid but we’re not alone.”
For Libenson and Stern, the project is the realization of something they’ve wanted to bring to the Jewish world for a long time: a spirit of experimentation and a comfort with digital expressions of Jewish life, regardless of geography.
“A lot of people are finding meaning at their local synagogues and also looking for something else and I think a lot of people are moving away from their local synagogues,” said Stern. “There’s no reason why, if people are connecting online around other things, why they can’t connect around finding meaningful, interesting Jewish” expressions.
Stern was clear that the goal was not to replace in-person engagement. “We should be so lucky that we get to congregate again!” said Stern. “There are different ways to congregate today and we should be so lucky to take full advantage of all of those ways.”
The organizers see this as an opportunity to erase the geographic barriers to entry in local Jewish organizations or communities. “When everything is digital, there’s not such a difference between going to an event that’s housed in San Francisco and going to an event that’s housed in New York City,” said Rofeberg.
Rofeberg and Libenson record their podcast, Judaism Unbound, from their homes and have listeners from around the world. “We realized very quickly with our podcast that when you are digital, you are global,” said Rofeberg.
Digital activities are also a boon for people with disabilities, the homebound and the elderly. “In migrating to the internet,” said Rofeberg, some communities “may have actually become more accessible to their own constituencies.”
Recent events have included a Shmueskrayz, or Yiddish speaking circle, organized by the historian and Yiddishist Sandra Fox; a virtual challah baking with filmmaker Tiffany Shlain; a Mishnah study with the queer yeshiva Svara; and a walking tour of Berlin’s historic sites. More than 400 people zoomed into a book club discussion on Thursday night with Rachel Kadish, Tova Mirvis, Rachel Barenbaum and Esther Safran Foer organized in partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive.
While the format might take some getting used to, the jewishLIVE team sees it as very Jewish.
“In the Talmud, you have, on one page, a rabbi from Jerusalem and a rabbi from Babylon, and not only are they from different places but they’re from different eras,” said Rofeberg. “It’s a very Jewish thing to have people from different eras on one page.”