Lisa Gilbert, a native of Cincinnati who now lives in Manhattan, listened to the rabbi’s sermon and the choir’s singing at her family’s Cincinnati congregation on the High Holy Days last year. From her New York apartment. Online.
Gilbert, a 30-year-old research analyst, watched the live streaming Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services of Congregation Beth Adam, on the humanistic synagogue’s Web site, because she had attended several congregations after moving here and did not feel welcome or comfortable at any one of them.
“I felt very disconnected,” says Gilbert, who considers herself “humanistic or Reform” and felt a connection watching on the Internet. “My family was physically there. The [Beth Adam] services are more relatable to me. I felt I was getting the experience of the holiday.”
This year, she’ll attend Beth Adam again, virtually.
Lisa Sharp, with no roots in Cincinnati, will also watch the Beth Adam services over the next Ten Days of Repentance.
A 44-year-old digital marketing specialist from Rockland County, she discovered the synagogue’s Web site (ourjewishcommunity.org) via Twitter this summer, started logging on regularly to Shabbat services, and considers Beth Adam her congregation.
“I was never a shul-goer,” even on the High Holy Days, she says. “I’ve never felt a part of a congregation.” But this week she will sit down in front of her laptop with her twin 8-year-old daughters. “It makes me feel more connected to Judaism than I otherwise might feel. For those people who wouldn’t feel comfortable in a synagogue, it’s a way to make Judaism relevant.”
In the last few years, only a few congregations carried their worship services online. An estimated several hundred individuals — Jews and interested non-Jews — were able to experience the High Holy Days at their computers, weekly or on holidays, live or delayed, freely available to anyone with passwords or synagogue memberships. But a virtual Jewish community of far-flung Jews united in cyberspace was still a dream.
This Rosh HaShanah, Internet experts say, the dream is becoming a reality. “Today, the technology is there,” says Rabbi Judith Schindler of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, a “shulcasting” pioneer. Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Ala., recently upgraded its Webcasting capabilities. “Now we broadcast everything,” says Rabbi Jonathan Miller.
The number of congregations live-streaming their High Holy Days services has risen significantly from 2008 to 2009. While no one keeps official figures of how many congregations — including Los ANgeles’ Nashuva on JewishTVNetwork.com — are Webcasting or how many people are watching, interviews with experts and online research indicates that at least a few dozen synagogues in the U.S. are part of this year’s emerging trend. And tech-savvy organizations like OurJewishCommunity.org and CyberJudaism.org are launching new outreach efforts centered on the holiday season.
Worship services on the Internet, while having a natural appeal for the infirm, the homebound and the isolated, as well as college students away at school, may find a natural constituency among young, computer-adept Jews who are not affiliated with the Jewish community or who, like Gilbert, are away from home and have not found a new congregation. Shifting demographics are likely to help fuel the trend, as more and more young people seek jobs far from where they grew up.
“This year is a tipping point,” says Lisa Colton, president of Darim OnLine (darimonline.org), a “social media boot camp” based in Charlottesville, Va., that offers training and consultation for the Jewish community. (This fall Darim OnLine will sponsor, with the funding of UJA-Federation, two boot camps, one on Long Island and one in northern New Jersey.)
Next year, says Rabbi Yitzi Miller, founder and executive director of cyberjudaism.org, the number of Jews choosing Webcast High Holy Days services over in-person services “will be tens of thousands.” Cyberjudaism.org serves as a resource center that offers worship services and classes, serves as an online Judaica store, and coordinates meetings and other events in the Jewish community.
The growth of Webcast worship services is a portal to a cyber Jewish community, one likely to challenge the practices of extant Jewish institutions, especially brick-and-mortar synagogues, forcing congregations to reexamine how they do business. Within a decade, experts say, a non-Orthodox synagogue that doesn’t stream its services will be as rare as one now without a Web site, and “production values” will be a part of the lexicon of the people coordinating worship services.
Services “will have to be choreographed differently,” says Rabbi Hayim Herring, executive director of STAR-Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, a leadership development organization. “You have to think differently because you have an audience.”
This, of course, is not a concern for most Orthodox or observant Conservative Jews, who would not use electricity on Shabbat or holy days. Some would find halachic objections to making a minyan or answering “amen” to prayers conveyed electronically, or would consider the sound of a shofar via the Internet insubstantial.
But the majority of American Jewry — most of the congregations offering worship services online are Reform — is catching a glimpse of its 21st-century community.
“The synagogue of the future is a synagogue without walls,” says Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and author of “thelordismyshepherd.com: Seeking God in Cyberspace” (Simcha Press, 2000).
Virtual worship services won’t necessarily attract every member of the Jewish community, Rabbi Hammerman says. “There are High Holy Days Jews online too.”
He calls virtual Judaism an inevitability — an inevitability to which the Jewish community can adapt. “If you stream it, they will come.”
In Cincinnati, OurJewishCommunity.org, which bills itself as “the world’s first progressive online synagogue,” is the new face of the virtual Jewish community. An offshoot of Congregation Beth Adam, it was founded last year by Rabbi Laura Baum, a Hebrew Union College ordainee, to create a Web-only community. Unlike the shulcasts offered by other congregations, those of humanist-oriented Beth Adam are not aimed primarily at its own membership. “We’re casting our web much more widely,” Rabbi Baum says.
This year Rabbi Baum’s Web site will offer live streaming of the temple’s “nontheistic” services, and a recorded Memorial Service that features photographs of deceased family members.
The growing presence of online worship services “has the potential to enhance personal spirituality — you sit in front of a large screen and think you’ve been at a service — and the risk of attenuating community, as we have defined it,” Rabbi Herring says. In other words, people finding their theological needs met on the Internet may not feel the need to attend, or join, a synagogue.
Is the trend good or bad for the Jews?
Bad, says Rabbi Jeremy Rosen, who is Orthodox and has blogged for 10 years. “One of the weaknesses of the Internet is that it tends to weaken your interaction with the community.” Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary agrees. “There are so many potential pitfalls” of a letter-of-the-law and spirit-of-the-law nature.
Good, says Colton. “This is a net gain.” Instead of making it easier for affiliated Jews to drop out of synagogue life, virtual Jewish communities will attract the unaffiliated, allowing them to get a taste of a congregation before showing up in person. “It’s a way of expanding the community,” says Rabbi Michael Friedman of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue.
Good, says Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. “The more opportunities there are for people to connect, the better it always is.”
Sitting in a physical synagogue next to flesh-and-blood people is the best way to enhance one’s spiritual experience and foster a Jewish community, all the experts agree, even the high-tech mavens. But it’s not an option for some people.
“Sinai is not something that happened by computer,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
“The online activities are by their nature a shadow of the real community,” says Andre Oboler, social media expert and CEO of Zionism On The Web. “For those cut off from the community, it is perhaps the start of a connection, but only the start.”
In Glasgow, Scotland, Anna Wood, a research scientist diagnosed last year with a recurrence of chronic fatigue syndrome, will watch the Web casts this year from Central Synagogue, wearing a silk tallit and white crocheted kipa, a machzor in her hands. In Thornhill, Ontario, Rhonda Greenberg, a retiree who does not belong to a synagogue because tickets have become too expensive will log on to the services from Temple Beth El in Charlotte, N.C., and send a donation to the congregation. In Fresno, Cal., Dr. Jeffrey Rosenfeld, a neurologist who moved last year from Charlotte, will attend services at Temple Beth Israel and watch a taped Web cast of that morning’s services at Temple Beth El, his family’s congregation in Charlotte. “This is a way to reach back and connect,” he says.
In Manhattan, Lisa Gilbert says an appealing worship online might lead her to attend in person — if the congregation were in her neighborhood. “If I saw something I could physically attend, I would want to physically be there,” she says. “It’s nice to have that option. I wish it was available when I was in college.”