From online minyans to e-conversions, from streaming Shabbat services to “Second Life” Shabbat candle-lighting, e-Judaism is reaching new audiences and transforming lives.
By Elicia Brown
I don’t know Ben Hammer or his family, and I didn’t fly from my home in New York City to Loveland, Ohio, where Ben’s bar mitzvah took place. I wasn’t invited. But I do know that Ben wore a dark suit, white shirt and red tie to his ceremony. And I know that although he didn’t glance up often from his prepared speech, he did master the perfect pause between phrases, and twitched his fingers animatedly to suggest parentheses around a word.
I know all this because I attended Ben’s bar mitzvah. Virtually, that is.
Ben Hammer’s may be among the first bar mitzvahs to be streamed live online, but it surely won’t be the last. With just a few clicks of a computer mouse, anyone—a far-flung relative or an ailing friend—could have witnessed the scene in the blond-wood sanctuary of Congregation Beth Adam on that morning in August. Even today, months afterward, anyone can watch Ben’s event.
I’m no techie. I still scribble on a paper calendar to keep track of my events and appointments. So when I started to explore recent Jewish innovations on the Web, I was astonished. If the online world is called cyberspace, then it appears that the stars are actively realigning.
Some observers describe the transformation in the Jewish world as akin to the shift from an oral tradition to a written one. “Now we’re moving from books to a Digital Age,” says Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, who directs Rabbis Without Borders, helping rabbis rethink their route to reaching Jews. “Some enter with a little trepidation. What does it mean to offer rabbinical advice to someone you’ve never seen?”
One person who understands this experience is Rabbi Laura Baum, the 30-year-old “cyber rabbi” who co-officiated at Ben’s bar mitzvah and was hired to work half-time at the humanistic congregation, Beth Adam, and half-time at OurJewishCommunity.org. On the Web site, Rabbi Baum posts her blog, streams Shabbat services each week customized for the Internet and offers online bar mitzvah training. She’s received appreciative messages from people around the world. Of her role as e-rabbi, she says: “It’s a little bizarre, but also pretty amazing. I’m giving all of these people a voice who wouldn’t otherwise have one.”
The new technology extends beyond e-rabbis and cyber-synagogues to streaming bar mitzvahs, Shabbat services, and funerals that acquaintances can attend virtually. There are bar mitzvah students who upload videos of themselves on YouTube so their tutors can remotely review their recitations of Torah. There’s an ambitious project called CyberJudaism.org, which hopes to fill an online sanctuary with daily services from every denomination, so that travelers the world over can drop in to a minyan of choice, at their hour of choice. And there’s something called Torah Twitter, in which participants of the social network can “tweet” words of Jewish wisdom and text.
And in perhaps the most radical example of technological innovation, a Jewish community is growing up on the virtual world known as Second Life, a kind of online game in which participants create avatars of themselves, selecting physical characteristics and clothing, and “teleport” to virtual locations of Jewish interest.
Now, I must admit I’m perfectly satisfied with RL Judaism (that’s “Real Life” Judaism in Second Life lingo). But Rabbi Brad Hirshfield, co-president of CLAL (the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), says don’t be too quick to judge: “I don’t think that even if the most beautiful virtual synagogue in the world was built would it work for me. But would I like to see it built? Yes. Because there are probably a million people or more for whom it would work.”
Brenna Thomas, 40, who works at an Internet security firm outside Chicago, is among the many individuals whose lives have been transformed by virtual Judaism.
Photo: Frank Kohn
“If I stop innovating and finding new avenues for sharing my passion for Torah,…I might as well hang up my tallis.”
—Rabbi Amy Perlin
Thomas is one of 50 Jews converted by Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg, who runs an e-synagogue as well as a conventional Conservative congregation in a suburb of Chicago. Rabbi Ginsburg has also educated two b’nai mitzvah students in this manner, and enrolled eight students in his online Hebrew school.
Rabbi Ginsburg was a godsend for Thomas, who says she had Christianity “shoved down my throat” as a child and who as an adult began exploring other religions. Drawn to Judaism because it encourages questioning, Thomas attended a program at a local synagogue, but was turned off when the rabbi made racist remarks about Palestinians.
Through her brother, she learned of Rabbi Ginsburg’s online course. After three months of intense preparation, which included reading half a dozen hefty books, memorizing prayers, and watching a series of Rabbi Ginsburg’s YouTube videos, Thomas left her home at the crack of dawn one morning last spring. She drove with her four children to meet Rabbi Ginsburg for the first time.
She also met a bet din, a rabbinic court, and plunged—along with three of her four children—into the Jewish ritual bath. “The mikvah was awesome,” says Thomas. “I actually cried when I came up for the third time.” The three rabbis and her family cheered.
Thomas doesn’t often make it to religious services these days because, she says, “I am too remote from any synagogue I would want to attend.” But she still tunes in to Jewish YouTube videos, keeps a Bible on her nightstand, banished pork from her kitchen, and is dating a Jewish man she met through JDate.
She’s learned so much about Jewish history and law in recent months that she jokes that between her and her boyfriend, “we make a whole Jew. He’s got the cultural part. I’m the book-smart part of us.”
You might be surprised to learn that a middle-aged woman based in a middle-class suburb thousands of miles from Silicon Valley is one of the most cyber-friendly rabbis in the cyber-savvy Reform movement. That woman, Rabbi Amy Perlin, who serves Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Va., says that when it comes to adapting high-tech to religious practice, “the question is not why—the question is why not.”
She says: “The rabbis of old were constantly looking for new modalities. I’m 53 years old, and if I stop innovating and finding new avenues for sharing my passion for Torah, I’m going to get stale. I might as well hang up my tallis.”
Back in the 1990s, Rabbi Perlin was one of the first rabbis to launch a Web site for her congregation. About three years ago, she began podcasting Shabbat services (she explored Web-streaming services—which would include video as well as sound—but found it to be too expensive). What intrigues me most about Rabbi Perlin is her discussion of Twitter.
Jewish Cyber Resources
Rabbi Laura Baum’s online synagogue. Streams religious services, podcasts sermons and features a blog. The site plans to launch a b’nai mitzvah training program.
An ambitious project launched by Silicon Valley Rabbi Yitzi Miller. Among its many offerings, Cyber Judaism will allow users to take classes in real-time with teachers around the world and tune in to religious services of various denominations.
This Web site collects “tweets” tagged with the term “Torah.” Tweets are messages of up to 140 characters, transmitted through the social network Twitter. Shai Gluskin, who calls himself a “rabbi and geek,” created and monitors this Web site.
Virtual online world. Users create avatars of themselves, selecting facial features and clothing. These personae can visit various venues of Jewish interest.
Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg oversees conversions, b’nai mitzvah classes and Hebrew school students through this online portal.
The three-year-old landscape of Twitter abounds in Jewish manifestations. Founded in 2006, the social networking tool allows participants to “tweet” messages of up to 140 characters via their computers or cell phones to a community of followers. Earlier this year, an Israeli entrepreneur announced he would deliver tweets to the Kotel, the Western Wall.
Other innovations include Rabbi Laura Baum tweeting a running commentary of her Passover Seder last year. For Shavuot last year, 200 people tweeted words of Torah in a 24-hour marathon. But I’m most engaged by Rabbi Perlin’s approach, which is to tweet periodically, but only when she comes across something worth sharing. “It’s a nice break from the chatter of the day,” she says, adding that in what tends to be a verbose profession, “it’s a nice challenge to get at a thought in 140 characters.”
And so she tweets: “Observation: A good ‘dying,’ just as a good life, depends on the people who do it with you and a respect for taking the time to do it well.”
But Rabbi Perlin also believes that “breaks from technology are critical, and that God will not come to you from Twitter or the latest e-mail. Online will never replace the synagogue.
“There is a time to embrace technology and a time to refrain from embracing,” says Rabbi Perlin, paraphrasing the famous lines from Ecclesiastes.
First Visit, Second Life
A few hours before sunset on a recent Friday afternoon, I gathered my courage and entered the strange new world of Second Life. It takes more than a few minutes for my computer to upload the application, but I don’t otherwise find it difficult to register for this online, alternative reality. Also, the basic service is free.
And suddenly: There she stands, the avatar named Aleeza Abrahams, my online doppelganger. Like me, she sports dark hair, a short stature and slightly generous hips. Unlike me, Aleeza doesn’t move with ease. I punch a few buttons on my keyboard. I click on the computer mouse. Aleeza wiggles, jerks around awkwardly, and then to my delight, takes flight. I ask the search engine to “teleport” me to the Jewish neighborhood.
Woosh. I hear the gentle lapping of the sea beyond. I spot an Israeli flag, an eternal flame, a schedule of Jewish events. And then I’m off to the Second Life synagogue. It is time to light Shabbat candles.
There are many avenues for experiencing Judaism on Second Life. Javatars (Jewish avatars) can participate in a virtual sukkah building contest, study Torah with a Lubavitcher, visit an exhibit erected by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and teleport to a typical Eastern European synagogue. They can also walk though a cemetery where—as Second Life aficionado Julian Voloj e-mails me—“people can upload photographs of RL (real life) gravestones.”
Caren Levine, who has a background in education technology, logs on to Second Life a couple of times a week, mostly to attend seminars on education. She says, “Some people just roll their eyes. But for people willing to experiment, it has a lot of potential. There’s this serendipity. You meet someone you might not have otherwise.”
Candle-lighting takes place several times every Friday to accommodate Javatars who live in different time zones. When I check in at a few minutes before 4 p.m., I find a man dressed in Chasidic garb crouching and beckoning near the candlesticks. I hope he doesn’t notice me. “Hey Aleeza,” he types to me. “Shabbat Shalom.”
My father-in-law wanders by, in real life. He asks whether I have a date with the Chasidic man crouching on my computer screen. Meanwhile, I can’t get Aleeza to behave. She points aimlessly. She marches. She shimmies. Then just when I’m getting the hang of her movements, and just as a group of Javatars, all dressed to the nines, start descending on the sanctuary for the next candle-lighting, my 4-year-old son lunges for the computer mouse. Aleeza freezes. She’s completely paralyzed. Embarassed, I log off.
When I return, one of the Javatars notes my good timing. Someone recites the blessing. The candles are lit. We—the Javatars—take turns typing in our well wishes, “Good Shabbos. Shabbat Shalom.”
I log off again. I can certainly understand the appeal of Second Life, but I like my first life even better. I have real candles to light. And this time I’ll get a chance to drink some wine, too.
Elicia Brown, a columnist for the New York Jewish Week, contributes to a variety of publications, including beliefnet.com, Publisher’s Weekly and Family Fun Magazine.