As a rabbi of an online congregation, I am often asked about whether people have “real” Jewish experiences online. Some argue that you can’t have a meaningful Jewish experience unless you’re in a room with other Jews.
I disagree. I have seen time and time again how having an online community like OurJewishCommunity.org gives people an opportunity to connect to Judaism, to other Jews, and to rabbis.
I was thinking about this as I watched the Super Bowl last night. There may have been 80,000 people in the stadium watching the game, but another 118 million watched on TV – and I’m pretty sure their experience was equally “real.”
Is watching at home the same as watching in a packed arena? Of course not! I know there is nothing quite like the feeling of being in an arena full of fans. You can see the action up close (if you have good seats), you cheer loudly among others, and you feel part of the action. But watching from home also has advantages. You can watch alone or with friends, you can listen to the commentators, and you can see the commercials (either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your perspective!).
Watching the Super Bowl on TV and participating in Shabbat and other holiday services online have many similarities. Here are five:
1. Most people were not watching the game alone. The myth is that if you watch High Holiday services online, it must be isolating. But I know many people who have the equivalent of Super Bowl parties for Jewish holidays! Often, someone will invite over a dozen friends for a Rosh Hashanah meal and then they’ll gather around a flat screen TV with our live services streaming. They’ve printed our unique liturgy and are participating as an intimate community, as part of an even larger community.
2. Not everyone can afford to go the Super Bowl, not everyone has a stadium nearby, and some people who have shown up to games in the past haven’t felt welcomed. It’s the same with Judaism. Some people have physical limitations, geographic barriers, financial obstacles, or other reasons they cannot attend synagogue. For them, an online community is a perfect connection to Jewish community.
3. Some people had to be at work or take care of other responsibilities during the game – and I’m betting many of them DVRed the game to watch later. So too with services. Not everyone can take time on a Friday night to go to synagogue – but everyone can find a break in their week to create what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called a “sanctuary in time.” That’s why OurJewishCommunity.org makes its services available on-demand. I know one of our community members is an ER physician and works on Shabbat – so she makes her “Shabbat” on Tuesday and is able to participate in our services then.
4. Some people prefer the anonymity of the screen. If you don’t yet know the difference between a touchdown, a field goal, and a two-point conversion and you can’t tell the offense from the defense, you may not feel comfortable showing up with other fans to talk about the game. By watching on your own, you can learn. Many have commented to me that they feel more comfortable asking a rabbi questions online than in person. For some people, watching online is a way to dip one’s toe in before walking through synagogue doors.
5. You can have community across miles. Seahawks fans felt a kinship with one another last night, as did Patriots fans. Participants in OurJewishCommunity.org who have never met feel a connection to one another because of their shared values and philosophical approach to Judaism. During services, we rabbis even encourage online chatting – which means conversations happen between people in different states and on different continents – adding to the diversity of our Jewish conversations.
Technology also means families can have shared holiday or sports experiences, even when separated by geography. During many March Madness basketball games, I’ve sat on the phone with my dad as we each watched the final moments of a close game. After many exciting Wimbledon tennis matches, I would often call my grandmother to debrief the game. While we didn’t live in the same cities, the shared on-screen experience allowed us to enjoy a game together and connect with one another around it. The same thing happens at OurJewishCommunity.org.
One of my favorite emails from a participant in OurJewishCommunity.org came in after our first High Holidays (in 2008!):
I came to work and my partner took the kids to services. I thought I’d be fine, but I was so isolated and getting really upset. I did a google search for a live streaming service, and there you were… So, for details – first, my mother also did not go to services yesterday for her own reasons. She was also sad and called me just before the shofar blew. I quickly sent her the link and we sat on the phone, DC to Florida, and listened to your shofar together. It was an amazing moment for us. I know neither of us would have words of appreciation grand enough to capture what we felt.
When I read that email, I knew our online community was offering something that a bricks-and-mortar experience simply couldn’t offer. Would this mother and daughter have preferred to be in synagogue, sitting with one another that day? Probably. But, the circumstances didn’t allow for that. So, thanks to technology, they enjoyed a holiday together.
Is the Super Bowl the equivalent of a Jewish service? Absolutely not! But they both have in-person and online components – and variety is good.
For those Jews who prefer bricks-and-mortar synagogue experiences, I am glad they have found a place that feels comfortable. And for those who prefer an online Jewish experience, I’m glad those options exist as well. What could be wrong with having more access points to Jewish connection? I’d say that’s a winning proposition!
My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game. While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.
My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?
I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.
It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.
But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences? And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.
So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences. Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.
So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors. Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.
We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.
Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting. We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.
It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more. But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.