When I entered rabbinical school, I never imagined I would become a rabbi of an online synagogue. In fact, when I started at the Hebrew Union College in 2003, Facebook and Twitter did not yet exist. I blogged during the year I was living in Israel so that my family and friends could see my photos, but even that was pretty uncommon. And while I sometimes spoke to my family using a microphone plugged into my computer, the idea of video-chat didn’t even cross my mind.
Fast forward to 2008. I was being ordained a rabbi and had been working for two years as an intern in an independent congregation, Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. Congregation Beth Adam came into existence in 1981 and has been known since then as an outside-the-box, evolving, intentional, and thoughtful congregation. Though the congregation only had a few hundred members, its vision statement, re-written in 2006, said that Beth Adam aspired to be “a worldwide Jewish and humanistic resource.”
How could a small congregation in the Midwest be a worldwide resource? The answer was obvious in 2008: by using technology. After surveying lots of demographic research and hosting focus groups, Beth Adam made the bold move to launch an online congregation. At the time, there were very few models for this. But, we knew that times were changing and we needed to create a new access point for Jewish engagement.
So, seven years ago on Rosh Hashanah we launched our online community and a few hundred people participated in that first service. Now, tens of thousands of people join in our High Holidays each year. It is touching to see Jews from around the world sharing their holiday experience.
While other synagogues have started to stream, we are much more than a congregation that streams. Our liturgy is original, reflecting our humanistic voice. And, while our High Holidays are streamed from our bricks-and-mortar sanctuary, our Shabbats are informal chats just for the online community. Our Yom Kippur memorial service includes photos of those being remembered, submitted by our participants. We are open 24/7/365 and offer podcasts, blogs, educational materials, ecards, recipes, discussion boards, and more. We even host “cyber-onegs” after services where people in Cincinnati chat with the people watching online, who often chat among themselves during the entire service. We are happy to serve as rabbis for our online participants. Though I could not have imagined any of this ten years ago, I see how essential it is as part of the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience.
Many people ask me if an online congregation is somehow less (less good? less real? less meaningful?) than a traditional congregation. My answer is that neither is inherently better than the other. Some will always prefer in-real-life interaction and others will prefer online interaction. Providing diverse options allows people to choose what works best for them. And, what I am sure of is that the words of our participants speak for themselves:
“Today, after finding your website, is the first time since my Bat Mitzvah that I have been excited about being Jewish. My Bat Mitzvah was about 35 years ago.”
“Even as you open your doors to the world, you make us feel personally invited and connected.”
“Whether we connect hearts, hopes and dreams with people face to face in a synagogue or through an internet connection, the people are real and the community becomes real.”
If you’d like to join us for the High Holidays, you can learn more at OurJewishCommunity.org. Wishing you all a sweet New Year!
Porn in the City: Are the kids really alright?
What does it mean to grow up in the age of sexting, of Instagram and Snapchat (which lets you show a picture on someone else’s smart-phone, and then have it ‘disappear’)? I think about this because I work with teens, and their natural curiosity mixed with super-charged digital lives kinda freak me out. I wonder: Are we equipping them with what they need to live in an easy access, easy self-satisfaction world?
“Pornography should interest us, because it’s intensely and relentlessly about us. It involves the roots of our culture and the deepest corners of the self…” – The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).
For Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical main character of Brighton Beach Memoirs, sex was an adolescent obsession. At the end of the play his brother gives young Eugene a foldout picture of a topless woman. In reaction to this, Eugene write down in his journal: “A momentous moment in the life of I, Eugene Morris Jerome. I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas…. Puberty is over. Onwards and upwards!”
The line gets an appropriate laugh, as it should. The play is set in 1937 when a picture of a topless woman might be a rarity, but this is 2013, an age when there are approximately 200,000 commercial porn sites. This means that an introduction into sexuality no longer begins with a picture of a toplesswoman, but of a video of a couple having actual sex. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young man or woman with the expectation that porn-star sex is the norm.
Martin Buber taught that there were two natures of the self. The “I” which is we might sum up as shallow, and surface oriented. This is the “me” that is involved in world of doing things. This surface “I” in relation to the everyday, he calls “I-It”. There is, Buber taught, also the “I” that is experienced as “whole-being,” fuller, more complete, perhaps we could say “more alive.” This whole-being “I,” Buber calls I-Thou. A fair simplification is to say, sometimes we relate with our soul, and other times we do not.
A mistake of modernity, a poison, is to ignore the depth experiences that humans need (I-Thou) and focus completely on the surface experience of the mundane (I-It). We see this everyday – and with technology, we see this “shallowing” in potential escalation.
Our popular culture seems to be polarized on the topic of pornography. On the one hand it is scandalous and predatory (which it certainly is) and on the other its seen as the new normal (and what does it say about us if it is?).
“And yes, pornography is a business — as is all our popular entertainment — which attains popularity because it finds ways of articulating things its audiences care about. When it doesn’t, we turn it off. Pornography may indeed be the sexuality of a consumer society. It may have a certain emptiness, a lack of interior, a disconnectedness — as does so much of our popular culture. And our high culture. (As does much of what passes for political discourse these days, too.) But that doesn’t mean that pornography isn’t thoroughly astute about its audience and who we are underneath the social veneer, astute about the costs of cultural conformity, and the discontent at the core of routinized and civilized lives.” - The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).
What does porn tell us about ourselves, our culture?
Among other things, I think modernity’s great porn addiction speaks to the fact that we, in the age of speedy technology, and infinite private access, have grown selfish.
In an age that worships business, sexuality has continued to grow as a commodity; sex, from one perspective of our popular culture has become a transaction. There is little training of the self these days about being relational. Satisfaction of the self rather than another is the value these days. Sex, and satisfaction becomes transactional, self-absorbed, and to that extent non-relational, Buber might say, decidedly I-It, and I would add “less human.”
“If love is only self-interest, than love is a fake, a pretense… And can you imagine a life without love?” – A J Heschel
No wonder than, that porn is on the rise and marriage is on the decline. We haven’t given any value to the idea of generosity to another, or to love, and without that, what are we?
Sex is a natural human drive. Freud was right about that. Cheap, fast, and easy, are all hallmarks of the 21st century, so I doubt that porn is going away any time soon. Modernity gives us instant access to I-It. But our souls crave something deeper.
The solution has to be to teach our kids about love, about romance, about desire, about the ecstasy of your soul that can be. They need to learn that this can happen when you give of yourself, when you are a self in relationship to another self, when you think, and feel, and act for not only “me” in a particular moment, but about what is right and beautiful in “us.”
I and Thou.
Technology is a marvelous thing. And the many creative ways Jewish professionals have incorporated it into Jewish communal life is amazing.
Over the past few months, I have had two online experiences that I had occasionally criticized in the past. But for reasons of necessity, found myself doing: watching a worship service and watching a life-cycle ceremony.
Last Yom Kippur, having had left the morning service with my five-year-old son in tow, I broke my own rule of unplugging on Shabbat and the holidays and sought out an online service. Just because my little guy was done for the day didn’t mean that I was. It took me a few tries as the first few attempts landed me in services that I’d never attend in person. It seemed to me that if I wouldn’t attend a place IRL that I’m certainly not going to like the virtual experience. But then I found the live-stream from Central Synagogue (NYC). Enabling me to hear familiar melodies, liturgy read with passion and conviction, and words of challenge and inspiration.
At the end of November, my sister-in-law went into labour ten days ahead of her scheduled C-section. Due to my own complicated family situation (with a child on the autism spectrum), I was unable to fly to Dallas for my nephew’s bris. Thanks to the rabbinic team at my brother and sister-in-law’s shul, a live-stream of the ceremony was provided for those of us who were unable to make the trip.
Sitting alone with my computer isn’t the way I want Yom Kippur. It isn’t the way I need Yom Kippur. And watching my nephew be entered into the Covenant of Abraham on a screen isn’t the same as being there.
But in both cases, second best was, indeed, better than nothing. Without synagogues that make worship services available online, my Yom Kippur would have been utterly devoid of the sanctity and liturgy my soul needed. Without those same synagogues that are open to the request of a far-flung relative, I would not have been able to witness this first lifecycle event in my nephew’s life.
I once feared that such innovation would encourage people to choose virtual attendance over physical attendance. That concern, I now recognize, was grounded in ignorance. A true lack of understanding based on the unknown.
In the end, it was one word that convinced me. Amein. It was being able to say “amein” in response to the mohel at my nephew’s bris that showed me the weakness of my long-held bias. No, it wasn’t the same as being in the very same room. But my “amein” was said. And God heard it, even if they couldn’t.
I remember a friend proudly showing off her father’s Apple II computer when I was in grade school. We were warned not to touch it. In high school, we were required to take a computer class which taught us BASIC code. I think I learned how to program the computer to make a dot matrix smiley face. The whole time I sat at the computer I was afraid I would break it. I was a nervous wreck and did not enjoy the class while some of my classmates thought it was the coolest thing ever.
I got my very own personal computer, a Mac, when I started college. Again, I was scared of it. I was sure that I would lose all of my work at the touch of a wrong button. My boyfriend made fun of me and secretly programmed my computer to make all sorts of silly and confusing sounds when I typed. Every time I hit the period key the computer made a sound like something was crashing to the floor. Oy!
So it comes as some surprise to me that now I love new technology and gadgets. I want the latest smart phone and ipad. I thrill to check out the newest social media sites. I love being able to navigate a strange city with my GPS. Doing research for a possible kitchen renovation I came across the website www.houzz.com. I was entranced by picture after picture of new kitchens. I created my own personal page where I could save my favorite pictures and ideas. And I read a blog post which described how through the use of Bluetooth technology, we can now use our smart phones and ipads to control every device in our houses. Need to change the channel? Who needs a remote any more, use your iphone. Wondering if you left the coffeemaker on this morning? Look it up on your phone, and remotely turn it off. Want to turn on a light before you get home? Just program it from your phone. The world of the Jetsons cartoon is now a reality. (Minus the flying cars..but they are probably going to be here soon.)
As a Rabbi Without Borders, I have to wonder if there are any borders to our use of technology. When carrying around a phone becomes too burdensome, and we can put all of the information we need in a chip in our bodies, would that be OK? Why use a phone, when I can touch the palm of my hand to program something? Some deaf people use cochlear implants. They are already “chiped.” Many amputees use bionic limbs that move in incredible ways. These sound like great innovations now, but is there a point at which there is too much technology? At what point do we cease to be human and become robots, or cyborgs? What happens when the computers we make become smarter than us? What will the value of human life be then?
These questions are no longer science fiction. They are real, and for me deeply theological. I am someone who has been swept along on the tide of new technologies. Will I keep going with the tide or climb out of the water?
Already there are times I get out of the water. Each Shabbat I try to unplug. “Try” being the operative word. Each year it gets harder and harder. I still keep a firm line that I do not check or respond to emails on Shabbat. I don’t get on Facebook or Twitter. But what about using my kindle or ipad to read? Sitting down with a good book is one of my favorite activities and a great way to spend a summer afternoon on Saturday. I am now reading most things on my ipad. At first I would not do this on Shabbat. Now I do. But my finger itches to click on the Facebook app. I see I have 10 notifications…..for now I don’t click. I have a need to make Shabbat a different day, and getting out of the flow of information is one way that I do this.
I really wonder how God wants us to use these technologies. Does God really care if I read Facebook updates on Shabbat? No, I can’t say that God does. But not reading them helps me to keep a quieter mind and feel more connect to the holy on that day. Does God want us to develop in to cyborgs? I really do not know.
Jewish tradition generally welcomes medical innovations. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides was both a rabbi and a doctor. Israel leads the world in fertility treatments and other cutting edge medical science. Everyone wants a Jewish doctor right? But is there a line we should not cross? IVF was scary to many people when it was first introduced and now it seems normal. We can keep people alive on machines for years on end. But should we? Rabbis and Jewish scholars can argue both sides of this question using traditional Jewish sources. There is no one right answer.
With each year and with each new technological innovation it becomes easier and easier to cross lines we never imagined crossing in the past. Who knows what the future really holds for us? Bionic limbs, eyes, chips to store our memories in? Medical innovations and new technologies go hand in hand.
For now I am happily swimming with the current. But I like my Shabbat rest stops. And I wonder if and when it will make sense to get out of the current. Are there borders here? Without posing the questions, we cannot get to the answers.
But it wasn’t the song or their new video that drew me in, but their fundraising efforts on behalf of the Gift of Life Foundation through the website www.MakeSomeMiracles.com.
The Maccabeats are inviting donations of ten thousand dollars a day for each day of Chanukah in the hope of securing much needed funds for Gift of Life, a bone marrow registry organization.
With a personal video narrated by Mayim Bialik and each of the members of the Maccabeats, their call is honest and sincere. As of this writing they have already raised $22,000!
I clicked on the donation button. Suddenly, I was involved in making a miracle for Chanukah — not just receiving an ancient one. The miracle that the Maccabeats are giving light to is a miracle that keeps on giving life and hope to people with cancer beyond this holiday season.
So can we make some miracles?
Many interpretations suggest that the miracle of Chanukah was that we didn’t give up even when we had no chance of winning against the Greek/Syrians. In spite of the powerful forces that encourage our continued assimilation or disappearance we have survived and adapted to the modern world in which we live in as Jews. We live precariously on the edge while we persevere through a revolving door of constant change. The miracle of the Maccabeats is the miracle of our people.
We have come a long way from the Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song from “Saturday Night Live” in 1994 which centered on the theme of Jewish children feeling alienated during the Christmas season, and Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities as a way of sympathizing with their situation.
With the Maccabeats, the traditional and the contemporary merge to create a blend of Judaism and Jewish music that continues to define our communal confidence with viral velocity.
We revel in religious freedom in America. A Yeshiva University a cappella group has reached beyond their ivory tower borders to educate and entertain. We all received the instant messaging. Again, history has shown us, that we are the miracle of Chanukah!
Yes, we can make modern miracles. Click and contribute to a new miracle this Chanukah 5772!
At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.
Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.
This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.
I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:
While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.
I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.
On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.
My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. “Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.
Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there!).
They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?
So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.
This past Sunday, I had the honor of officiating at a beautiful wedding. Rachel and Nathan met last year here in Austin, and very quickly knew that they wanted to spend their lives together. Rather than traveling back to New Jersey to get married, they held their wedding here, in their new hometown. They were thrilled to welcome their family and friends to Austin, introducing them to the vibrant Jewish community, the live music scene, and the fabulous energy that makes this city the largest destination point for young folks between the ages of 22 and 35.
Days before the wedding, Rachel’s beloved grandfather became sick and was not able to travel to Austin. This was heartbreaking for Rachel – she couldn’t imagine not having her grandfather there on her wedding day. Although there was no feasible way to delay the wedding or move it to New Jersey, the family did have a plan to bring Rachel’s grandfather as close to the chuppah as possible. A videographer created a live stream of the ceremony so Rachel’s grandfather could watch and listen from the comfort of his bed, and following yichud, the couple was able to speak with their grandfather on an iPad.
The dancing began with an enthusiastic horah. Multiple circles of joyful guests held hands, moving around the dance floor with great excitement. Rachel and Nathan’s friends and family had learned about the tradition of preparing schtick for the bride and groom – a custom that emphasizes the importance of bringing laughter to the newlyweds on their wedding day. Young and old alike performed silly dances and songs, generating both surprise and delight.
As the music subsided and guests found their way to their seats, the iPad was brought to the front of the dance floor, the microphone was held up to the screen, and Rachel’s grandfather began to speak. He may have been giving a toast from his home in New Jersey, but the love that he felt for Rachel and Nathan and his immense gratitude for being included in their wedding festivities was palpable right here in Austin. He was then able to join together with the rest of the grandparents as they raised their voices to say HaMotzi — the blessing over the bread that officially begins the meal. Our hearts were opened a little wider in that moment.
I’m by no means a “techie,” which may be all the more reason why I was so moved by how this technological innovation enhanced our spiritual celebration. As a community builder, I truly believe in the power of being present. And, in this case, under these circumstances, Rachel’s grandfather was present. He was right there with us in Austin, TX.
As I walked to my car on Sunday evening, I said to my husband, “I think it’s time to get an iPad.”