I am an avid television watcher, to say the least. My weekly repertoire includes everything from sports and the news, to reality TV and cop shows—I’m an equal opportunity viewer. Right now, I keep up with about 25 shows (which, even to me, seems insane).
In the recent past, my packed schedule might seem daunting. It would mean staying in most nights, planted in front of the TV, ignoring plans and friends. Now, with a few taps on my iPad screen and a Wi-Fi signal, I can stream whatever I missed, at my own convenience. Thanks to online streaming services and network television websites, almost every episode of every program is readily accessible.
So, what does this have to do with Judaism?
Synagogues across the country are live-streaming their services. With a simple google search for “stream Shabbat,” one can access Shabbat services from congregations across the country and across the movements. Not only can folks click on and stream, but also some congregations even store services in online archives, to be accessed for on-demand play.
Television streaming has been heralded as the end of appointment television—could streaming services mean the end of appointment Judaism?
Before I moved to the South and started working full time, I attended Shabbat services with frequency. This was important to me, especially considering I’m part of the 20-35 year old demographic seemingly absent from many congregational Jewish communities. Getting to shul was easy in Columbus, Ohio—and I had options. That’s not the case, though, in many of the communities the ISJL serves.
Rest assured, Jewish communities are alive and well in the South (and some are even live-streaming their services!), but often, there is only one option for a synagogue in town. Whereas folks in cities with larger Jewish populations can essentially congregation shop, picking a rabbi and worship style in tune with their own preferences, it’s not always an option in smaller, rural towns.
No Conservative service in your town? You can stream it. Your friend’s son is a rabbi in Detroit? You can stream it. You can’t spend the hour in the car it would take to get to temple? Too tired? Can’t find a babysitter? Stream. Stream. Stream.
I, for one, love the entryways to Jewish practice that online streaming provides. It makes religious observance accessible to people who might otherwise not hear Torah chanted or find a min’yan to say Kaddish. But I understand the hesitation some might feel before jumping on board.
I think a primary concern is that worshipers will replace live attendance with online streaming—synagogues, especially those small in size, will close. The sense of community built in Hebrew school classes, sisterhood meetings, and oneg Shabbats will dwindle. Just as appointment TV has fallen by the wayside, so too will congregational Judaism. That narrative makes sense to me, until I hear stories from people actually streaming services.
A friend of mine is a recent college graduate. When he left home for college, he moved across the country. After graduating and taking a job, he, again, moved. This Yom Kippur, he attended Kol Nidrei services at the local congregation. On Yom Kippur, he spent the day streaming services from across the United States. One from home, one from school—he was able to stay connected to the communities that instilled in him the importance of Jewish practice and tradition without eschewing the local congregation.
In the South, it’s sometimes hard to find one Jewish service. We now have access to an entire world of options, and we don’t have to disengage in our own communities to access them. Streaming Judaism won’t replace the importance of connections, in person, but can be a wonderful supplement to traditional appointment Judaism, offering even more opportunities for Jewish life. And that’s an incredible thing.
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My last year has been full of change: I got married. My husband got a new job, out of state. These two changes led to a third change, as I became… well, whatever the landlocked version of “bi-coastal” might be: we moved, but I kept my job, and now I’m dividing my time between the Midwest and the South.
We’ve had several posts on this blog about what it’s like to come to the South, and be Jewish (like this great guest post about Jewish life in Jonesboro, Arkansas). But now, I have a fresh perspective on the other side of the coin: what it’s like to move to a much bigger, Northern Jewish community… and watch the reactions when you say you came from the South.
Recently, my husband and I began “Shabbat-Shopping” – i.e. checking out synagogues, chavurah groups, and other alternatives in the big city, to see where we might find the right-fit Jewish community. There’s certainly no shortage of options! On our first outing, we went to a progressive service in the heart of the city. At the end of the service, all newcomers were asked to stand up and say their names and where they were from, if visiting or new in town.
When we stood, we said our names, and shared that we were from Mississippi.
There was audible reaction to this statement from the congregants. Two, in particular, stood out.
An older woman, seated in front of us, turned around and said: “Mississippi? Really? Ugh. I’m sorry. I mean, I’m glad for you that you’re not there anymore. I’m sorry you had to live there. I can’t even imagine.”
Meanwhile, a younger woman from the back of the room called out: “I’m from Louisiana! Find me later!”
Both of these folks did indeed find us after the service.
The first woman had her husband in tow. He, too, felt it must be miserable to live in Mississippi: “How’d you wind up there in the first place?” He asked, making a face. “Are you, y’know, real Jews?”
My husband stared at me, clearly wondering—as anyone should—what the heck “real Jews” even meant in that context. (Or, um— ever.)
“Actually,” I said, completely ignoring the ‘real Jews’ part of the question, “I work for a Jewish nonprofit in Jackson. And we love Mississippi.”
“We left because I got a job here,” my husband explained. “But we still have a lot of friends and family there.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “I’m sorry if what we said was rude. We didn’t mean to offend you.”
“No harm done,” I said, smiling. “Have you ever been to Mississippi?”
“No,” she admitted.
“It has its issues. We don’t love it for the politics,” I joked. (Hey, know your audience.) “But there’s a lot to love about it. And the Jewish communities there are great. I’m glad I still get to spend a lot of time there—I miss it when I’m not in Mississippi. It’s home. And it definitely has better winters!”
“That’s true,” the woman’s husband chuckled. We made small talk with them for a few more minutes. Then the young woman from Louisiana found us.
“You’re from Mississippi?” She asked, grinning. “I left Louisiana after high school. Like, more than a decade ago. But I still miss it. I dream about Louisiana a lot of nights. Don’t you just love it?”
My husband (a Louisiana native) and I nodded, and began talking with her about what she loved about life here, and life there. I love the instant kinship you often feel with those who have also lived in the South.
As we left the service, it hit me: how funny it is that when you’re Jewish in the small-town South, you’re explaining Judaism—and when you come from the South to the big-city Jewish world, you’re explaining the South.
William Faulkner said that to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi. Knowing, loving, and wrestling with Mississippi continues to help me understand the world, and also to understand myself. I’m still sometimes taken aback by the visceral reactions people have to the South, and particularly Mississippi, even if they’ve never been – but I’m happy to respond to those reactions. It’s part of the tax we pay, we who call Mississippi home; I’m always happy to share the good stories, acknowledge the difficulties, and maybe even change a few minds… and inspire a few visits.
In the early days of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, photographer Bill Aron hit the road, capturing images of life in the Jewish South. These photographs led to a book, Shalom Y’All: Images of Life in the Jewish South, and also became an exhibit, Bagels & Grits, which still finds audiences through the ISJL’s museum department.
This image, Shabbat Cotton, remains one of the most iconic from this photographic series. Taken in Cary, Mississippi, at the home of the Lamensdorf family, the cotton in the background was due to be harvested – and the shot had to be snapped quickly, so the work could go on! The moment was captured, the cotton fields yielded their offering, and as the sun set, another week ended.
Shabbat shalom, y’all!