Recently, I was sitting in my office listening to a Hanukkah mix on Spotify (one of the many reasons that I know that I will always, always be a Jewish professional). A song came on that immediately transported me to the back-roads of the Mississippi Delta: Neal Katz’s “Be A Light.”
The Neal Katz “Be a Light: Chanukah Songs for Grown-Ups” CD graced the middle console of the ISJL van when I was an Education Fellow (2010-2012). I often listened to it on long drives, regardless of the season. Seriously, have I mentioned I am destined to forever be a Jewish professional? The chorus begins: “Be a light, be a light / Shine proudly and loudly in the dark of the night.”
Humming this song, which I had listened to approximately 22 times as the holiday approached, I rang in Hanukkah with a Google Hangout. I set up my menorah, and placed it in front a computer screen. This doesn’t sound very intimate or personal, but let me explain.
For the last three years, my cohort of 2010-2012 ISJL Education Fellow alumni has spent one night of Hanukkah virtually together. I invite them to a video chat, and from three different time zones, we kindle the lights, singing the blessings down South, up North, all over. It’s certainly a “Shehechiyanu moment,” if there ever was one.
This year we had a special guest in our virtual midst—ISJL Education Director Rachel Stern, our old boss. We all spent over an hour talking and laughing and reminiscing about our collective time together. When we hung up, close to 11:00pm EST, we agreed that we would have to try and gather on our computer screens every Jewish holiday. And I know that it will really happen.
This virtual candle lighting—a symbol of unity, of community, of family—is a tradition that I can see continuing forever. The ISJL Education Fellowship fosters and nurtures continued relationships like these. Friendships that sustain themselves long after we go on our last community visit. I never could have imagined the power and the importance of these friendships in my life, of these Fellows in my family. Lighting the candles together once a year is a gift that I cherish, a gift that constantly reminds me of how lucky we are, and how brightly and proudly we shine our Fellow lights.
The hashtag #OnceAFellowAlwaysAFellow has become a joke among all Fellows. You use it whenever something magical and ridiculous converges, or when you have a Fellow reunion, or when you listen to things like “Be A Light” on repeat in your office. It started as something that was just sort of a joke, but as our candle lighting tradition reminds us, it’s not really a joke—it’s true.
Once a Fellow, Always a Fellow.
For that, I am thankful—this Hanukkah, and every Hanukkah to come.
Recently, Southern Sunday School students did a program on Jewish heroes. The students were having a great time, collaborating, playing games—all while hundreds of miles apart.
For the Global Day of Jewish Learning, we gathered students and teachers in Pinehurst, North Carolina, for this program on Jewish heroes. More students than you’d usually find in the Pinehurst classroom showed up—because half of our participants weren’t in Pinehurst. They weren’t even in North Carolina. They were actually in Greenville, South Carolina, three and a half hours away!
Stop the presses. Has the ISJL figured out how to split Education Fellows like me into two pieces, so that we can be in two different cities at once? Have we discovered the secret to Hermione Granger’s famous time-turner from the Harry Potter books?
Unfortunately, we are still working on the time-turner. But what we have mastered is an important 21st century skill – the art of effective, engaging interactive video calling.
We use video calling technology almost every day from our office in Jackson, Mississippi. Whether communicating with staff members working in other cities or with Bar/Bat Mitzvah students located around our region, doing important Jewish work via Skype or Google Hangout is a regular part of day-to-day work at the ISJL. So, when Sandhills Jewish Congregation in Pinehurst and Congregation Beth Israel in Greenville expressed interest in setting up a program, where their students could meet (virtually), I was eager to make it happen.
Our program was entitled the “Jewish Olympics” and it was very similar to a Maccabiah experience that might occur at Jewish camp. There were a variety of games that we played with and against one another, from Jewpardy (Jewish-themed Jeopardy) to a Play-doh sculpture contest. The ruach (spirit) of all the teams, across both cities and through our screens, was quite impressive.
One of the highlights of the program was our Jewish Heroes scavenger hunt. For this scavenger hunt, there were images of 20 Jewish Heroes hidden in the two congregations, with short biographies of their achievements included so that the kids could learn a bit about them. Half of the images were hidden in Beth Israel (Greenville) and half were at SJC (Pinehurst). The blue team in Greenville, for example, had to find all ten of their heroes, while their teammates in Pinehurst, had to find all ten of theirs. On the back of each clue was a letter, and upon finding all the clues, in both cities the teams had to work with their teammates in the other city via Skype to put the letters together and decode a secret message.
The message? “We made new Jewish friends.”
We wrapped up with “Closing Ceremonies” and with students in Greenville performing “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish” for the students in Pinehurst.
In years to come, I think it is safe to say that technology will help us innovate entirely new ways of educating Jewish students. But we should not assume that such innovating can only occur in the future. We are already living in a time when it is possible to program across virtually any geographical boundary using applications available for free . What this means for the future of Jewish education is still an open-ended question. But with some imagination and experimentation, we just might find answers to that question that fundamentally re-shape and re-create our Jewish future.
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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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