Reform Judaism magazine - World's Largest Circulated Jewish Magazine 1st Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

Action: Cyber Innovations
by Jane E. Herman

We often think of our synagogues as havens from the frenzy of the outside world, places in which we turn off our cell phones, pagers, and beepers. In reality, though, many Reform Jews, congregations, and institutions are turning toward technology to develop innovative practices that enrich worship, enhance sacred space, educate, and build community, within the synagogue and beyond.

Facilitating Worship

Ellen Muhlfelder, a member of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina, was in the hospital during the High Holidays of 5768, but that didn’t stop her from seeing and hearing her congregation’s Kol Nidre service. “It was very satisfying,” she says. “I was so terribly sick; it just made me feel better.”

Since 2006, Temple Beth El has offered Internet streaming of evening High Holiday services, giving people who are ill, out of town, or without transportation the means to feel a part of the events. A congregant who’s a professional videographer records and uploads the services, and also burns them onto CDs and DVDs to be distributed to area nursing homes and assisted living facilities. “We’re reaching people who wouldn’t otherwise have High Holidays,” says executive director Sara Schreibman.

At Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, wall-mounted cameras recording through a dedicated video server regularly broadcast all events held in the sanctuary or chapel—services, weddings, funerals, b’nai mitzvah, lectures, and concerts—allowing homebound congregants, college students, out-of-town members, family, friends, and all others who are interested to “be there.” Among those making virtual connections are an estimated 2,500 people in some 15 different countries who watched this past year’s High Holiday services.

The two temples are not alone. Temple Israel of Greater Miami and Central Synagogue in New York City, among others, stream worship services in real-time over the Internet. Temple B'nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Virginia has been podcasting services for the last three years. “Even elderly grandparents of our students are plugging in,” Rabbi Amy Perlin says. (To read more about her congregation’s experience, see Cyber Judaism.)

Enhancing Worship

One Chanukah and Shabbat evening in 2006, Rabbi Billy Dreskin of Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains, New York projected images, words, and music onto two wide screens at the front of the sanctuary—and the temple’s “visual worship” was born. Nowadays, every two to three months, congregants and visitors alike enjoy a visual worship Shabbat at Woodlands—with all prayers, in both Hebrew and English, as well as the sermon (plus illustrations) projected onto the screens (and sometimes an 11-piece live music ensemble heightening the experience). Holiday celebrations also feature visual worship. On Simchat Torah, while congregants read from a Torah scroll that’s unrolled around the room, the verses are projected for everyone to see; on Purim, in between congregants’ improvised comedic renderings of the Megillat Esther, Rabbi Dreskin projects clips from the comedy Whose Line Is It, Anyway? “Kids think [the visual service] is cool,” says Rabbi Dreskin, “and older members appreciate not having to hold a prayer book” (although page numbers are shown on the screens for those who prefer to use one).

Rabbi Dreskin acknowledges that the preparation for visual workshop is “extremely time-consuming,” with portable screens atop tables on each side of the ark, projectors on stands in front of each screen, wires and cables taped to the floor—and the rabbi’s 14-year-old son Aiden controlling all projections with SongShow Plus software. He recommends that other congregations “gather folks interested in making this happen,” experiment with how much text fits legibly on the screen (his choice: eight lines—four in Hebrew and four transliteration), network with others exploring visual technology (“to move this into the mainstream”), and make sure Hebrew is projected (“otherwise, it may feel ‘Christian’ to people who have only seen it on televised church services. Once Hebrew is up there, it becomes a Jewish experience.”)

Like visual worship, lighting can play a critical role in enhancing the experience of prayer. As part of Philadelphia’s historic Rodeph Shalom's recent restoration, the temple replaced broad fluorescent lights with zoned, area-specific lighting, including sconces, ceiling-mounted fixtures, and fiber optics. Preset lighting designs, which require no training or expertise to operate, illuminate only parts of the sanctuary, facilitating the creation of settings for both small, intimate worship gatherings and larger High Holiday and other events. Likewise, the new building housing Congregation Bet Shalom in Minnetonka, Minnesota includes a system of easily adjusted light banks to create just the right ambiance for worship—fairly bright for erev Shabbat, natural light for Shabbat morning, and, for dramatic effect, almost complete darkness at first for Chanukah, except for the light from congregants’ chanukiot.

Educating with Technology

Several years ago, to make his sermons and other teachings available to members who couldn’t listen on the temple’s schedule as well as give prospective congregants a feel for the synagogue, Rabbi Jim Egolf of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania began creating sermon podcasts. The first attempts were rough, he says, but feedback from lay leaders, experimentation with delivery styles (formal, informal, conversational), new equipment (including two microphones and a noise protection pop filter), music, no-cost Audacity audio editing and recording software, and lots of trial and error “all helped me refine the settings and create what a listener hears now.” Today, nearly two years after his first try, some 75 Beth David podcasts, all available on the temple’s website, have had more than 8,000 “listens”—and not only in North America, but in Australia, Pakistan, Russia, Morocco, and South Korea. This technology, says Rabbi Egolf, “allows the sermon to have a life way beyond the bimah….”

Long an admirer of the mega-churches and Chabad’s use of technology to communicate religious values, Rabbi Sanford Akselrad of Temple Ner Tamid in Henderson, Nevada realized that he could use the online video sharing website YouTube to reach out and share his Jewish wisdom and values. “A high definition video camera and a software editing program are all you need to start,” he says. His “Virtual Rabbi” videos on YouTube feature Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Chanukah, and Passover; a tour of the synagogue, including explanations of its various religious symbols; and clips of a congregational trip to Israel.

By his own admission, the “Virtual Rabbi” is not technologically savvy, so he leaves the filming to a congregant volunteer, who also edits the clips and adds music and voice-overs before emailing the link to the congregational community and uploading the video to the world at large. Rabbi Akselrad has learned to “think creatively, keep it short (under three minutes), use humor, and consult with teens in the congregation for technical expertise…. [You’ll] reach a lot of people in an effective, unique, and timely way.”

The Movement’s future rabbis are also being trained with new technology. This past year, fourth- and fifth-year rabbinical students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles learned and interacted in real time with classmates studying at the seminary’s New York campus. Their professors—Dr. Tamara Eskenazi, a professor of Bible in Los Angeles, and Dr. Andrea Weiss, an assistant professor of Bible in New York—introduced team-teaching with a Smartboard (an electronic “blackboard”), high definition cameras, and ceiling microphones, allowing students to exchange ideas and, during a short class break, kibbitz across the miles.

Enhancing Community Space

When Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview, Illinois moves into its new building this fall, the architectural and social centerpiece of the 75,000-square-foot facility, according to executive director Marc Swatez, FTA, will be the “village center, a virtual town square, modeled after a Middle Eastern shuk or marketplace.” Having a comfortable, welcoming, open place that draws people into a building to gather together has been an integral part of the synagogue’s strategic planning task force and, he says, was “at the heart of our decision to move.”

The inviting 5,000-square-foot interior space will serve as a central connector for all synagogue areas, with homey furnishings, a “Beit Café” coffee bar, and state-of-the-art technology: a wireless network, large screens for closed circuit and cable television projections, a self-contained sound system, and video monitors featuring a touch screen of the BJBE website as well as a scroll of temple events. Soon, Swatez envisions, people will be “coming and hanging” with their laptops and PDAs, and schmoozing while the kids are in religious school.

In Oviedo, Florida, Temple Shir Shalom promotes community through a short video on its homepage (also available on YouTube) that offers a glimpse into congregational life, describes the community’s values, and encourages membership. In Burlingame, California, Peninsula Temple Sholom's video promotes an upcoming trip to Israel and emphasizes the deep sense of inclusion and community the experience will cultivate.

Social Networking

Five years ago, when the online social networking site Facebook was in its infancy, Rabbi Jonathan Blake started sending “friend invitations” to his former students, and, he saw, they accepted the invitations. Today, the associate rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York uses Facebook almost exclusively to maintain contact with young people, college students, and recent grads who are on their own for the first time, explaining that people between the ages of 14 and 28 conduct an estimated 98% of their communications through Facebook. “Often, I’ll drop a line [to college students] right before finals, wishing them luck and asking them to let me know when they’ll be back in town,” he says. Then, using Facebook, he coordinates social events, such as a college reunion dinner and a bowling night during Thanksgiving weekend.

While Rabbi Blake’s Facebook communiqués are not under official temple auspices, other congregations, including Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Georgia, have established “official” Facebook groups. “We weren’t reaching all of our target audience through email blasts and monthly newsletters,” says Rabbi Steven Lebow, and “our teens already had a Facebook group presence.” The new initiative is now facilitating information-sharing about upcoming temple events and congregants’ simchas, as well as providing a forum for discussions on worship services and sermons. Rabbi Lebow encourages other temples to follow suit by “finding young people to set [Facebook] up for you and involving them in the process.”

In 2008, after “congregants started using the religious school email list to gather for pizza,” Temple Sinai in Oakland, California established its Facebook presence. “The synagogue needs to be ahead of the curve or congregants will do it without you,” executive director Paul Geduldig explains. Gabby Volodarsky, the congregation’s membership liaison and program director, had also advised him that “prospective members will be looking for the congregation on Facebook.” Now Geduldig has come to see that “as social media takes hold, [groups] form from the bottom up…. It’s where communication and community building are heading.”

Temple leaders are exploring the creation of specific Facebook groups for preschool families, teens, seniors, and job-seeking congregants that would extend the community beyond the synagogue’s members, as grandparents, for example, join the preschool group to stay abreast of the goings-on in their grandchildren’s lives. Temple information-sharing might also be targeted to individuals and families based on their interests and participation in particular Facebook groups.

With a limit of 140 characters per post, Twitter, a microblogging service that’s available both on the web and by text mail, keeps information-hungry parents up to date about what’s going on at Union camps. That’s how Henry S. Jacobs camp director J.C. Cohen provides short updates—often multiple times a day—to parents of Jacobs campers through the camp’s website. Congregational tweets—as Twitter posts are known—can also be used, Cohen says, “to demonstrate what a busy place a congregation is or to provide a glimpse into the work of some of the key folks. Just remember,” he cautions, “once you start, you have to keep it up. You have to make it a habit because true Twitter followers have high expectations.”

Matthew Lees, a member of Boston’s Temple Israel and former chair of its technology committee, explains that “social media have benefits and drawbacks, issues and challenges.” Although they “tap into the energy, passion, and do-it-yourself attitude of members, synagogues also have needs, commitments, and responsibilities,” including protecting members’ privacy, maintaining organizational security, and overseeing both appropriate communications and the flow of information—to ensure, for example, that people who are not “wired” aren’t left out of the loop. (To read about the challenges inherent in temple tech innovations, see Cyber Judaism.)

For congregations seeking to enter social media, Lees recommends giving the responsibility to a professional staff member serving in a marketing, membership, communications, and/or technology capacity; surfing Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, Twitter, and YouTube often for ideas; calling upon temple members for technical and social media expertise; creating social media guidelines with member input—and being proactive in educating the community about these policies. Also, he says, don’t lose sight of one valuable and simple social technology: an email discussion list (listserv) that can foster meaningful synagogue communication among committee members, teachers, students, youth, and others.

Indeed, technology is changing how temples build and nurture rich, meaningful community.

Jane E. Herman, writer and assistant to Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism


Union for Reform Judaism.