Live, online: High Holiday services streaming to a living room near you
From their laptops, smart phones and home computers, hundreds of suburban Jews will watch Yom Kippur services Friday and Saturday on live online video streams rather than attend High Holiday services at synagogues.
B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohiem in Deerfield is one of a handful of temples nationwide to experiment with this technology, even though not all Jews embrace the idea.
BJBE streamed live video for the first time last week during Rosh Hashana services, and will do it again for this weekend's Yom Kippur observances at www.bjbe.org/video.
Among the 750 people who tuned in were an ill congregant and a college student who wasn't able to come home for the midweek services, which celebrate the start of the Jewish new year.
"It was outstanding," BJBE Executive Director Marc Swatez said. "People loved it."
Christian churches have broadcast Masses and services on television for years. However, it's rare for small, local houses of worship to do live broadcasts - particularly Jewish temples, because not everyone in the Jewish community favors mixing technology and religious services.
Rabbi Jonathan Kohn, of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, a conservative synagogue, says watching a live video is not an appropriate way for Jews to participate in High Holiday observances, including Yom Kippur - the day of atonement. A college student who can't come home for the holiday, for example, would be better off attending services in the town he's in rather than watching online, he said.
"It's the difference between playing a game and watching the video version," Kohn said. "We're not watchers. We're participants ... and God is the audience."
At BJBE, a small camera mounted on the wall of the sanctuary captures all of the activity (and sound). The choir can be heard, as can the congregation reciting prayers. The video is shot from a distance, making it difficult to distinguish faces.
Because it is broadcast by USTREAM, a few pop-up ads appear on the bottom of the screen during the first few minutes, but viewers can close them.
Even though the temple didn't finalize its video streaming plans until the day before Rosh Hashana, Swatez said the news spread quickly and the response was "just phenomenal."
The reaction's been equally positive at other temples around the country that have given live streaming a try. There's even an online congregation, OurJewishCommunity.org, that streams all of its services and activities live to "tens of thousands" of members in 150 countries.
Rabbi Laura Baum, 30, says everything's interactive - if she asks a question during services, people will submit their answers via Twitter or Facebook and she'll read what they write. During the prayer for the deceased, photos can be shown while the names are being read. They even offer children's services.
"You can truly form a community online. Families watch services together even though they live in different places," said Baum, who also is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, Ohio. "In today's world ... not everyone's schedule lends itself to showing up at a certain time at a certain place."
Orthodox Rabbi Michael Balinsky, the executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, doesn't condone video streaming of services but said conservative and orthodox congregations put stricter rules on the use of cameras in the sanctuary. He also questioned whether there was such a thing as a virtual "minyon" - a quorum of 10 people or more needed for certain Jewish prayers.
"It's not a black-and-white issue," he said. "There are definitely different feelings about this."
Balinsky said Judaism doesn't shun technology - many temples and Jewish teachers have blogs, online classes, Facebook pages, and websites and online videos. The debate is over the appropriate use of technology in worship.
"It's about where one finds one's self on the religious spectrum," Balinsky said. "The question computers have raised is ... is it real? Is there an ethical imperative to be with other people physically?"
Swatez acknowledged that watching a service online is not the same experience as attending in person, saying it lacks a sense of community and the power that comes with praying as a group. But the streaming video makes the temple more accessible to its members and the Jewish community.
"We're not unique ... but we're trying to make our congregation more accessible and stay current," Swatez said. "We didn't do this as a toy."
Swatez said none of BJBE's members complained about the video, but a few questioned whether the temple should show a free live broadcast when members must pay dues to get tickets to the services. This will be among the policy issues the temple board members plan to discuss at a post-holiday meeting, he said.
Many temples are reaching out to their communities now because the number of Jews is on the decline. There were 3.1 million Jews in the U.S. in 1990 and only 2.7 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only 40 percent of Jews are affiliated with congregations, according to the National Jewish Population Study of 2001.
Streaming services isn't necessarily going to increase those numbers, but it's a step toward reconnecting Jews who have fallen away from the religion, or possibly draw interest from new members, Baum said.
"If you keep doing what you do, you're going to get the same results. And if we don't do something like this, the alternatives are not good," she said. "People are not going to abandon temple and be online only. But why should we close the doors to people?"