Faith for the Far Away and Everyone Else

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Adath Israel in Merion Station is one of several area synagogues that livestreams its service. This is what home viewers see when they access the livestream. | Photo provided

If there were any doubts among the faithful about the appropriate use of cameras to livestream services, celebrations and funerals to off-site congregants, those doubts were quickly dispelled at area synagogues by experiences like these:

  • A homebound grandmother, unable to travel from France to attend her granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah in Philadelphia, watches the entire celebration and sees both the granddaughter and rabbi turn to the camera and address her during the ceremony;
  • A local temple’s “Prayer for Our Country” service honors, in real time, a serviceman and congregant deployed in the Middle East with a “live” salute by congregation veterans;
  • A young woman who works for the United States government and is unable to be home during the High Holidays rigs a bank of televisions at a national security agency with Temple Sholom in Broomall’s livestream feed, and a group of Jewish employees gather together to watch it.

Often considered the bane of spiritual matters, technology has nonetheless proven itself surprisingly useful at drawing communities of worship together through the touch of a laptop keypad. Without exception, the local synagogues surveyed on the use of livestreaming programs declared that the technology has exceeded every expectation.

Rabbis at Reform area temples have found their communities not only not shrinking, but expanding in unanticipated ways as congregants near and far embrace the possibilities.

“I’m always happy to talk about this. I’m particularly proud of the livestreaming and of the response we’ve had,” said Rabbi Peter C. Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall, which has been livestreaming services for eight years. “First, we just did the High Holidays because people were not sure. But when we started getting hundreds of individual views, we knew we were onto something: Kids on college campuses are viewing it, parents with toddlers who can’t find coverage for their children, seniors in their homes.

“The scope of it is very different from what I had expected. People are dipping back into the archives, the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs or the sermons. People are coming back to me and saying, ‘I heard your sermon was really great so I went on the website and I viewed it, and here’s what I think.’ So that archive really helps a great deal.”

Indeed, the website for Temple Sholom includes a photograph with a directive to “click here” for livestream broadcasts as well as celebrations, sermons and lectures archived for the community. While some congregants, particularly the elderly, struggled with the technology at first, Rigler said he receives fewer and fewer such comments these days. And there is always a temple member willing to teach a homebound senior how to access the services, he said.

Adath Israel, a Conservative shul in Merion Station, has livestreamed for about seven years and has found the technology a superb tool for reaching out to its community.

“When we first started, our main goal was outreach to the homebound and to nursing homes,” Rabbi Eric Yanoff said. “So every year in August, we send a letter to local nursing homes and hospitals, and we tell them how to access the programs. We give them the time of the memorial prayers, and we tell them when the shofar blast is likely to be. So it goes to several dozen care facilities and our whole list of homebound congregants.”

But the use of the livestream service, he said, has gone much farther. For example, one college student called him five years ago and said she found her college Yom Kippur service lacking. She missed her home congregation’s celebration. So Yanoff sent her the livestream link.

“It was one of those do-it-yourself-Judaism-college moments,” Yanoff said. “She and a group of friends went down to the dining hall, got their pre-fast meal, took it back to their dorm room, opened up her laptop, and, together, a group of college students in the Midwest went to Yom Kippur services at Adath Israel.”

Cameras are generally situated at the back of the room or high on a wall where they will not disturb the congregation. The fixed view takes in the whole of the bimah and, in most cases, a portion of the pews, so that the viewer has the impression of sitting at the back of the service. While the startup costs for the technology can be significant, especially for smaller congregations, both Adath Israel and Temple Sholom said they benefitted from donations by a single donor or a small group of donors.

Other concerns about the technology centered on whether livestreaming would reduce the number of congregants at Shabbat and other services, or replace the feeling of community invoked by worshipping together. Again, those concerns were allayed once the technology went into regular use.

Abbey Krain, executive director at Temple Sholom, said that, on the contrary, the broadcasts have brought the community closer, even drawing in viewers who are not members.

“Do we feel like because of the livestream fewer people are coming? The crazy thing is it has the opposite effect,” Krain said. “It spurs people on to become more involved with our community. It gives them one extra opportunity. Our numbers have stayed the same and even grown. People send us donations from all over the country. I’ve just received an email donation on our website from California saying they just logged on and really enjoyed it.”

Rigler added, “There were some who thought if you set up a camera that you would be alone in the sanctuary, that no one would come in anymore. Livestreaming simply doesn’t replace being here and being part of a community, but it does loop people in. We have found that it only enhances our community. It doesn’t replace being present here.”

Clifford Strauss, an 18-year member of Shir Ami in Newtown, said he uses the temple’s livestream services — and the services of congregations throughout the country — to supplement his study and understanding of the Torah.

“The concept of livestreaming is wonderful for multiple reasons. From my perspective, to be able to draw up another synagogue and see their service and see their speaker, it’s just terrific. I recently watched a woman, a Reformed rabbi from France, on another temple’s livestream and she was just so amazing. I enjoy going online and saying, ‘Hey, let’s see what so-and-so spoke about this week.’ It gives me another perspective on culture and history and the Torah. And I can do that from my suburban home.” 

Wendy Plump is a freelance writer.

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