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Turn On, Tune In and Stay Put

September 13, 2012 By:
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Main Line Reform Temple's Ross M. Levy

It's Yom Kippur 2007 on the hit HBO show Entourage. The always connected Hollywood agent Ari Gold is naked without his cell phone. His wife has taken both his gadgets -- his primary one and the one strapped to his ankle, as she berates him for not honoring the holiday.

"Jesus Christ, it's Yom Kippur," she says.

For the generation of teens who watched Entourage before its exit in 2011, the problem Gold faced is one they can relate to. Turning your phone off for a time can seem as reckless as leaving your house without a wallet.

At several synagogues in the Philadelphia area, rabbis and staff are incorporating modern technology into High Holiday programming, taking the approach that if you can't beat it, then plug it in and pray alongside it.

They will use social media, smartphone applications and websites such as YouTube to help enhance congregants' experiences on Rosh Hasha­nah and Yom Kippur.

"How many times do we tell kids, 'Put your phone away,' " Ross M. Levy, director of youth engagement at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood said. "This is an opportunity to say, 'Take your phones out.' "

Yes, he means even on Rosh Hashanah.

On the Jewish New Year, the Main Line teen service will feature a PowerPoint presentation, including text and videos related to the theme of new beginnings. Members of the youth group will lead discussions and engage participants by asking them to share their opinions via text message, and the responses will then be displayed on the screen.

"My feeling, especially with kids, is they need to get their face out of the prayer books," said Levy, who, with a background in web design and Jewish music, has created an iPhone application for the synagogue's youth group and recorded two albums, including one titled Where the Future Lies. A screen at the front of the room trains everyone's eyes to the same point, Levy said.

He hopes that the new approach will entice more students to attend the alternative services and join the youth group. Levy, who came to Main Line earlier this year after serving as director of student life at the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College in Melrose Park, said the synagogue has given him latitude to try his new ideas. Despite the revolutionary -- some would even say blasphemous -- notion of turning your cell phone on during services, Levy said he has faced little resistance and hasn't yet been told, "You can't do this."

"So far so good. Fortunately and unfortunately," teens almost expect, to use technology, he said. "They are really excited to use it in the service."

Rabbis and other educators are also looking outside the digital realm for ways to innovate at shul. Germantown Jewish Centre, for example, has embraced a national trend known as Sy­naplex, which means providing a number of different, usually non-traditional Shabbat experiences for congregants and visitors. Extending the concept to Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue will offer a yoga and meditation service. Germantown Rabbi Adam Zeff said part of installing a new service or idea is determining whether it fits with the synagogue and the Conservative movement with which it is affiliated.

"I have talked with the leaders of the yoga and meditation services when they ask, 'What are the boundaries for me as a Jew?' " said Zeff. "Oftentimes they are learning from teachers who are Buddhist, and there are some aspects of Buddhism that do become religious."

Whenever someone proposes changing decades-long traditions, there will inevitably be pushback from people who prefer services the way they've always been -- or else many ideas about how best to implement a new practice.

Rabbi David Gerber, a new rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, sees technology as a way to help build community and bring people together.

Gerber wrote his thesis on the use of mobile technology in Judaism while study­ing at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

But the High Holidays, he said, "are a time to shut off technology and focus on yourself." Still, he has found a way to compromise -- using low-tech learning during the holiday but incorporating some high-tech for a follow-up exercise.

Before joining Beth Or in July, he created a website to provide resources on ways to use QR codes, sophisticated barcodes that are scanned with smartphones, in Jewish education. On Rosh Hashanah, Gerber will cue fifth- and sixth-graders to leave the main sanctuary before the main rabbi's sermon and lead them in an art project using rocks, colored sand and a jar.

"The pull-out of the kids from services is the best way for them to get the most out of the holiday," Gerber said.

The art project is widely used and designed to help students gain perspective on what is most valuabale in life. Nothing about the activity itself involves any modern technology, but Gerber will send students home with a piece of paper that uses augmented reality, a technology similar to QR codes. When placed under a smartphone camera, a video of Gerber will appear on the paper. The video is intended for parents, offering them an explanation of the activity the kids did during services.

In adding new technology to services, synagogue leaders must also navigate between introducing a practice that enhances the service and one that might dilute the meaning of the holiday -- or just cause a distraction.

At Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, the professionals will be working to find the appropriate balance between the contemporary and the traditional when they unveil a renovated sanctuary at the High Holidays. Among the additions are projection screens, a new sound system and lighting that can be adjusted more easily.

The Reform synagogue will gradually introduce the new technology, said Rabbi Kevin Kleinman. The congregation will rededicate the sanctuary, which also features a new, lower bimah, during the Rosh Hashanah morning service but will wait until the afternoon family service to use the screens. While the congregation reads a text about Jacob's dream, various artists' imagery depicting the story, combined with liturgy, will appear on the screens.

"When we did this construction project, with adding the bimah and making the seats more comfortable -- the first time we've done any renovations since the sanctuary was built in the 1950s -- it's also the right moment to introduce some of these more technological changes," Kleinman said.

The High Holidays this year will act as a soft opening for the new technology at Keneseth Israel. Based on input from members, the congregation could move some of the more progressive practices from the afternoon on Rosh Hashanah to the morning services next year.

Kleinman is also aware of new ideas involving smartphones and social media employed by some synagogues and said Keneseth Israel could try something similar in the future. He joked that the rabbis might ask congregants to vote via text message whether they would like to sing "Shalom Rav" or "Oseh Shalom."

"What we think about is how we maintain the sanctity and the spirit of the holiday," he said, "while using the new elements in our sanctuary to help people connect to their inner place, the inner Jewish place."

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