My virtual Jewish congregation

Jewish congregations have come late to the potential of reaching live audiences through multimedia.

At first I was hesitant to take the technological leap with Kol Nidre, the sacred service of Yom Kippur eve. I was concerned that live-streaming what is perhaps the holiest service of the Jewish year would draw criticism; that encouraging the use of computers on a holy day, that the very presence of cameras and lights might disrupt the sanctity of the moment.

And yet, if any community seemed ripe to take advantage of the freedom and accessibility of the Internet, it was Nashuva, the community I lead. In Hebrew nashuva means “we will return,” and thousands of people have returned to Judaism through our services, social actions and celebrations.

But one of the ironies of modern Jewish life is that even though Jewish Americans were pioneers in broadcasting and entertainment, Jewish congregations have come late to the potential of reaching live audiences through multimedia. Christian churches have been far more innovative in televising and web-casting religious services.

I looked at their success and thought: Why not us? If the goal is outreach, is there a better method than the Internet? And so, in the past few years, we began web casting our monthly Sabbath services as well as our Kol Nidre service in partnership with jewishjournal.com.

This past week, some 75,000 people around the world experienced our Kol Nidre service. My congregation is not limited to those who fit within the sanctuary, rather it includes thousands of people across the country and around the world. Emails pour in from India, South Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, Japan, Norway, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Spain, France, Chile, Argentina and Bahrain. Our virtual sanctuary extends to students in college dorms, to families too poor to pay for synagogue dues but too proud to ask for charity, to patients in hospital beds, to the elderly and infirm, to disaffected Jews and to those who live far from any temple.

Several participants could not attend services in person due to illness. One wrote to me, “My father was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His diagnosis is terminal and it is most likely that this will be our last High Holy Days together. This broadcast allowed my father, my daughter and I to share the High Holy Days together. I wish I could have shown you my father sitting and watching your broadcast while holding the hand of his granddaughter.” Where another wrote, “This is a special Yom Kippur for my family. My wife suffered a heart attack and stroke in April at age 39. To join the world in prayer through the internet is special. May we all be inscribed in the book of life! Shana Tova.”

Another one of my virtual congregants shared, “I find myself alone on this Yom Kippur, and in emotional pain. Your service warmed my heart and uplifted my spirit when I thought nothing could. Thank you so very much!”

Someone else used the service to reconnect saying, “I had fallen away from my Judaism. Thank you for this broadcast. I feel connected once more. Shalom.”

Students joined together on the east coast, writing “We at Dartmouth College are watching and worshipping with Nashuva…The broadcast is spectacular and soul uplifting.”

We even had non-Jewish participants. One shared, “I was raised a Roman Catholic and in my 42 years I have never been so moved by a service. Tonight you gave me a perspective that was much needed. I would like to thank everyone involved. You brought a wonderful smile to my soul !!!! You don’t know how needed it was and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you. Keep up the wonderful work. PS-I will fast with you, my brothers.”

If I had any doubts that the livestream is worth suffering some critics, the criticism I receive now is that we only webcast Kol Nidre and not the other High Holy Day services.

I became a rabbi so that I could share the faith I love with others. I never imagined when we founded Nashuva that we’d be able to reach so very many people. I feel blessed to know that we are bringing hope and healing and inspiration to the those who need it the most. Ironically, the one word that keeps popping up in the letters I receive is “community.” People are grateful to be members of my community. Thank God for the Internet.

Image courtesy of Jrwooley6.

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  • Zygion

    I watched Nashuva’s Kol Nidre services online. It was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

  • Zygion

    I watched Nashuva’s Kol Nidre services online. It was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.