Technology shapes content: High Holidays with the online flock

The idea was really simple, in terms of technology: Since many Jews could not attend High Holiday rites, why not put microphones in key locations and let them listen on their telephones? 

It wasn't as good as being there, but -- for shut-ins -- it was better than nothing.

Decades later, some Jewish leaders mounted cameras in their packed sanctuaries and let people watch High Holidays rites on video. Again, it wasn't the same as being there, but it was better than nothing and, certainly, better than listening on a telephone.

Jewish leaders who tiptoed into these technologies "didn't change what they were doing, they just put a telephone near it," said Rabbi Robert Barr, founder of Congregation Beth Adam, a 30-year-old independent congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio. "When cameras came along, they just aimed cameras at what they were already doing. They didn't change anything." 

That isn't what this self-proclaimed "humanistic" congregation is trying to do with it's global congregation, which began with High Holidays services in 2008 and has been meeting in cyberspace ever since. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, begins at sundown tonight (Sept. 24) and the season ends 10 days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when Jews wrestle with the reality of their own sins and strive to renew their faith. 

Rabbi Laura Baum, who founded, stressed that while interactive video is streamed live from the bricks-and-mortar Beth Adam sanctuary during the High Holidays, the project's regular work -- from weekly Shabbat services to pastoral care -- is unique and totally online. The weblogs, podcast collections, YouTube channel, digital libraries and chat rooms are always open, which means the digital doors are never locked. 

While the analog Beth Adam congregation has 300 members, Baum and Barr expect between 30,000 and 40,000 people to take part in one or more of the digital High Holidays services. Counting this kind of flock is "more of an art than a science," said Baum, since there is no way to know how many people are gathered around one computer or mobile device at any one time. 

"We thought we'd be reaching young people," she said. "That's a key demographic for many synagogues today. ... We know that many young people under the age of 30 or 40 may not join a congregation, but they are obviously very comfortable with technology." 

Surveys, however, have shown that many of the online participants are elderly, people in hospitals, soldiers or Jews who could not miss work. Others are "on the go," surfing in and out of services. Some people -- perhaps family members scattered around the world -- enjoy being able to "attend" the same rite at the same time, passing messages back and forth online. 

"We are rabbis who encourage people to chat during our services," said Baum. 

Truth is, she said, some people prefer to experience community at the level of face-to-face interaction, reverent silence in the pews, congregational singing and hugs from other members. However, many others prefer the anonymity found online, choosing to spend time in personal, solitary reflection in what they see as a safe environment in which they are allowed to share what they want, when they want and with whom they want to share it. 

Need to grab a sandwich or take a telephone call? Sure. Want to share an ironic wisecrack, photo or YouTube link with others in the flock? Sure. Disagree with what the rabbi just said or want to critique of a poetic twist in this week's liturgy produced by the community? Sure. Take it to Twitter, Facebook or live chat options in the software. 

This full embrace of technology would, of course, be totally unacceptable for those whose faith is rooted in the traditions of Orthodox Judaism, said Barr. However, the leaders of Congregation Beth Adam are -- at every level of doctrine and practice -- focusing on an evolving Judaism of the future, not the past. 

"We're trying to make sense out of what this online experience is, what makes it work," he said. Instead of using new technology to put the same old services online, "what we are doing is qualitatively different. We're right in the middle of these changes. We are living it. ... We're really trying to redefine what it means to be a community in the first place."