Prayer? There’s an app for that

In an effort to bring Judaism to where people are, more and more synagogues are offering live streaming of their religious services so Jews can daven from the comfort of their living rooms.

Chabad pioneered the trend two decades ago with live satellite feeds of public menorah lightings at Chanukah. But it’s the Reform movement that picked up the webcasting ball. Makes sense — the most popular online services are Shabbat and the High Holy Days, which the Conservative and Orthodox couldn’t show live without violating the halachic prohibition against using electricity on those Jewish holidays.

That’s why the subject line on this email from the Orthodox Union caught my attention: “Live Tisha B’Av webcast!”

Now, there’s no halachic problem with this — work is not forbidden on Tisha B’Av, which fell this year on July 28. But the email made me sit up, and not in a good way.

There are many reasons for live-streaming a religious service. The main one, and the reason most often articulated by Jewish leaders, is to allow people who are homebound or far away to feel part of the congregation at key moments.

At a Union for Reform Judaism biennial workshop I attended some years ago, one synagogue exec pointed out that live streaming permitted a member of his congregation who was serving overseas in Iraq to “participate” in the Kol Nidre service at Yom Kippur. Another speaker gave the example of an elderly woman in an assisted-living facility who was able to enjoy her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah in real time through the magic of the Internet.

Fair enough.

The Internet has also encouraged creative innovation in Jewish practice. There are “synagogues without walls,” such as, an online-only project of Reform Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, founded in September 2008 as a way to reach out to progressive Jews around the world. They claim hundreds of thousands of participants.

There is the 3-year-old, based in Atlanta, a global virtual Jewish community that is not attached to any physical synagogue, or any denomination at all. Volunteers with tzitzit and piercings lead daily interactive prayer services online.

Are these initiatives hooks to draw the unaffiliated into brick-and-mortar buildings, where they will pay dues and keep the parent operation running? Sometimes. Other times, the virtual congregation is an entity unto itself, seen as a modern way to provide a religious service to people who cannot or who otherwise would not avail themselves of it.

So what tweaked me about the OU’s Tisha B’Av offer? And by the way, the OU was not the only organization doing it this year — everyone from Yeshiva University to got into the act.

My reaction had to do with the day’s gravitas. If on Tisha B’Av we sit on the floor, take off our shoes, fast for 24 hours and mourn the destruction of the Temple, it seems counterintuitive for a Jewish organization to go to such lengths to make it easier on us. Isn’t suffering, in fact, the point?

Maybe I’m harping on this too much. But while I’m on a rant, let’s turn back to OurJewishCommunity, a project I admire (I admire the OU as well, don’t get me wrong).

Check out this paragraph from the FAQ section of its website:  “We encourage interaction during services. You have the option to chat with others on Facebook, Twitter, or Livestream during our services.”

Chat during services? Now that’s just bad behavior. Have our attention spans grown so attenuated that we cannot focus for even half an hour?

There’s nothing inherently distasteful about live-streaming religious services, particularly when it serves a worthy purpose like soldiers at war or grandparents in Boca. But if and when it becomes the norm, I think we will lose a tremendous amount. There’s a magic in coming together as a community, feeling the physical presence of others engaged in the same humble petitioning or joyous celebration.

In community, you can feel the energy. Alone, it’s more difficult. And when the service is on-screen, it’s tempting to take a break. Go to the kitchen for a snack. Text a friend.

What’s next, commercials?


Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].