Virtual Seders and Jewish services! Apr 6, 2012 10:26:39 GMT -5
Post by shira on Apr 6, 2012 10:26:39 GMT -5
(Go to the website for photos)
Matzo Ball Soup, Check. iPad, Check. For Passover, Jews Try Techie Seders
By LUCETTE LAGNADO
Rabbi Laura Baum will lead a supersize Passover Seder on Saturday.
As hundreds of worshipers follow along, she and a fellow rabbi will recite blessings over four cups of wine, eat matzo or unleavened bread, and dip parsley into salt water to tell the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery.
Tradition? Well, not exactly.
Rabbi Baum's Seder will be conducted in cyberspace, as her guests—from New York to New Zealand—join in at OurJewishCommunity.org, the online congregation she co-leads. Rabbi Baum, 32, has been keeping close track of the number of people who will participate. So far, the guest list is up to about 400—although she need not worry about any last-minute crashers. "It is not as if we will run out of gefilte fish," she says.
At a time of declining church and synagogue membership, Jewish leaders—from the Orthodox to the Reform—are embracing technology as a way to upload new energy into the hourslong Seder.
Passover videos have gone viral; rabbis are leading "visual prayers," synagogues are installing "Torahcams." And a visit to Apple's iTunes store reveals several apps for celebrating the holiday. One offering, DIY Seder Haggadah, assures that it "isn't your grandparents' Seder."
"What we are seeing are rabbis experimenting with how to use new technologies to strengthen Jewish life," says Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. While some fear that new media may detract from traditional practices, he says, the changes "could ultimately lead to the strengthening of religion."
Anyone who clicks on to OurJewishCommunity.org Saturday night will be welcomed by a cozy image of an impeccably-set Passover table with all the fixings of a traditional, 'round-the-dining-table holiday. Never mind that it's a scene from an actual, non-virtual Seder.
"Sure, sitting in a room is a powerful way to have community," says Rabbi Baum, 32 years old. "But the fact you can do Passover with people all over the world, that is not any less of a community."
Rabbi Baum's Beth Adam congregation, based in Cincinnati, is on the outer edges of established Judaism. It creates its own Passover service and doesn't cite God in its liturgy. Still, she thinks social media can serve as a bridge for Jews who are alienated from organized religion—or simply don't have access to a lengthy, sit-down Seder. For those in a real hurry, she has posted a "three-minute Seder" on YouTube.
In South Orange, N.J., Rabbi Daniel Cohen, who leads Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a progressive Reform congregation, is ready to savor a digital Passover.
Rabbi Cohen keeps his iPad by his side even in the sanctuary, where he uses it as he conducts prayers and delivers sermons—though he turns it on airplane mode so as not to get emails. He says the tablet has become, in effect, his "rabbinic library."
For the Seder, he plans to put aside his old paper Haggadahs—those trusty booklets containing chants and prayers used Passover night. And rather than preside from the dining room table, he will lead his family to the den, where they will follow the Seder on a widescreen TV, using Apple's equivalent of Power Point.
He first tried the high-tech version three years ago, and was gratified that guests were actually engaged—and not itching to get to the matzo ball soup or the brisket. "Nobody was saying 'when are we going to eat?' " he recalls.
In some ways the Jewish faith has come around to what Christian Televangelists have done for years—firing up the faithful with the use of big screens and jazzy visuals. The nonprofit CatholicTV Network is another source for continuous "faith-filled, family-friendly programming." One recent feature: "Film Fathers Make Oscar Predictions" with Revs. Bill Kelly and Chip Hines.
The Catholic network also has a social-media editor who tweets news coming out of the Vatican. "We are really into the high-tech stuff here," says spokeswoman Shannon Muldoon.
Within Judaism, even some of the most Orthodox movements are getting into a digital groove.
One Orthodox website, Aish.com, has produced a takeoff on the rock band Queen's iconic "Bohemian Rhapsody." Called "Passover Rhapsody, a Jewish Rock Opera," it features goofy-looking singing puppets who chant a holiday message using the same melodies and rhythms as the original song.
Last year, the site summoned a religious hero to star in its "Google Exodus." The clip shows Moses consulting Google to research topics like "awesome plagues" and using Facebook to send messages to "firstname.lastname@example.org." With each key click audible over a light jazzy tune, he types "Let My People Go. Now." It has been viewed more than two million times and "is still going strong," says Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith, Aish.com's chief editor.
One small hitch: Orthodox Jews, who are prohibited from using electronic devices during the Seder or Sabbath—e.g. Friday night through Saturday sunset—won't be watching.
The Reform movement's rabbinical arm recently hired its own tech guru, 32-year-old Rabbi Dan Medwin of Los Angeles, to help rabbis across the country get wired. "The generation growing up now is most accustomed to getting their info from digital sources," says Rabbi Medwin, Publishing Technology Manager of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. "It is going to feel weird for them to go into a synagogue and use a book."
For this holiday, Rabbi Medwin is passing over the paper. Instead, he'll be using an eHaggadah that he devised for iPads. He plans to use his own tablet when he goes to his family's service, although he admits he's a tad nervous: A spilled cup of wine could wreck it.
Judaism's new fascination with technology can extend well beyond Passover.
Some congregations, says Rabbi Medwin, are installing webcams, dubbed "Torahcams," in the sanctuary. As a person reads from the torah scrolls, the relevant text is beamed on a giant screen.
Then there are "visual prayers"—recitations that incorporate visual elements to help set the mood for prayer. A typical evening service might feature an image of a babbling brook or a starry night that flashes on a screen at the front of the synagogue.
A big fan of "visual prayer," Rabbi Medwin says it helps make religion more appealing at a time when a minority of American Jews attend prayer services regularly.
Not everyone, though, is keen on the religion's new-media web.
Rabbi Beth Singer has been waging a tough battle to turn her sanctuary into a tech-free zone. She leads Temple Beth Am, a 930-family congregation in Seattle whose members include employees of nearby Microsoft. She is distressed by how many worshipers peck at phones during service, sometimes hiding them underneath prayer shawls or behind purses. Getting them to stop is "an uphill battle," she says.
That's why she frets about all the Passover gimmickry. "I worry that any kind of electronic device might inhibit the conversation. I think that there is a place for people sitting around the table singing the songs and telling the story."
Meanwhile, back in Cincinnati, even Rabbi Baum will attend a sit-down Seder.
Jonathan Rosen, author of "The Talmud and the Internet," warns of the danger of becoming enslaved to technology on a holiday that, after all, celebrates freedom. At the end of a Seder, he points out, "we say 'next year in Jerusalem,' not next year in cyberspace."
Write to Lucette Lagnado at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared April 6, 2012, on page A1 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Matzo Ball Soup, Check. iPad, Check. For Passover, Jews Try Techie Seders.