2014-03-05 / Columns

Synagogues beginning to look at engaging members by live-streaming services


Christian mega-churches have recognized for years that they can reach many of their faithful through cyberspace. “Church Production” magazine noted in December that millions watched an Internet broadcast of Pope Benedict’s final day as pope, while a Florida church reaches 4,000 online worshippers weekly, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints recently streamed 14 hours of its general conference to 29,000 churches worldwide.

Live-streaming of Jewish services has gotten a more tentative embrace. JewishWebcast ing.com, a directory of Jewish video on the web, lists only 16 synagogues providing live Shabbat service experiences online.

Most, like Cong. Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV and B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL provide a single wide-angle view of the synagogue bimah from small ceilingmounted cameras, but a few congregations are experimenting with video setups and services structured to engage an online audience.

One of the pioneers of purely online services is Sim Shalom, a virtual synagogue led by Rabbi Steven Blane.

Blane leads Friday night services at Sim Shalom on the synagogue’s Ustream.com video feed. Also a jazz musician and cantor, he warms up for the synagogue’s 7 p.m. service by playing jazz standards online for about a half hour, while chatting with congregants who send him text messages. Sim Shalom’s service includes video images of Blane intermixed with pages from the synagogue’s prayerbook so that participants can follow along with prayers and songs.

Blane said he first realized that synagogues needed to consider online services when he was working as a Conservative synagogue rabbi.

“What we do is not a stream, it’s not what any synagogue on the planet is doing,” he said. Blane notes that the service is specifically designed for an online community, and participants use text-chat capabilities to interact with him and with the other rabbis who lead services on weeknights and Shabbat mornings.

The synagogue makes its siddur available as a PDF file for congregants to download if they want to follow along without referring to the screen.

Similar to Sim Shalom is the service produced online by OurJewishCommunity.org, an online synagogue led by Rabbis Laura Baum and Robert Barr of Cincinnati’s Cong. Beth Adam. Rather than a rebroadcast from the sanctuary, the service is intimate, with the cameras close-in on the two rabbis as they discuss the theme of the week’s service. Archived recordings are available.

“The dynamics of ‘bricks and mortar’ are changing,” agreed Bruce Weinger, the local volunteer who leads the live-streaming team for Cong. M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill. “We’re making an effort to extend ourselves to people who just choose not to drive out many nights.”

M’kor Shalom (mkorshalom.org) is the only South Jersey synagogue that regularly broadcasts its services over the Internet. Weinger said the synagogue started streaming services about two years ago, when Rabbi Richard Address arrived. (Disclosure: I manage Rabbi Address’ JewishSacredAging.com website.)

“The reception has been very positive. We have received notes from people who were too ill to attend,” Rabbi Address said by email. “Also, we received notes from people who, for family or other issues, were unable to attend a service as well as people who were out of town but who wished to remain part of their community.”

A group of six volunteers, including an 11-year-old, produces M’kor’s live service broadcast on the first and third Fridays of the month.

Address is enthusiastic about the technology. “My personal belief is that there is untapped potential for congregations to make use of technology, not only for streaming services and major educational and cultural events, but also in the field of Jewish education,” he said.

Write to me at steve@compuschmooze.com if you have participated in online synagogue services, or if you’d like to try it. .

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