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Virtual synagogue suits some at Rosh Hashana
[September 08, 2010]

Virtual synagogue suits some at Rosh Hashana

Sep 08, 2010 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- As Rosh Hashana begins tonight, tech-savvy Jews who can't get to a synagogue -- and who aren't strictly observant -- can join in New Year services via iPad, BlackBerry or smart phone.

It's the newest twist from, a virtual synagogue created by a humanist Jewish congregation in Cincinnati. Mainstream Jewish groups respect the Ohio congregation's commitment to outreach, but raise concerns about whether it detracts from true community or violates the Torah's prohibition against working on holy days.

The rabbis at believe that they reach Jews who have given up on other synagogues.

"We realized that there was a need to create a Jewish experience that would reach people outside of Jewish institutions," said Rabbi Laura Baum, founding rabbi of "People were voting with their feet and not affiliating with congregations. We looked at the demographics and realized the value of social media." The effort is based at Congregation Beth Adam in Cincinnati, an independent congregation that bills itself as progressive and humanist. Beth Adam helps people connect with their Jewish heritage, but doesn't insist that they believe in God.

"Our liturgy is created by and is written for individuals who do not presume a God who intervenes or manipulates the affairs of this world," its website says.

Congregation Beth Adam has 300 members, but last year 4,000 computers worldwide logged into its Yom Kippur services. This is the third year for live coverage, but the first with a site for mobile devices.

Computer access is at and Mobile devices can use

Rosh Hashana Services will be streamed at 8:15 tonight and tomorrow at 10:30 a.m., with a children's service at 1:30 p.m. Yom Kippur services will stream on Sept. 17-18.

The website was designed with young people in mind, but has drawn all ages.

"We hear from people in their 80s who aren't able to get to services, and a lot of empty nesters," Rabbi Baum said. and its related Facebook and Twitter sites allow participants to chat during the liturgy.

"We are among the few rabbis who encourage talking during services," Rabbi Baum said of herself and Rabbi Robert Barr, who founded Beth Adam.

It's not rude, she said, but builds community among participants who can't see each other. Those who don't want to see the chatter can make it disappear.

All of that makes Orthodox Jews cringe. The technology isn't a problem. The enthusiastically Orthodox Lubavitch movement has a huge outreach at Inquirers can listen to Jewish podcasts, click on "Ask the Rabbi" or learn Jewish songs from videos. But there are no online holy day services.

"Reaching out to Jews everywhere is a top priority and a great value that all Jews hold dearly, but [streaming video of holy day services] is sacrilegious and inappropriate," said Rabbi Yaacov Rosenstein, director of Judaism1on1, which offers Torah tutoring in Pittsburgh.

That's because all holy days are Sabbaths, no matter which day they fall on, he said. Creative activity is prohibited on the Sabbath because it is the day on which God rested from creation. Even viewing a live video violates the Sabbath, he said.

"A good question -- and one that I don't have a good answer for -- is whether you can have a non-Jew videograph it and then, after Rosh Hashana, put it on YouTube," Rabbi Rosenstein said.

Reform Jews aren't as strict. Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana, Calif, has live-streamed its High Holy Day services for years, said Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Shadyside.

He doesn't share the humanist philosophy of Beth Adam, and notes that "it's not surprising that a community that is nontraditional in its approach to Jewish ritual, practice and belief is pushing the envelope with regard to how we define community for the next century." Rabbi Bisno's concern is that computer technology can be isolating, while Jewish tradition balances autonomy with community. For instance, at least 10 Jewish adults must be present for prayers to begin.

"Traditionally the prayers of the High Holy Days are offered in the plural, to express the fact that this is a responsibility that we all share, to reflect on the year that is past and to make commitments going forward," he said. "Our tradition encourages us, if it doesn't enjoin us, to come together in community. If that's possible, that's preferable." But Rabbi Baum believes that the community at is as real as those in brick-and-mortar synagogues. The regulars get to know each other and welcome newcomers, she said. Family members who live thousands of miles apart have found great meaning in watching services together.

"I don't assume that being physically in the same room is more valuable than being connected online," she said. "I would never tell someone who wanted to go to services that they should stay home instead.

"But for a variety of reasons, there are people who can't go or who can't afford to go to synagogues, or who don't feel comfortable going. And I'm totally fine with that." Ann Rodgers: or 412-263-1416.

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