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High Holy Days Holiday Machzor Technology

Beyond the Service: Five (More) Things to Consider for Online High Holy Days

A few years ago, in the midst of chemotherapy treatments, I could not attend High Holy Day services at my synagogue. My family attended as usual, and I stayed home, turned on the computer, and watched the livestream. It gave me the perspective to say with confidence that streaming would never be a satisfactory replacement for in-person services. With High Holy Days 5781 going all or mostly online in most communities, here are five things I had to figure out for myself; addressing them will make a huge difference for our communities this fall.

  1. Distractions. In our own sanctuaries, we make an announcement or put in our handouts a reminder to silence cell phones, and the peer pressure of being in a theater-like setting is enough for most people to comply. But at home, we are asking people to be on the very screens that we want them to avoid in synagogue. More than that, unlike the online Shabbat services we’ve been doing for months now, High Holy Day services aren’t just for the most dedicated among us. Rosh HaShanah falling on a weekend will help limit work distractions, but how many people will try to stream Yom Kippur services while also working from home and, perhaps, homeschooling their children? Consider a reminder—and a how-to—not just on connecting to the livestream, but on turning off distracting notifications: news apps, emails, text messages, and more, that will drag them away from the service mentally if not physically.

  2. Physical machzor. Visual T’filah is beautiful; it has been a lifesaver, and I wish it had been part of the livestream in the year I was home. I was lucky to have my own machzor on the shelf; I’m not sure I would have continued streaming without it. But the High Holy Days are about personal reflection; Mishkan HaNefesh allows eyes to wander and enhances individual prayer in the midst of community prayer. During a choral piece, how many of our congregants watch the cantor or choir the whole time, and how many are reading something else on the page? Our machzor encourages reflection and prayer, and especially in a year that is already strange, anything we can do to enrich that is important. If our congregants don’t already own a machzor, we should be thinking about how to get a copy into their hands.

  3. Busy hands. I’m a doodler and a fidgeter. In the sanctuary, the machzor gives me something to hold onto. But when streaming services, the machzor sits on a table in front of me, so my hands are empty. I do not participate as fully as I do when I’m in the sanctuary. People will be tempted to pick up their phones to play a game, or to read a nearby magazine, or to fold laundry. What could we encourage people to do instead? I did hand lettering during the High Holy Days I was streaming, creating artwork out of words from the machzor. I copied out, by hand, readings or lines I found especially meaningful. I wrote prayers. What can we give to our congregants to keep them in the mental space of the service, when they are surrounded by a million other things they could be doing?

  4. Kids and others. In the year I stayed home, during the daytime services, my husband took our children to the synagogue. For the evening services, I was home with the kids while he went to synagogue. Even though the kids (then three and almost one) were in bed when the services began, I missed a lot until they (eventually) fell asleep. I could not have done it during the day when they were up. How can we support families with young children at home, without the ubiquitous babysitting or children’s programming? While some congregations might simultaneously stream children’s programming, many won’t be able to. What resources can we provide in order to entertain, educate, and spiritually nourish children so that their parents can focus and pray? What resources can we provide to parents to empower them to get their kids connected and engaged?

  5. Connection. The High Holy Days are about connecting with God, but they’re also about connecting with other people and with clergy. I missed this part the most, in my streaming year, and we’re all feeling it now. Maybe we want to encourage congregants to (virtually) chat with each other during services. Maybe we can have someone periodically post pre-written discussion questions—or questions about the sermon—during the service. Maybe we can add High Holy Day programming that isn’t services, like small-group Tashlich (one of few things I attended in-person that year), or physically distant picnics, or apple picking. Maybe we’re making more phone calls than usual, and having board members call the congregation not just to say “shanah tovah,” but to really work on connecting, encourage religious school classes and other auxiliary groups to hold themed hangouts, or having breakout group receptions or discussions during or after the service.

It’s really hard to feel connected at a time when we’re used to being with our biggest crowds, and instead, we’re alone in a room. I won’t pretend it was fun when I did it a few years ago, but working together and planning ahead, the experience could be a new way to engage, reflect, and pray together.


Rabbi Jessica Barolsky lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her family, where she is a member of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun. She is grateful that CEEBJ has been livestreaming services for many years.

Categories
Death Technology

Zooming through Grief

Walking through the valley of deep darkness during a global pandemic was never a thought that rose to my mind from the moment my mother, Linda Kellner, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2018…until it did. Numerous times during the last two years, her cancer had stopped responding to treatment and I tried to brace myself for the moment darkness would fall. There was always another treatment, a light of hope, and more time for my mom to “build memories.”  In early March, as COVID-19 news flowed like lava, I began to worry about my mom contracting the disease. “Mom can’t get this. Her immune system is compromised. Can you do treatment on Long Island instead of trekking to the city? Be sure to wear a mask. Try not to come into contact with anyone,” I repeatedly said to my parents. 

Then, the report from my mom’s doctor exploded like a bomb. Her cancer stopped responding to treatment. “We have something else to try but comfort care may be the best option.” The fighting heart beating inside my mom gave her strength to try, until it gave her strength to decide that it was time. Time to stop the chemicals, stop the pills, and pray for comfort in the time she had left.

The Kellner family on a recent family vacation.

In the moments she was making these decisions, states were shutting down, schools were closing , and the world was changing around us. I realized that it would not be COVID-19 that would take her life but the cancer raging out of control in her body. I would not be by her side to hold her hand, to sing her out of this would into the next. My brother and I would not be with my father as he cared for her with his compassionate heart. We would not be together as families often are. This loss would not be the same, this grief, unique to this time and this place. 

As her daily hours of rest turned to eternal rest on April 14, 2020, and the shadows creeped into this new valley in which we descended, there was so much anxiety. Because my mom died in New York, the epicenter of the pandemic, her funeral would be delayed ten days. The anxiety and the pain surged. “Would Zoom work for the funeral? Would there be enough cell coverage? Would anyone there be able to figure it out on a phone? What would happen if it poured like the forecast predicted? I am not going to be able to shovel the earth,” were the questions and thoughts raging through my mind.

Then it was time. Zoom worked. Hundreds of people attended from all over the country. People who were my mom’s students, mentees, family, friends of the family, my congregational community, showed up. Technology gave us a gift that would we would not have considered under “normal” circumstances. On motzei Shabbat, we logged into Zoom again for shivah minyan, then Sunday night another. Throughout these painful moments many of our dear colleagues shepherded us through moments of memory and prayer, creating a community of comfort found in one-inch squares. No, there weren’t the conversations to distract me or friends entering my unlocked door, but there was prayer, music, and memory, and an opportunity to say Kaddish. The week of shivah continued with some personal, private opportunities to say Kaddish. Each day helped to build a ramp up the mountain of the valley enabling me to see a glimmer of light.

Kaddish is healing whether you say it physically together or “socially distanced.” Knowing people are showing up for you and are there for you is what gives those familiar words their healing power. I was surprised how Zoom shivah could bring healing. Yes, I had led a Zoom minyan earlier in the pandemic for a congregant and did the best I could to create meaning for the mourners. For me, shivah was both virtual and real. As I lifted my eyes to the mountains, God’s help came through today’s tool of connection. In a time of rough waters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom steadied the rocking ship and tied together a grieving family with a supportive community. In our loneliness we found community, in our darkness we found light, and, in our pain, we found healing.

The power of the Holy, Mysterious One works in remarkable and inexplicable ways. Sometimes through Zoom, but always through hearts of compassion who reach out with needle and thread to sew together a broken heart.


Rabbi Rick Kellner is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Columbus, Ohio. 

Categories
Death Technology

What I Have Learned Officiating at a Funeral Over Zoom

Many rabbis are being called upon to perform funerals remotely or online during the coronavirus pandemic. Here, Rabbi Daniel Cohen shares learnings from holding a funeral over Zoom. For reflections upon shivah minyan held over Zoom, Rabbi Mara Nathan has shared her experience here.


Aside from Jewish values and the decision that need to be made regarding virtual funerals, I have found that some seemingly mundane elements can make the difference between a service that feels smooth and hopefully, comforting, and one that feels like just another Zoom call. Here are some of practical considerations I’ve embraced.

Perhaps the most important thing I do during the initial intake conversation is reframe the entire approach. I acknowledge directly the sadness of not being able to be together. Often I have shared the Talmudic dictum not to publicly display the chanukiyah at a time of danger. We are not only encouraged, but instructed, to find a path that mitigates the risk. This explanation has been effective in helping families feel they are “not doing anything wrong.”

The rest of the intake tends to run pretty similarly to in-person funerals with the exception of being clearer than ever that I need to know who is speaking, and in what order, well before the actual funeral, not only so I can determine how many and which readings to include, but also so I am clear who I will be calling on and unmuting during the service.

Here are some steps that have proven most effective in our community:

  • Create a Zoom link that the family can share with others.
  • Set Zoom settings to require that everyone remain in the waiting room until we are ready to begin.
  • Make sure participants are muted when they arrive.
  • Select the setting that does not allow people to unmute themselves.
  • I ask the family to send me photos of their loved one. I put together a Powerpoint of those pictures along with Kaddish and other prayers, Psalms, or readings I want people to be able to participate in. Showing some pictures before we formally begin the service has been a powerful way to help close the physical gap people are feeling.
  • Ask the family to log into Zoom 15 to 20 minutes early. This helps make sure they are all comfortable with Zoom and allows their windows to be at the top of the screen when the “speaker view” is selected.
  • Five minutes before the scheduled time, we cut k’riah. Our funeral homes have not been providing families with ribbons, so people are cutting their shirt or pinning a strip of cloth on their clothing to cut. I’ve asked our local funeral homes to begin providing ribbons to families.
  • Once people are admitted from the “waiting room,” I show the family pictures, welcome everyone, and acknowledge to all attendees that this is far from ideal, but that it is a fitting tribute to a loved one to do everything possible to keep people healthy and safe.

In most cases, by the time I have finished the initial conversation with the family, they have decided not to have anyone at the cemetery except the funeral director. For a recent funeral, one of the adult children went to the cemetery but stayed in his car. I have yet to be asked to be physically present at the cemetery.

I verbally call on and unmute each person when it is their turn to speak. A few times families have taken advantage of Zoom by sending me a short video montage to share during the service. It initially struck me as odd, but it has been such a powerfully beautiful tribute that I’ve started suggesting it to families.

I have El Malei and Kaddish on Powerpoint slides and put those up when the time comes. For Kaddish, I share that having everyone read together creates a cacophony, but that the power of hearing others outweighs the awkwardness. I unmute everyone and then lead Kaddish with them all reading as well. It’s chaotic, but it’s also quite moving.

After Kaddish, I put up a slide that has information about sending donations in the deceased’s memory and any shivah information.

Most families have wanted to have the chance to spend time together on Zoom after the service. To accommodate this, I have identified someone who will take control of muting and unmuting speakers. That allows me to leave, but it also ensures there is some structure and that they can stay on and spend time together. The first time I did it, a granddaughter of the deceased volunteered to manage it. After the service she became emotional, realizing that she was so focused on the technology, she wasn’t able to be fully present. It was a powerful insight neither she nor I expected. I have since begun asking the families to identify someone who is not a family member to assume this role.

A few conclusions:

  • By acknowledging up front that a Zoom funeral is far from ideal, and offering a values-focused rationale for the approach, people become quite understanding and appreciative.
  • By including photos and prayer slides, families not only feel “invited in,” but they also appreciate the additional effort. That, in turn, helps them feel cared for.
  • By rigidly structuring the speakers, I’m able to keep some semblance of order.
  • By including the Kaddish slide and unmuting everyone, the family feels surrounded by the love of family and community.
  • By allowing people to speak after the formal service is done, the mourners feel that love and connection even more.

Zoom funerals are far from ideal, but every single time I have done a Zoom funeral, the family has later shared their surprise at how meaningful and moving the experience was.

We all have to take into account the religious boundaries we have set for ourselves and deal with other philosophical issues. In this time of COVID-19, I have chosen to focus more on the emotional and spiritual needs of mourners at a time when they cannot embrace one another. This is what has driven my approach.


Rabbi Daniel Cohen is the senior rabbi at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, New Jersey.

Categories
spirituality Technology

Klei Kodesh: New and Old Tools to Create Holiness

The extraordinary disruption and stress of facing the coronavirus has impacted my rabbinate in ways unlike almost anything I have experienced in over twenty years in the pulpit.  

However, in a sense, the work and the primary goal is still the same: to create meaningful and sacred moments for the members of my congregation and for the broader community.  

I have found myself reflecting on the tools I am using over the last several weeks. Each day, I learn more and refine my skills. Each day, I encounter both satisfaction and frustration in these efforts. 

I have been using computers ever since my ordination in 1999, however the depth and breadth of that activity has grown exponentially over the years.  It has become routine, for example, to communicate with people through email, and to post information on our temple website.  

In these last weeks, email has become even more critical, with the absence of in-person activities. I find myself asking a question, though, each time I start to write an email: Does this need to be a phone call or video chat?  Whereas before emails were a valuable tool that gave me flexibility and efficiency, I find that now there is a hunger to connect in the most direct way possible. I am making many more phone calls than I have in a number of years.  

Part of my Shabbat practice for many years has been setting aside my cell phone and computer. This wasn’t so much about my understanding of the halachah of using electricity as it was about my need to create a certain restful and inward focused space on Shabbat. Simply put, I needed to unplug.

Now, my cell phone has become a critical part of offering robust and meaningful Shabbat study and worship. My colleagues and I are leading from three different locations. On Pesach morning, we offered a service jointly with our sister congregation, and we led from six different locations!  

My cell is now a tool that helps me create holiness. When we text one another, it is a powerful way of coordinating and ensuring that the prayer experience happens the way we want.  

I never thought of tech support as a sacred task, but when I use my cell to text with a congregant to help them log on to a service or study session, it is a powerful tool in the sacred work of engagement. 

Using Zoom and other platforms for meetings, worship, and pastoral counseling is a new and challenging activity. Here too, rather than set aside technology, it enables me to forge connections that are so critically important right now. The computer becomes a tool that can alleviate the isolation felt by everyone, especially those who are living alone.  

But, of course, what happens when the internet connection fails in the middle of a service? Or when screen sharing doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to?  

In the thousands of services I’ve led, I’ve never had an experience with a conventional service where my fellow service leader disappeared right in the middle of the service! Or where all of a sudden the prayerbooks vanished from everyone’s hands at once!

When these things happen, I try and remind myself that these are just unique parts of using these tools to create holy experiences. The holy experience comes when we open ourselves up to those who are in need, when we extend ourselves to those who are facing challenging circumstances. Each time we use these tools, we get better and better, and things run much more according to plan.

It is a reminder to me that “smooth” is not the ultimate goal. In a conventional setting, we may finish the service or class and be pleased that everything went smoothly. We started on time, hit all our cues, and everything unfolded the way we hoped.  

Now, in this new reality, I try and focus on something bigger. There may be pauses or glitches or even the need to change something on the fly. But, the bottom line is that these new technologies, these new klei Kodesh, enable us to honor Shabbat, to retain Torah study as a nourishing part of the community, and to bring people together, even when we are physically apart.

For most of my rabbinate, I have done the Torah reading by taking the scroll from the ark with the traditional ritual, opening to the weekly portion, and reading and translating the prescribed chapter. I have done so out of my fervent belief that my role was to transmit the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While musical and comfortable with the cantillation, I rarely chose to chant through the portion.

With the shift to Zoom services, I quickly realized that one of the elements of the service that would be hardest to replicate would be the Torah reading ritual. With everyone in their own homes, we didn’t have an ark or a scroll.  There would be no hakafah and no hagbahah.  

I wanted to provide a sense of continuity and connection to tradition. And so, what I’ve done each week is put up on the screen a picture of the inside of the scroll for everyone to see, and I’ve chanted the portion for the congregation for everyone to hear.  

I believe this enables everyone to receive the Torah in a meaningful and engaging way. While they can’t touch and kiss the scroll, every single person is able to see the sacred calligraphy of the Torah. Even while sitting in their homes, we are all able to hear the powerful sound of the Torah, just as it has been heard for so many years.  

So, even in this brand-new world, and with the use of all these technologies, I am finding anchors in the continuing ancient traditions. The blend of old and new is what has always sustained us and is still the case now.  

Many years ago, when I was living in Jerusalem, I was attending Friday night services at a synagogue that was just in the process of building their building. One week, right in the middle of our singing and praying, the electricity went out. We found ourselves sitting in the dark!  

After a momentary pause, we simply continued singing and praying and honoring Shabbat, relishing the tangible sense of connection. We didn’t need anything other than our voices…and one another. It was a transcendent and sacred experience I will always remember.  

We have many tools at our disposal. I celebrate that we are using our phones and computers and so much more to sustain and even deepen our communities during this most challenging time. Let us continue to have the flexibility and openness to learn how to use all of the tools that we can.  

When we see these technologies as tools that help us create sacred experiences and sustain holy connections, we strengthen our communities.  If this moment is indeed part of the beginning of the next era in how the Jewish community functions, we can be part of a bright future. We have all that we need to come through this time stronger and closer than ever before: we are in this together.


Rabbi Stein is the senior rabbi of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, New York and an adjunct faculty member at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He is the outgoing Dues Chair for the CCAR and the Vice Chair of the CCAR Convention Committee.

Categories
Technology

From Star Trek to Paper T’filah: “Live Long and Prosper”

Logical. Unemotional. Alien. As Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek television series, Leonard Nimoy found himself trying to bring depth and detail to a character that hadn’t yet been fully fleshed out; it was up to Nimoy to contribute much of what made Spock who he was—including the famous “Vulcan salute.”

Nimoy said that one day on the set, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry asked him to come up with a greeting to use when meeting the Vulcan matriarch, and into his head popped an image of the chazan in his childhood shul giving the “priestly benediction.” And with that, this ancient Jewish hand gesture was introduced to the world.

It’s the blessing by which Aaron blessed the people, the blessing that kohanim still say over worshippers in synagogues today, and it’s the blessing that my wife says over our children every Shabbat (and yes, she does the thing with her hands). “May God bless you and keep you,” she recites. “May God deal kindly with you, and be gracious to you. May God’s face shine upon you, and grant you peace.”

I’ve always connected to the Vulcan salute and the words that accompany it (“Live Long and Prosper”). Perhaps it’s because it seemed so obviously (to me) Jewish, and yet slipped under the radar of my non-Jewish friends. Whatever the reason, I used it to structure my papercut, “Live Long and Prosper,” which I made with cut-up Star Trek comic books.

Yeah, cut-up comic books. For those of you who missed my last post, that’s what I do: I incorporate cut-up comic books into my work, drawing parallels between comic book mythologies and religious traditions. So within the delicate cutaway panels of my “Live Long and Prosper” papercut can be found images of Nimoy as Spock giving the Vulcan salute, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the beauty of comic book outer space. I also included parts of a chumash that had been headed for the g’nizah for ritual burial: words of the priestly blessing in Hebrew and English, side-by-side with the Spock and his crewmates.

The image is a representation of blessing and strength, and I’ve made it the starting point for the Paper T’filah Visual T’filah I designed for the CCAR. It’s my intention to anchor this visual liturgy in an image both immediately familiar, for multiple reasons–a mix of reverence and amusement, and a statement of intent: this service will boldly go where no one has gone before … and I hope you’ll go there with me.

My wife and I have made “Paper T’filah” an element of the “Paper Midrash” residencies that we lead around the country: worship and study and papercutting workshops that bring together contemporary art, pop culture, and scholarship. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn’t be more proud to have brought something new to their worship experience.

Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik is a Jewish artist living in Southern California. He cuts up comic books and reassembles them into work made of clean lines and patterns, sinuous shapes and sharp edges, large fields of color and small intimate spaces.

Click here to view a sample of Paper T’filah by Visual T’filah. It is now available for purchase on the CCAR Press website. For more information on how you can bring Paper Midrash to your community, email Isaac or visit his website.

Categories
Technology

“Paper Midrash”: The Connections between Comic Narratives and Jewish Liturgy

As a kid, I knew better than to sneak comic books into services, but as an adult, that’s exactly what I’m doing–with the Visual T’filah I designed for the CCAR.

As an artist, I am constantly engaged in a conversation with the texts of our tradition. I’m a papercutter, and my work is visual biblical commentary; I call it “paper midrash.” I always begin with text—often biblical and other traditional sources, but also the words of poets and musicians. My work is influenced by elements of the natural world and how we understand our connection to the Divine: the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai.

I incorporate cut-up comic books into my work, drawing parallels between comic book mythologies and religious traditions, to delve into the stories that make us human. In my Paper T’filah series I explore connections between comic narratives and contemporary Jewish liturgy.

It’s a good fit. Comic superheroes exist outside of the “natural” world, be they visitors from other planets or people whose powers stem from strange scientific accidents, and their struggles can be seen as a metaphor for the human experience. Their stories are woven into my explorations of prayer.

So my Barchu—which marks the beginning of the formal prayer service, the moment when we stop being just a group of individuals and become a community praying together—is made with comic book superhero teams. Yotzeir, which praises God as the Creator of light, is filled with comic book heroes whose powers are tied to light and color, such as the mutant musician hero Dazzler. V’ahavta is a prayer about teaching children the value and meaning of our tradition, and my papercut of that prayer is filled with younger heroes like the Teen Titans and the Legion of Superheroes. G’ulah leverages the Green Lantern “Blackest Night” storyline as a parallel to our story of slavery and freedom, and you can find Aquaman and the Sub-Mariner comics tucked into the parted waves of my Mi Chamochah.

The progression from papercut series to Visual T’filah was a bit challenging. Rather than just put pictures of my papercuts next to the prayers, I instead strove to combine my images with the words of our liturgy to provide an alternative or additional way to understand the prayers. I digitally cut and pasted and shaped the papercuts to work within the Visual T’filah format, creating something that is at once connected to the original papercut series and also something completely different: a projected illustrated siddur.

My wife Shawna and I have made Paper T’filah an element of the “Paper Midrash” residencies that we lead around the country: worship and study and papercutting workshops that bring together contemporary art, pop culture, and scholarship. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn’t be more proud to have brought something new to their worship experience.

Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik is a Jewish artist living in Southern California. He cuts up comic books and reassembles them into work made of clean lines and patterns, sinuous shapes and sharp edges, large fields of color and small intimate spaces.

Paper T’filah by Visual T’filah is now available for purchase on the CCAR Press website. For more information on how you can bring Paper Midrash to your community, email Isaac or visit his website.

Categories
Technology

Circular Rainbows, Fractals, and Spiritual Technology

“Renew the old and sanctify the new.”  – Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

The thoughtful use of technology can enhance Jewish spiritual practice and engagement. This summer, I was privileged to witness and facilitate a few exceptional examples of this while serving as faculty at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.  At this overnight summer camp, currently celebrating its 4th year, campers and staff utilize science and technology as tools to strengthen Jewish identities, develop Jewish community, and enrich Jewish practice.

One Shabbat afternoon during an all-camp picnic, electrified chatter began to spread through the community. Campers and staff excitedly pointed to the sky.  I ran out from under one of the large oak trees shading the main lawn to witness a sun halo, or circular rainbow surrounding the sun.  Many exclaimed they had never seen such a marvel, let alone known that something like this was possible.  After capturing a quick photo (which will be published in PopSci), I ran over to the mic.

Fortunately, I have the CCAR Daily Blessings app on my phone, which contains, among others, the blessing recited upon seeing a rainbow.  After giving a short explanation of the importance of rainbows in Jewish tradition, I was able to lead everyone in the blessing.  This unexpected experience was enhanced and transformed into a Jewish teachable moment by technology, which allows us to access innumerable resources at a moment’s notice.

Even the more traditionally routine moments of Jewish practice at camp are enhanced by the spiritual use of technology.  Each Friday night, we pray together using a Visual T’filah that contains videos of campers sharing their thoughts on the week’s scientifically-focused Jewish value. (This week was kesher, connection.)  Campers who might otherwise be too shy or nervous to get up on stage are able to share their thoughts, and to marvel at their larger-than-life participation in Shabbat services.  Because the camp utilizes a Visual T’filah Template, the director of Jewish life (a self-declared novice at PowerPoint) is able to easily refresh and expand the Visual T’filah each Shabbat, even when I’m not there.  Visual T’filah, like the other spiritual technologies I help develop at the CCAR, offers new opportunities for engagement and meaning in Jewish practice.

Perhaps my most impactful contribution to camp this summer, however, was the short teaching I gave during Boker Big Bang (the morning ceremony during which a blessing from Nissim b’chol yom is studied, and, using chemistry, something is blown up).  Our blessing for the day was “she-asahni b’tzelem Elohim,” who has made me in the image of God.  I explained to the campers that I especially enjoy using scientific metaphors to help myself and others understand God.  This is, in part, because when I was their age, as a scientifically-minded youth, I had trouble believing in a god for which there was no tangible proof.  It was my awareness that someday I might believe in God that kept me involved in Jewish life long enough to recognize that even the early rabbis needed metaphors to try to understand God.  God as a king or ruler, one of our most popular metaphors, may have worked for them back then, but did little to aid my understanding of God in modern times.

 

One of my favorite metaphors for God imagines God as wifi. It surrounds us and with the right tools we can connect to it, each other, and the rest of the world.  Another metaphor I love is God as computer programmer.  In the same way that computer code can be used to create entire universes through 1s and 0s, I imagine God creating the world with 1s, 0s, and -1s (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons).  Finding a scientific metaphor to understand the notion of b’tzelem Elohim (humans being created in the image of God), however, was always out of reach.  Last year, a rabbinic colleague, who is also my wife, gave me the metaphor for which I had been searching.  After waiting more than half the year, I was finally able to share this metaphor with the campers at the URJ 6 Points Sci-tech summer camp.

The metaphor, which perfectly expresses how we were made in the image of God, how we are a part of God but separate, and how we are all connected to each other through God, is: Fractals!  In these complex images, elements are repeated on such a scale, that zooming in reveals that each smaller section looks equivalent to its larger counterpart, and each part is unique but still connected to and a part of the whole. This metaphor clearly had an impact because later that day, a camper in a coding workshop decided to write his own program that would draw a fractal. Another camper expressed that during my talk she felt as though I was speaking directly to her.

While these campers and counselors might be more naturally drawn to scientific metaphors and technological tools, they represent an important path of the future of the Jewish people and the trajectory of contemporary society.  And while some of us may find technological tools only applicable in work settings, or to be a distraction from certain aspects of life, intentionally integrating these tools into our spiritual practice can breathe new life into Judaism and usher in a new age where religion and technology are not seen as at odds with one another but, rather, as mutually beneficial.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the creator of Visual T’filah and the Daily Blessing app as the Manager of Digital Media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also serves as a founding member of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Camp Council.

Categories
Books Technology

High-Tech & High-Touch Visual T’filah at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy

A camp that blends Reform Jewish values with science and technology is practically a dream-come-true for me.  It only makes sense that as the Digital Media Manager of the CCAR, I should spend a week there on faculty.  I can confidently say that both the camp and I grew from the experience. I had conversations about apps & ebooks, Minecraft & Star Wars, and even gave a drash on how God is like wifi. But perhaps the most exciting part of my visit was spending time working with campers and staff to create the Visual T’filah for Shabbat services.dan 2

At the end of services, the camp director, Greg Kellner, climbed the steps to the bimah to address the community. I could see that he had been moved to tears.  When he asked all of the campers who played a role in creating the Visual T’filah to rise, we were all taken aback when roughly half the camp stood.  “I can’t believe so many of you helped create this Visual T’filah,” he exclaimed. “And I can’t believe how beautiful it is!”  Whether they explored camp taking pictures in the “Spiritual Photography” chug (elective) or we recorded a video of them explaining their own Jewish evolution, these campers were meaningfully engaged in crafting the payer service for all of camp.  And they were proud!

While Visual T’filah has already become a regular part of the Sci-Tech camp experience, I was fortunate to be able to bring my decade of experience creating Visual T’filah to raise the production and design to new levels.  The hardworking camp educator, HUC-JIR rabbinic student Rachel Heaps, has dodan 1ne amazing work so far. However, the finite amount of time she is able to dedicate to creating the Visual T’filah each week, given her other responsibilities around camp, meant that her scope was limited.  Now with the introduction of the CCAR Visual T’filah Template (which includes the text of Mishkan T’filah prepared and formatted for the big screen) as well as a few other stylistic and design upgrades, her task will be much easier each week.

I was also blessed to be able to utilize some of the special camp resources to explore some new techniques.  Campers were filmed in front of one of the camp’s green screens, allowing the campers to appear to be standing in front of the beautiful images taken by the campers in “Spiritual Photography.”  Campers faded in and out in succession to tell how their relationship to Judaism has been enhanced by rabbis, by camp, and by other people and events. Then as the last camper in each video group faded out, the prayers themselves appeared floating over the images selected to convey the meaning and spirit of the prayers.  The result was a seamless prayer experience, greater than the sum of its parts.

It is my great pleasure to experience and demonstrate how the use of Visual T’filah can increase engagement and participation, and play an important role in crafting a meaningful prayer experience.  To be able to offer my time and expertise to enhance a community’s prayer life is really a gift.  I look forward to seeing how the continued use of Visual T’filah at Sci-Tech engages and inspires the campers, and how Visual T’filah can continue to transform prayer in other communities as well.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Digital Media Manager at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  Check out his blog from last year’s camp as well

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Reform Judaism Technology Torah

Na’Aseh V’Nishma: Podcasting the Aural Torah

In an age of video and universal sensory stimulation, podcasts are a strange niche. They require us to only listen, and as the success of so many of them has shown, there is an audience that wants to only listen. One of the greatest images of the Golden Age of America is the family gathering around the radio to listen – to the news, to the Lone Ranger, maybe even to a surprisingly realistic broadcast of War of the Worlds, with which Orson Welles displayed the true power of the spoken word, sending the population who was unaware of the fiction of the radioplay into a frantic tizzy at the news that aliens had invaded. Listening, as everyone with even the slightest understanding of Judaism knows, is one of the key components of our tradition. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”  “We will do, and we will listen,” said the Israelites in acceptance of God’s covenant in Exodus 27:4, effectively founding Judaism.

It is therefore unsurprising that so many people most renowned for their podcasts are Jews: Sarah Koenig of Serial, Robert Krulwich of Radiolab, and the seemingly omnipresent Ira Glass of This American Life, just to name a few. This connection was not lost on us when we set out to make what has become Nü Rabbi, but it certainly added to our confusion as to why (at the time) there were no Progressive Jewish podcasts with similar structure. So, we set out to make one.

Initially, we thought we’d interview the rabbinic luminaries of our Reform world about hard-hitting topics. And then we tried to book those interviews. Needless to say it didn’t work out so well. But while trying to practice our interview and microphone skills on our classmates, we discovered something all the more precious: The voices and opinions of the up-and-coming rabbinical and cantorial students at our school. And thus was born Nü Rabbi – a play on “New Rabbi” and the oft-heard phrase “Nu, Rebbe?” when a particularly insistent question is asked of a Rabbi. In effect, what we have ended up creating is the beginning of a Mishna for our day and age. The Tannaim are ourselves and our classmates – discussing, windingly and in many different manners, some of the most pressing issues of our day. Our first issue was, just like in the Mishna, prayer.

Mahu t’filah?”– what is prayer– we asked ourselves and our colleagues, and the beautiful Torah spilled forth. But this was only the beginning of our journey. We then had to learn the editing software, to commission music and art, to figure out how to make it all flow together into something imminently listenable. As of now, we think we did a pretty good job. Four of our classmates (Stephanie Crawley, Dan Slipakoff, Harriet Dunkerley, and Samantha Frank) and a recent ordinee of JTS (Rabbi Jessica Minnen) all contributed the Torah of their hearts, and the combined product, the stitching together of all of them with the help of the connecting thread of Quincy Ledbetter’s wonderful music, is a rich aural page of mishna. Listen for yourself, and let us know what you think!

 

Andy Kahn and Josh Mikutis are both rabbinical students (’18) at HUC-JIR in New York, and are both three-time recipients of the Be Wise Grant in Jewish Entrepreneurship. This coming year, Andy will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple, and Josh will be working at the 92nd Street Y.

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Books Technology

Beta Testing Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook with Sci-Tech Campers

I was completely geeking out!! There’s not much better for this rabbi than seeing young Jews who are passionate about their Judaism as well as technology. Getting to Beta Test the new Mishkan T’filah for Youth enhanced eBook with campers at the URJ Sci-Tech camp was more than I could have hoped for!

It was the peanut butter of Jewish life, and the chocolate of technology, coming together to create a most delicious experience.

And the verdict? They loved it!! (And they even found a few things that we need to work on.)  They had so many great questions and suggestions that the hour-long session flew by.

One of the main foci of the conversation was around apps vs. ebooks.  Each has pros and cons, and we must evaluate our goals and options when making a decision.  Here’s a great example:

One camper had the idea that when you open the digital siddur, it should automatically know what service you want based on the date and time.  This is definitely possible, and would be very cool, MTY-ebook-screenshot-2I explained, but to be able to have this feature it would have to be an app, rather than an eBook.  The challenge with custom apps, I continued, is that every feature we want to add, requires more resources and time. So, naturally we have to make choices based on priorities.  Would we rather auto-select the service (when we can easily select it ourselves) or have bookmarking & note-taking?  Conversely, if it’s an ebook, there are basic features of eReaders (like bookmarks & note-taking) that Apple, Kindle & Google already develop for their apps.

We also discussed that there are two basic ways of using the Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook (or app):

  1. In community services, along side the print version (aka “pBook”) and/or the Visual T’filah
  2. For personal study and/or private prayer.

MTY-ebook-beta-testers2Features like hearing the prayer read or sung while words are highlighted are clearly meant for someone on their own. On the other hand, could a non-musical service leader use the audio to help lead the singing? Would we feel comfortable singing along with the beautiful audio recordings on an iPad, rather than a live human?

Also, there are things like page numbers in an eBook or app, which are a bit anachronistic, but are important for “syncing” with others using the pBooks, and/or Visual T’filah.  It helps everyone be on the same “page” even if it’s a digital page or screen.

We discussed whether or not there should there be games in the siddur.  Would it be okay during services for a kid to play a game which involved the words, meaning, and/or themes of that prayer?

One camper (surprisingly?) pointed out that sometimes technology can distract us from a moment or pull us away from the community.  While anyone can daydream in services without an iPad, it might be a bit more tempting and distracting with an iPad in front of you.  As if on cue, at that moment, I looked over and noticed that one of the campers had stopped looking through the siddur and started surfing around online…

Another camper noted that it’s possible on the iPad to lock it to only one app.  And I said that it’s a really helpful feature, and that these kids would probably be the ones to figure out how to hack it.

Our conversation also attempted to look into the future and how we might use technology to enhance Jewish life and prayer.  I asked if they could imagine a future where members of a family all joined together for Shabbat dinner at home, and then went off and participated in their own services via virtual reality goggles.  The mother could participate in a yoga and meditation service in a pristine white room, while the father could join a traditional minyan at the Western wall.  One child could meet up virtually with his friends for a camp service, while the other could see cartoon avatars leading the songs and prayers in their kids service.  Who knows?!

In the meantime, we need to focus on those things that are possible, like finishing up the beta testing for the Mishkan T’filah for Youth eBook, so we can offer it for sale in the big eBookstores: Apple iBooks, Amazon Kindle, and Google Play Books.  Stay tuned!

At the end of our great session together, I concluded:  “Your generation will really be the ones that shape Jewish life in the future and how we utilize the benefits of technology.   No pressure. (But pressure.)  It is our job now to try to get our sacred texts into a format that is most accessible and flexible for your needs, and to pass on our passion for Jewish learning, life, and community.  And you will take these tools and fashion a bright future for all of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Publishing Technology Manager at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.