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Synagogue goes cyber for Shabbat
Jonathan Herbstman
No suit, no tie, no dress, no pumps. It's come as you are, even if you're in your pajamas when Temple Beth El in Spring Valley streams its Friday night Shabbat services online.

Now, when you welcome the Sabbath Queen, you can do so from the comfort of your own home, with just the click of a mouse.

The idea was to make service as accessible as possible to everyone, according to Rabbi Ronald Mass.

“It’s brilliant, just brilliant” he said of the synagogue's efforts to incorporate technology into Judaism. By doing so, TBE is able to bring the joy of a Shabbat service to a person who cannot attend. And that is a “wonderful thing to do to make people feel a little less lonely and feel like they are actually participating in the service,” he said.

The blueprints for the program took shape back in October 2009. Bob Lefland, a former president of the Reform congregation and the current webmaster for the streaming project, decided to turn what was just an idea into reality. He was in contact with a company in New Jersey that helped him link the temple’s website to Ustream, a program that enables live broadcasts to be streamed over the Internet.

Lefland learned how to use the video camera so that the service could be filmed and simultaneously “streamed” so that people could watch in real time on their computers at home. After the cameras were properly set up in the sanctuary, Lefland proceeded to teach other synagogue board members how to use the system. Approximately 20 people affiliated with the 465-family congregation are now trained in using the video camera, which allows them to take turns being responsible and making sure the services are correctly streamed. 

Because Temple Beth El is a Reform congregation, considerations of Jewish law such as turning on a camera or a computer to film or view services do not come into play. While God, Torah and Israel are central to Reform Judaism, the denomination accepts a wide-variety of practices and innovations that seek to incorporate modernity into Jewish practice.

Although there was no real demand for the services to go “cyber,” having the option is extremely rewarding to the few that do tune in, according to Lefland. The use of the computer allows people who can’t make it to synagogue for whatever reason the opportunity to be part of a communal service.

Mass thought of many who could benefit from the stream: a former member no longer in the community; a senior citizen; someone who is ill or otherwise homebound. For them, he said, this is the next best thing.

For now, Friday night services are the only ones being broadcasted, although Lefland and Mass are both looking to expand. They have been streaming services for almost a year, and during that time there has been only one other program that was filmed and streamed, and that was a children’s play. The play attracted a lot of viewers, Lefland said, and opened their eyes to other ways the technology could be incorporated into synagogue life.  Lefland is able to see how many people view the broadcast through a counter on his own computer. In the future he hopes to broadcast men’s club functions, other Hebrew school related assemblies, as well as b’nei mitzvah. This would allow someone who couldn’t make it to the bar or bat mitzvah to watch it online, he said.

Since its inception, every family that is celebrating a simcha has had the option to have the service streamed, but no one has taken the synagogue up on the offer. 

No one thinks that streaming services will put an end to people actually coming to synagogue. For Rabbi Mass and the congregation, this is just a way to harness technology in the service of furthering their Jewish mission. It’s just a way of using the technology to ensure that one is excluded.
April 8, 2011