In 1999, a sitcom, called “It’s Like, You Know,” premiered on ABC, featuring a character named Robbie who moved to Los Angeles after making his fortune with an innovative pay-per-view TV scheme called “Pay Per Jew” that enabled people to enjoy High Holy Days services in the comfort of their own homes.
While “It’s Like, You Know” only ran for two seasons, the trend it predicted in jest is moving full steam ahead in all seriousness, making holiday services accessible to those who, because of infirmity or distance, are unable to attend synagogue in person.
But unlike the services in the TV show, these services are free of charge.
This year will mark the second season of Pittsburgh congregations Temple Sinai and Rodef Shalom providing streaming of their High Holy Days services via the Internet to their congregants and to the community at large.
Just last week, Temple Sinai launched permanent live streaming of all it services, including its Friday night Shabbat services.
The congregation first broadcasted last year at Yom Kippur, prompted by a congregant’s request for a DVD of the previous year’s service so his wife, who could not physically make it to the temple, could worship from home.
But Temple Sinai Executive Director Bill Padnos had an even better idea.
“I said, ‘what if we were able to live stream, so she can follow this year’s [service],’’’ he recalled.
The congregant, eager to facilitate his wife’s participation, provided the funding to make it happen, said Padnos, who realized that there were probably other congregants unable to attend services who would appreciate being able to watch from their computers as well.
Temple Sinai’s live stream of Yom Kippur service last year attracted more than 700 viewers, Padnos said, and included congregants who were traveling in Australia, those overseas in the military, and college students, in addition to those who were homebound because of illness.
“I was living in Boston at the time and I hadn’t become strongly invested in a new Jewish community there yet,” wrote Jessica Schiller, a Tufts University student, in an email to the Chronicle. “I grew up on Sinai services and felt really connected to them, so when this opportunity to watch them on live stream came up, I was thrilled. I’m definitely a traditionalist, so I always get a little sad being away from my family and my home community around the holidays. … To be able to take part in services from up in Boston, and to hear the same sermons and prayers that my family was hearing, was very special for me.”
Padnos sees the use of technology as a way to facilitate congregational connectivity. And while hundreds watched the live stream, the number of congregants who attended the Yom Kippur service in person last year remained unchanged.
“Live streaming is about making services accessible, and realizing we are providing the connection,” he said. “Connection can happen anywhere, it doesn’t always have to be at 5505 Forbes Ave.”
Rodef Shalom Congregation also will be broadcasting live streaming services for the second year this High Holy Days season.
“It was a big hit,” said Lauren Wolcott, communications coordinator at Rodef Shalom, of last year’s live stream. “Viewership exceeded our expectations. More than 500 people viewed our services online.”
Like Temple Sinai, Rodef Shalom’s online services are free and open to members of the congregation, as well as to anyone in the broader community. The live stream is available on the front page of the congregation’s website, rodefshalom.org. Temple Sinai’s services can be accessed by going to templesinaipgh.org.
“It’s important to note that streaming services is not a new phenomenon,” wrote Rabbi Dan Medwin, publishing technology manager of the
Central Conference of American Rabbis, in an email to the Chronicles. “Many synagogues have been ‘streaming’ their services via a dedicated phone line or even over the radio for decades.
I often tell congregations who are looking to experiment with streaming services that ‘If the totality of the service experience exists solely on the bimah between the opening and closing song, you may need to reexamine some things.’ A service is about being together in community, talking, shaking hands, and hugging before and after the service. Participating via streaming can never replace physically being there, but it is a much better solution, for those who need it, than nothing at all.”
While Temple Sinai and Rodef Shalom are both affiliated with the Reform movement, the idea of streaming services is beginning to take hold in the Conservative world as well.
Conservative Congregation B’nai Shalom of Walnut Creek, Calif., has had a camera broadcasting continuously from its main sanctuary since 2003, according to Michael Bloom, a member of the 350-family unit congregation who came up with the idea in order to make services more accessible.
“We had a couple of members that were unable to leave their house and wanted to participate in services,” Bloom said. “A couple of us tried to figure out how to make this happen. We got the idea [of the streaming video] from a local TV station that was running catechism classes.”
The live stream has been well received, according to Bloom.
“It has been an outreach to the community, and to people who couldn’t get to shul,” he said.
After studying Conservative “teshuvas” (rabbinic halachic opinions), Bloom said he believed using technology on Shabbat and holidays in order to virtually attend services was akin to the Conservative opinion that driving a car is permissible in order to physically travel to synagogue. The services are not recorded, he said, which would be prohibited under Conservative law, and the congregants’ faces are not shown on camera while they are in the act of prayer.
About 30 congregants watch the live stream on a regular basis, he said.
“So far, there are no complaints from members,” Bloom said. “It’s a way to connect our community. It’s pretty neat. We’re basically lowering the barriers to access. As synagogue life shifts, we ought to be able to do that.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)