A state-of-the-art electronic communications system has arrived at Temple Ohav Shalom — and it’s making a rather big splash.
The Allison Park-based Reform congregation gave the new system a test run or two during services recently, though it had undergone several dry runs prior to those services, according to Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, the congregation’s spiritual leader. The system had been envisioned by Weisblatt since his days serving as a rabbi in Chicago, well before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and changed the delivery of most non-Orthodox religious services. Weisblatt took the pulpit at Temple Ohav Shalom in 2017.
The system was purchased through Ohav Shalom’s building fund, officials said. As of press time, the congregation was still waiting for the final parts to arrive.
“My role was to recognize that streaming and virtual participation is not just short-term but what our long-term programming and branding will look like,” said Ken Eisner, Ohav Shalom’s board president. “We were not at the cutting edge — so I made this recommendation.”
The new system includes a highly mobile but operatorless camera and equipment that allows for improved, interactive streaming capabilities, said board member Yuval Kossovsky, a Franklin Park resident who grew up in Squirrel Hill and has been a member of Ohav Shalom for about five years. The camera the congregation has ordered is preloaded with artificial intelligence, meaning it will be able to intuitively track the rabbi or cantorial assistant when they’re walking around the bimah, no matter how far apart they stand.
“Everybody says, ‘I’ve seen ones that have the static camera, the OK sound,’” Kossovsky said. “But we wanted to do something different.”
The new system allows for congregants participating via Zoom, FaceTime, Microsoft Teams or any major streaming medium to also be singled out for inclusion in a service — say, during a Torah reading or for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, officials said. It also has the capabilities of “virtual tefillot,” allowing participants to follow religious texts like the Torah on screen as the rabbi or others are reading or giving a sermon.
“We’re trying to make it a fully interactive, immersive experience,” Weisblatt said. “It’s a new way of interacting in worship. You’re really trying to engage the congregation.”
Though the mobile cameras were not cheap — precise figures were not disclosed to the Chronicle — Kossovsky stressed other equipment was highly affordable.
“We got this little box that gives you the abilities of the three-camera board, for literally less than $500 — that’s insane,” Kossovsky said.
Weisblatt has told congregants tuning in virtually to set up their computers in special places where they typically do not spend lots of time in order to make the worship significant and distinct. He likes to think of those locations as he is leading his congregation in prayer, he said.
“I like to imagine that I’m worshipping alongside the congregation,” Weisblatt said. “How can what we’re showing bring that experience alive? I welcome that challenge.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.