By Marc Stober
For about 25 years I’ve been involved in leadership roles in the Jewish community, whether as a professional, lay leader, or, currently, seminary student. In the late 1990’s, I was working for a major Jewish organization when we were first considering how the internet would affect our community. Since then, I’ve closely watched the growth of the internet and other information technology and its effect on the Jewish world and wider society. I spent much of my career working with web technology. Until now, I’d been surprised that synagogues have not been disrupted by technology the same way that other businesses have been.
This past Shabbat, because of coronavirus, everything changed. Almost every synagogue I know streamed their services online. Jewish musicians and educators offered programs through the internet. Synagogues are encouraging their members to come together through their screens. Through the wonders of technology, it would be almost like a normal Shabbat.
I don’t believe technology is inherently good or bad. Looking at other industries, however, technology tends to transform their business models, more than being a tool that helps continue whatever was normal beforehand. In the most obvious example, local independent bookstores don’t, for the most part, serve their preexisting customers through the internet – they were put out of business by Amazon. People started booking their own plane tickets on websites, not e-mailing their local, human travel agent, for most travel. Industries that haven’t entirely moved online, like hospitals and hardware stores, have consolidated into chains largely because of information technology that gives an advantage to larger companies. These changes aren’t necessarily bad: consumers have new choices and convenience. The music and movie industries are thriving albeit with new winners like Spotify and Netflix. The point is, technology, even if first introduced to automate or digitize existing processes, tends to totally disrupt who industries.
Last Friday night, Noah Aronson and Josh Nelson, two accomplished Jewish musicians, hosted a Shabbat service from a living room that had over 900 viewers on Facebook live. When a Shabbat service is something you watch on TV, why not listen to the best musicians? When I go to a local synagogue, it’s not only to see the rabbi and cantor, it’s because for the in-person community experience. Many synagogues already offer a live stream regularly, and that can maintain a meaningful connection with people who already have a relationship with the community. However, it’s not the same as an online-only offering, where, on the web, another experience is only a click away. After this Shabbat, will more people be looking for that? Building a true virtual community is hard, even for the most dedicated participants and organizers. Online communities can be more diverse in some ways, and more selective in others. For example, you might organize a community by common interest that crosses geographic boundaries. An online community can include people who otherwise might not participate in services, but it might not require you to interact with that neighbor whose politics you don’t like. Services are different online, too. Are individuals watching a live-streamed service actively praying, or passively watching? Should we ask online participants to stand, wear a tallit, use a Siddur, etc. – and how? There is a Jewish tradition of tefillah b’yachid, individual tefillah – might that be more meaningful for some people than communal worship in this situation? But what does that do to community? Synagogue services are one of the few places people put away their devices – do we still encourage device-free spiritual time? What about b’nai mitzvah? Many synagogues this past Shabbat allowed only close family to attend a service in person. That’s a reasonable compromise for an emergency, yet, in many congregations there’s a value on having b’nai mitzvah not be a “private” service – can that be maintained?
For now, for sure, we’re all praying the coronavirus pandemic is over quickly with as little impact as possible on human health. As we adapt, maybe we’ll see some new Jewish creativity and be able to collect data about what works. Our communities will certainly change; let’s hope they emerge stronger.
Marc Stober is a cantorial and Jewish education student at Hebrew College with a previous career as a software engineer.