Temple Beth Israel is truly a global synagogue. Its members come from all over the world — from the Netherlands, Israel, Brazil and Germany, to name just a few countries. On Fridays, Temple Beth Israel is so popular that it holds five candle-lighting ceremonies.
Then again, Temple Beth Israel isn’t exactly a traditional synagogue, at least not in the brick-and-mortar sense. It’s a virtual synagogue in Second Life, an Internet-based world in which its users, the “residents,” interact with each other in the form of so-called avatars, self-created deputies who communicate via instant messenger software.
Created in 2003 by San Francisco-based technology company Linden Lab, Second Life (www.secondlife.com) has grown in recent months from a nerdy pastime to a full-blown phenomenon: Companies like Toyota and IBM have opened Second Life branches, Reebok sells virtual sneakers for avatars and Reuters has its own full-time correspondent in Second Life. This past October, Second Life welcomed its 1 millionth resident — and residents doubled to 2 million eight weeks later. Today there are almost 3.5 million users registered in Second Life, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing communities — online or off.
Second Life is an “anything goes” world where one can become a successful fashion designer, teleport from Barcelona to Japan with a mouse click and explore exotic places, just like Indiana Jones. Homebodies can visit the hippest clubs without ever leaving the comfort of their bedrooms. In this world of endless possibilities, the recent creations of a synagogue and a replica of the Kotel mean you can have a Jewish life, too.
Temple Beth Israel, also known as the Second Life Synagogue, was created in August 2006 by Beth Brown, a 33-year-old artist from Dallas; she’s known in Second Life as Beth Odets. When Temple Beth Israel was developed, there were just a few hundred thousand users registered in Second Life. But thanks to Second Life’s growth, her synagogue is booming and she now has more than 100 members. “I was totally surprised by the success of the synagogue,” Brown said.
According to Second Life resident Drown Pharaoh, creator of the Second Life multi-faith news blog The Fountain, the success of the Second Life Synagogue has to do with “an emerging self-consciousness of Second Life avatars.” In real life, Drown Pharaoh is Yakoub Islam, a 43-year-old Muslim from West Yorkshire, England. “When a person or creature on the screen stops being a game tool and starts being a part of you, perhaps that is when you begin looking for the place that really matters to you in Second Life,” he said.
From early on in its existence, Second Life had churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques and other places of worship. With the creation of Temple Beth Israel, Brown opened the door for more Jewish initiatives in Second Life, yet she does not consider herself a trendsetter. “I am a normal person. I play the violin, draw pictures and just wanted to do something creative,” she said. “I am not even a very religious person, but very spiritual. I just wanted to create something where everyone is welcome.”
In order to better communicate with visitors, Brown decided to offer free synagogue membership (the membership functions as a mailing list that Brown uses to send out information). What started as an artist’s dream to create her own “safe place” has become “a responsibility that I welcome,” explained the Second Life pioneer, who was one of the first residents to give a live concert in Second Life. Last year, Brown had the first (and so far only) Jewish wedding under a virtual chupah. “The possibilities are endless,” she declared.
“Beth did an amazing job,” said Misha Kobrin, a 32-year-old computer programmer from Russia who lives in Cologne, Germany, and is a regular at Beth Israel. “I found the synagogue by coincidence. I was just curious if there was anything Jewish in Second Life, and found it via the search engine.”
To Kobrin, known online as Mumu Speedwell, Second Life’s success of has to do with its concept. “It is a step ahead of traditional chats. Because of the anonymous character of chats, people are more open and it is easier to communicate with strangers. But in Second Life, you are not anonymous; you create a different identity. It does not matter how you look or where you come from. You reinvent yourself in Second Life.”
“Her creations are very impressive,” Second Lifer Reuven Fischer said in reference to Brown’s programming skills. “But most impressive is that she created a real Jewish community in Second Life.” The 44-year-old Hasid from Philadelphia read about Second Life in Time magazine and decided to explore it himself. He was inspired by the success of Temple Beth Israel, so last month he created, as his avatar, Reuven Greenberg, a copy of the Kotel. “It was not complicated to build, and I thought it would be a good place to have information about the weekly parsha,” he said. In front of the Kotel, visitors can download information about Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, get virtual yarmulkes and leave Linden dollars, the Second Life currency, in the tzedakah box. Fischer notes that this is not an official Chabad house in Second Life, but simply his own initiative.
Official or not, Fischer’s creation is also starting to draw a crowd. Stefan Metty, in real life a student from Paris (he declined to give his real name), is excited about the Second Life Kotel. “I am new to Second Life and know very little,” he said. “But I know one thing: Wherever I travel, I go to Chabad. And now I do the same in Second Life.”
In real life, Julian Voloj is a writer, photographer and founder of JWalks, a Jewish heritage organization.