Praying Alone

With Services Streaming On Line, What Are We Losing

By Leonard Fein

Published March 29, 2014.
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Be careful what you wish for.

My friend Sharon Cohen has introduced me to a rapidly growing phenomenon — to wit, streaming services.

For those of you who may be technological laggards, a streaming service is a live broadcast of a worship service. Sit back, relax, and you can watch the Friday night service from Temple Israel of Greater Miami or Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham or Central Synagogue in Manhattan or Temple Beth Tikvah in Fullerton, CA, plus too many more to be listed here. (Go here for a full list. As far as I am able to determine, streaming of worship services is available only from Reform congregations.)

It’s quite remarkable and much of it is beautiful — typically, chazzanut (cantorial music) of a very high order. I find myself beguiled by both the talent and the demeanor of quite a few of the cantors, and I find myself listening somewhat more carefully than is my wont to the sermons of the rabbis. And I listen for the quirks that distinguish this congregation from that. My favorite example is a Long Island synagogue where the rabbi, when he reads the list of those whose yahrtzeit we are commemorating reads it with what I at first thought was painful slowness, with a long pause between names. Only later did I come to understand that his was a calculated strategy, intended not only to honor the deceased but to give all the congregants a chance to contemplate death.The kaddish that followed the reading of the list was rendered substantially more meaningful as a result.

And so on, from the rabbi-centric services to the music-centric services.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that while you and your family are at home watching and listening, the seats you might have occupied had you been physically present at the service are empty.

Imagine, for a moment, that your absentee “participation” became the norm. The rabbis and cantors would be doing their things to an empty sanctuary. Worse yet, a wholly atomized Jewish community is not, in fact, a community. A genuine community requires that we not merely be aware of its other members, but that at some level we interact with them.

Years ago, in “Reform is a Verb,” I wrote that the house of worship is rarely a home to its members. That seems to me to have changed. Things have warmed up quite substantially, and the successful synagogues these days no longer rely quite so heavily on the bar/bat mitzvah kids and their families to fill their seats.

The synagogue and the Jewish community center — these are the venues for Jews meeting Jews. (I purposely omit the fund-raising dinners.) Alas, within most community centers the place where we meet is in the gym. Even the pre-school, likely the most successful JCC program, is often the place where we drop the kids and go on to work, to home, on errands of one sort or another. (Among the noteworthy exceptions is the Grater Boston JCC and its “Hot Buttons, Cool Conversations” series, with which I am intimately involved and which the CEO of the JCC, Mark Sokoll, calls “the living room of the Jewish community.”)

Here and there, with the synagogue acting as facilitator, there’s a sustained and entirely laudable effort to convene small groups — eight or ten people — for Shabbat dinners, serious conversation, or even just cocktails. And sometimes the effort evolves into an ongoing endeavor — a Bible study group (my favorite, given that so few of us have read the Bible as adults), the meaning(s) of Zionism and Israel’s place in our lives, a book group. In fact, given the rising popularity of book groups, it puzzles me that very few seem to be focused on books with Jewish themes — and there are many such, and worthy, too. Those who think that the heyday of Jewish fiction ended when Bellow and Malamud and now Roth, too, exited are just plain mistaken. There’s an utterly absorbing book by Anne Michaels, “Fugitive Pieces,” and there are Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon and Nathan Englander and Gary Shteyngart and I better stop right there before I come close to a “complete” list which would, for sure, not be complete. But there are also the Israeli authors, and not just Amos Oz and David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua but also Meir Shalev and Aaron Appelfeld and — you get the idea.

Streaming services can be fun, but they’re basically all foam, no beer. A lighthouse is pointless if there are no ships.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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