Shabbat: Coming soon to a screen near you. New video and audio streaming technologies are making North Shore synagogue services accessible all over the world, from Peabody to Texas to Tokyo.
“We know that we have college kids and adult children that have now moved away who want an opportunity to see services; we have handicapped and elderly members that would enjoy being able to see a Friday night service that miss being here,” said Jaime Friedman, the executive director of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, which began streaming its Shabbat services last spring.
Temple Emanu-El joined a growing number of local Conservative and Reform congregations, including Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, and Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody that have installed streaming technology. Though the methods and frequency of use may vary, the motivation everywhere is the same: inclusion and accessibility.
“If you’ve been going to services all your life and then all of a sudden you can’t leave your house anymore, one could just say, ‘Get used to it,’ which is what we’ve been saying, or we could say, ‘Well, if this is the next best thing for you, and if we have the technology to do it, then let’s offer it,” said Rabbi Richard Perlman of Temple Ner Tamid, which began streaming its High Holiday services two years ago and is considering streaming every Shabbat service.
Streaming services are one of the actions listed by the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project (RSIP), a Ruderman Family Foundation and Combined Jewish Philanthropies joint initiative that grants synagogues $5,000 to become more accessible to all. “When illness and other circumstances keep congregants away, streaming technology can provide a welcome alternative,” said RSIP manager Molly Silver. “It is an excellent modality that allows members and friends who are unable to attend in person due to disabilities, health issues, difficulties, or distance to fulfill their worship needs and not feel as isolated.”
This has long been a concern of synagogues. Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University professor of American Jewish history, said that in order to reach immobile congregants, some synagogues distributed pamphlets of rabbis’ sermons during the 19th century, and broadcast services over the radio during the 20th.
“The popularity of the [radio services] does seem to me to have laid the groundwork for the idea of streaming services,” said Sarna. “It used to be much more complicated, but the technology has made it so much cheaper and easier than it was just a few years ago.”
Today, that technology is usually a fixed, mounted, high-definition camera placed discreetly in the back of the sanctuary, or an iPad mounted onto a tripod, as Congregation Shirat Hayam does for smaller services. Synagogues stream the footage through different services, including Facebook Live (Temple Emanu-El), Ustream (Congregation Shirat Hayam), StreamSpot (Temple Ner Tamid and Temple Emanuel in Andover) and Open Broadcaster Software (Temple Tiferet Shalom). The footage is available on the synagogue website, and sometimes other online platforms, and it is saved and archived once the service is complete. The equipment itself can cost thousands, and subscriptions to streaming services cost hundreds per year, though discounts are available through the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism.
Sophisticated hardware and software make services accessible and convenient, but also raise questions about both privacy and Jewish law. To avoid liability, synagogues let people know that services are being recorded, and most only direct the cameras towards the bimah.
“We recognize that some people prefer not to be on video. So we supply advance notice of religious services or events that will be video streamed, and we post a notice on the entrance letting people know where to sit to be on or off camera,” said Rachel Zalvan, president of Temple Tiferet Shalom.
Meanwhile, at Temple Ner Tamid, Rabbi Perlman chose to let recordings only be available to members who need to request a password in order to view the recordings online, because he felt making the recordings publicly available would both detract from the experience and hurt synagogue attendance.
While Orthodox congregations do not use electricity or modern technology on Shabbat, Conservative and Reform congregations can, so recording is permitted. Still, congregations would prefer to spend services praying rather than fiddling with electronic equipment or worrying if they’re being filmed from their good side.
“We’re not shomer Shabbos, but eventually we would like to preset the time when it goes on, but right now we are manually [turning the camera on] each Shabbat,” said Friedman.
Rabbi Michael Ragozin of Congregation Shirat Hayam said the Conservative movement discourages recording for similar reasons, and because even though Jews may be permitted to engage with technology on Shabbat, they should try to keep it to a minimum. “Ideally we have a gentile [turn the equipment on], but since we don’t, a Jewish person will press ‘record’ whenever,” he said. “But we decided to fit the needs of people in the 21st century, this was what would help people connect.”