Virtually There


A few months before his son Jonah was born, David Bryfman reluctantly told his Australian parents it would be best if they skipped the baby’s brit milah. Their presence in his small Brooklyn apartment would be more helpful a few months later.

His parents came anyway, dining on bagels and lox, tearing up with emotion and toasting the newborn — whose image was projected on a giant screen in a party hall in Bryfman’s hometown of Melbourne, Australia.

Meanwhile, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a mohel held baby Jonah. Thirty friends and family members had joined Bryfman and his wife, Mirm Kriegel, to welcome the child into the covenant. On the living room wall, they watched the projected image of the much larger party on the other side of the world.

“We were watching them react, and they were watching us,” says Bryfman, who linked the two celebrations via Skype, the Internet-based videoconferencing service. Bryfman says that while the technology stunned his older Australian relatives, his Brooklyn friends were not surprised.

By this point, most American Jews have grown accustomed to hearing about, and at times experiencing the magic of online technology: how it can transform one’s world, whether by strengthening personal relationships, offering educational opportunities or expanding venues to conduct business.

But more recently, with the growth of live-streaming and video-chatting, technology has begun connecting families at the very times when the presence of kin may be most valued: milestone moments such as weddings, b’nai mitzvah and brit milahs. Parties can be expanded to include a second tier of “virtual guests.” And more significantly, no one — not the nine-months pregnant sister of the bride, not the cousin spending a year in Japan, not the hospitalized parent — has to miss the big day.

“My feeling is that Jews are incredibly spread out geographically,” says Bryfman, director of the New Center for Collaborative Leadership at BJENY-SAJES, New York’s central agency for Jewish education. “The younger generation is already using technology. Its movement into Jewish ritual life is slower, though it will increasingly become more commonplace.”

The emotional impact can surprise virtual guests in its intensity. “We didn’t have high expectations,” says Bryfman. But because his parents felt so far away from their grandson being born, he was motivated to experiment, overcoming such logistical details as timing (the party was held at 5 p.m. Sunday in New York, which was 7 a.m. Monday in Melbourne). The work paid off. On the day of the brit milah, “my dad really felt like he was part of the experience. My 86-year-old grandmother found it inconceivable. At one point, she touched the screen.”

“It really felt like a big family celebration,” says Bryfman.

When the Conservative rabbis Erez Sherman and Nicole Guzik married each other in January, their chupah was graced by the virtual presence of Rabbi Sherman’s brother Eyal Sherman, who is a paraplegic, and his sister Rabbi Nogah Marshall, who was nine months pregnant. Both were unable to fly from Syracuse to Los Angeles, where the wedding was held. A $40 webcam was clipped to the ark; a laptop was discreetly placed on the bima of Temple Sinai, allowing Rabbi Sherman’s siblings, (including a third sister Orah Barnett who flew to Syracuse from England) to view the proceedings via Skype.

“The whole family was standing on the bima,” says Rabbi Sherman. “There were a lot of tears on both ends.” After the ceremony, Rabbi Sherman received a call from his family back east: “Bring the camera into the social hall,” says Rabbi Sherman, remembering his orders. His siblings wanted to view the party too. Unfortunately the reception room didn’t have wireless capability.

Rabbi Sherman, who moved to Los Angeles last July, keeps in touch with his four siblings through the use of web-chatting programs. With this technology, he’s able to watch his toddler-aged niece and nephew grow up in London. And yet, like Bryfman’s relatives, Rabbi Sherman’s family had expressed skepticism about the virtual nuptials beforehand, believing, “If you’re not going to be there, you’re not going to be there.” But now, Rabbi Sherman and his family insist, “this has to be an option for people.”

While both Bryfman and Rabbi Sherman utilized the popular video-chatting system available through Skype, some other Jewish celebrants have used higher tech — and sometimes higher cost — options, which allow events to be webcast, or live-streamed online. In such cases, guests can simultaneously watch the proceedings from their respective corners of the world.

Rabbi Sherman says he now wishes he had live-streamed his nuptials. As the son of a rabbi himself, he would have liked to invite every member of his childhood synagogue in Syracuse; the next best thing would have been to issue an invitation to attend virtually. “If I had planned a bit more in advance it would have been pretty awesome,” he says.

A cottage industry of wedding webcasters has emerged in recent years, including the company, launched last year by Stacy Yamaoka and her boyfriend, Chris Anderson. The website suggests yet another reason to live-stream: “Couples can have a large wedding without a large carbon footprint, or a large budget. Go Green. Live Stream.”

Adam Brill, a client of MarryMe Live, feared that his fiancée Amanda Arnett’s mother, who hadn’t boarded a plane in 40 years, would miss him smashing the glass beneath the chupah. “We wanted a backup,” explained Brill, though in the end, his about-to-be-mother-in-law gathered her courage to fly.

Yamaoka supplied her services free of charge to Brill, who is a friend. Typical couples, however, may find live-streaming to be one more financial burden in wedding planning, as MarryMeLive charges between $200 to $1,000 for its professional support, skills and equipment.

A tiny but growing number of (mostly Reform) synagogues already webcast Shabbat services, and in these congregations, b’nai mitzvah services are automatically streamed. At these synagogues, families aren’t charged for the webcast. Occasionally families inquire about live-streaming other celebrations or events, including funerals, weddings or baby-naming ceremonies. “Anytime someone makes a request, we push a couple of buttons and it goes live on the web,” says Alan Pearlman, executive director of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Ala.

Pearlman says that in the last two weeks he’s received three calls about webcasting from congregations around the country. Others report, however, that synagogues have been slow to adopt such technology. Natalie Miller, the technology specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism, says that she doesn’t believe it’s “the buzz around the water cooler,” as there are still some synagogues grappling with the basics of e-mail, but that the results of a technology audit of Reform synagogues conducted this month will be informative.

Some small synagogues fear the high tab of installation and upkeep. Central Synagogue in Manhattan, a large congregation that has been live-streaming its services for three years, installed the necessary equipment when it rebuilt its sanctuary in 2001. Now the congregation spends less than $10,000 annually in ongoing costs, for both its live-streaming and call-in system (which provides an audio service by phone).

Of course, it is possible to webcast a ceremony without incurring a hefty bill. Ustream, one popular website, provides a free platform.

Last summer, far-flung relatives of Ben Hammer tuned in to their computer screens to watch as Ben, in a dark suit and red tie, delivered his bar mitzvah speech at Beth Adam, a humanistic synagogue in Loveland, Ohio. One Pennsylvania cousin puzzled over the choice of topic (the history of the film industry) but praised Ben’s poise and maturity.

The Hammers opted to live-stream their son’s service, webcasting the ceremony via Ustream for two reasons: First, because “all of our family is back East; hardly anyone was likely to make it,” says Eric Hammer, Ben’s father. Second, the event allowed the synagogue to experiment with new technology to improve webcasts for the upcoming High Holy Days. Eric Hammer, who is a high school teacher of technology, was able to lend his expertise.

Darim, a nonprofit that helps Jewish organizations understand social media, anticipates more interest in live-streaming in the near future, and will be holding a “webinar” this summer for those interested. Lisa Colton, the founder and president of Darim, recalls how even nine years ago, when she got married in Boston, a combination of ingenuity and technology enabled her 89-year-old grandmother to experience the wedding from her assisted living facility in Seattle.

Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.

Check out the Jewish Week’s Facebook page and become a fan! And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.