New sites make shul an online-only experience

Patrick Aleph (left) and Michael Sabani launched their online Jewish community PunkTorah on June 30, 2010 ()

Patrick Aleph (left) and Michael Sabani launched their online Jewish community PunkTorah on June 30, 2010 ()

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – On a recent weekday, Rivka Bowlin led mincha, the afternoon prayer service, from her home in Louisville, Ky.

Her fellow worshipers were in Atlanta, Detroit and Oakland, Calif., watching her on their computer screens, following along with an online prayer book and keying in “Amen” after each blessing via a chat window.

Bowlin was the day’s prayer leader for  PunkTorah, the brainchild of two young Jews in Atlanta who are trying to create a global Jewish community in cyberspace. They held their first prayer service on June 30.

Just because participants don’t meet face to face doesn’t make that community any less real, said Patrick Aleph, the group’s 27-year-old co-founder and executive director.

“We are a community of real people who happen to meet online,” he told JTA.

More and more Jewish religious life is moving online. Synagogues stream worship services over the Internet to reach homebound congregants, students away at college and distant relatives of the bar mitzvah boy. Rabbis write blogs, religious school teachers “tweet” by posting online messages of 140 characters or less, and youth groups share videos on Facebook.

But these online ventures usually are tied to a brick-and-mortar synagogue, and are envisioned as a supplemental offering to the “real” congregational community. Almost none are created solely as online Jewish communities, which is what makes and, based in Cincinnati, so unusual.

“It’s a taste of the future,” said Rabbi Laura Baum, 30, spiritual leader of

Critics might say online worship is too easy, that it doesn’t require even the simple effort of getting dressed and walking to a designated building.

But supporters of online Jewish communities say they demand interaction. At last year’s Passover Seder, Baum said, someone in Paris read a passage in the haggadah about matzah, while someone in New York read the section about maror, the bitter herbs. For the Yizkor memorial service during Yom Kippur, people sent in the names and photos of their departed loved ones, which she streamed online.

“This is do-it-yourself Judaism,” said Michael Sabani, PunkTorah’s creative director and de facto spiritual leader.

So far, several thousand people have gone to their site, according to the PunkTorah leaders, although considerably fewer take part in the online prayer services. The regulars hail from North America, Israel and Britain. “If you log onto our site or send us an e-mail, you’re part of our community,” Aleph said.

On Aug. 17, Aleph and Sabani launched a fund-raising appeal to build OneShul, an online synagogue, to extend the services they can offer. Their goal is to raise $5,000 in 60 days — much less than the usual synagogue capital campaign.

“We’re not interested in buying property or lining our pockets,” Sabani said. “We want to build something for the least amount of money that will serve the most people most effectively.”

That was Congregation Beth Adam’s goal in 2008 when the independent, liberal synagogue in Cincinnati hired Baum, then 28 and freshly ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, to create an online Jewish community that would reach out to unaffiliated Jews nationwide.

“They realized that in order for Judaism to survive, there needs to be a new model,” Baum said.

Beth Adam pays her salary and Baum uses the synagogue’s in-house liturgy, but the online community she leads has little overlap with the 300-member congregation behind the venture.

Baum and Rabbi Robert Barr, Beth Adam’s senior rabbi, stream Friday night services live at 6 p.m. EST, interacting with participants via Twitter and Facebook. Barr does a weekly podcast on iTunes and Baum blogs regularly, and between the two of them, they offer the usual array of counseling and educational services one would expect from Jewish clergy.

In the two years they’ve been online, tens of thousands of people from more than 150 countries have sought them out, they said.

“I can be your rabbi even if you’re not in Cincinnati,” Baum said, noting that many Jews are online already and are used to making such connections. “We are your rabbis and this is your community,” she said.

These communities wouldn’t exist if they didn’t meet a growing need, said Shawn Landres, co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart (, a Los Angeles-based incubator for sustainable Jewish innovation projects. One of the challenges for online Jewish worship, he said, is that certain prayers require a minyan, a quorum of 10. But in an age of webcams and the Internet telephone service Skype, Landres said, spatial relations become altered and who’s to say what “together” means?

Soon after his father’s death three years ago, Landres added, he was participating in a meeting via Skype when the group paused for afternoon prayers. They invited him to say Kaddish, the traditional prayer for mourners.

“I was in my living room, in my pajamas,” Landres said. It turned out to be “an extraordinary experience,” he said. “I felt that community and I felt that connection. I would never say that it wasn’t real. I would never say that God did not hear that prayer. Maybe we have to look past our own definition of what’s real.”

At PunkTorah, Aleph or Sabani lead services on Friday afternoons, but the Monday and Wednesday services are led by volunteers like Bowlin.

Stefani Barner, who lives just outside Detroit, was one of eight people attending one of Bowlin’s recent services online. As the mother of a 10-year-old boy who is waiting for a kidney transplant, Barner said, she welcomes the option of praying online. It allows her to pray when she can’t get to the synagogue where she and her husband are members, she said, and it’s become a caring community, as well.

“This isn’t instead of; it’s in addition to,” Barner said. “I’m a big believer in bricks and mortar, too. I see the need for OneShul for those who don’t belong to a synagogue, but for us, it’s a wonderful addition.”

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