Rena Singer was working as a Hebrew school teacher when she asked her Instagram-obsessed students if they would follow a Jewish account. They said they would, but added a caveat: “If it were cool.”
Singer approached Rabbi Samantha Frank, a classmate at HUC who was ordained last month, in spring 2017 with an idea for an Instagram account that would add aesthetically pleasing and content-rich Jewish posts to their fellow millennials’ feeds. Frank, who saw an opportunity to turn her own time on Instagram into something more productive, enthusiastically agreed to work on the project.
They started posting about Jewish holidays and Shabbat, explaining Jewish concepts in long but readable posts and anchored by photos of themselves wearing a tallit or lighting Shabbat candles. After winning an innovation fellowship from HUC in 2018, they hired consultants and learned more about how to use Instagram more strategically, enabling their posts to amass hundreds of likes and dozens of comments. As of May 2019, the account had over 8,000 followers.
Singer and Frank look at their Instagram account as a way to reframe the typical assumptions about what it means to appear Jewish. They frequently post photos of themselves wearing a tallit or holding a siddur, creating alternatives to the assumed image of the Orthodox male rabbi. “If you google ‘rabbi’ or ‘Jewish,’ it’s always Jewish men,” said Singer. “We are really trying to model Jewish living for young adults.”
Emphasizing the importance of beautiful presentation in an Instagram post, Frank noted that the Torah describes at length the care invested in the decoration of the Tabernacle. “God is very into aesthetics,” Singer said.
In many ways, Modern Ritual is the testing ground for the skills Singer and Frank learned in rabbinical school. They view the comments section, where they reply to every comment, as an area to practice their pastoral skills. They often find themselves continuing the conversation in private messages with other Instagram users, often referring commenters to local rabbis for further guidance.
“People are sharing real pieces of their lives and we’re responding with spiritual presence,” said Frank. “We’re often really moved by what people share with us.”
Both On A Mission: Singer has competed in debate tournaments in Botswana and the Philippines. Frank is on a mission to try all the macaroni and cheese in New York City.