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Weaving Social Media into the High Holy Day Services

When the Jewish High Holy Days arrive, is it necessarily more appropriate to log out of our social media apps, or can social media enhance the spiritual experience of these traditional days? Must Twitter, Facebook and texting just pull us back into our own private (even narcissistic) world or can they provide individual connections to a communal religious experience?

Recently, the New York Times reported For Young Jews, a Services says ‘Please Do Text‘ on one synagogue’s experimentation in a service for Jews in their 20’s and 30’s. Congregation Or Ami, always open to innovation, similarly experimented with Facebook, Twitter and texting during this year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur morning services.

What is the Shofar Sounding Saying to You?
As profiled in JTA’s In some shuls, congregants encouraged to keep phones on during services, Or Ami took a leap of faith to engage the faithful:

Rabbi Paul Kipnes [planned] to encourage congregants with smartphones to use Facebook to reflect on the shofar after it is blown for the second time during the service. “Maimonides says, ‘Awake sleepers.’ Most of us hear the shofar and continue sleeping through it,” Kipnes said. “It’s [not] a show, not an alarm clock. I’m saying OK, everybody, sit up, wake up, reflect.”

Given that so much of the High Holidays liturgy is in the collective — “We have sinned” — Kipnes says it is appropriate for congregants to share their thoughts collectively during the service.

“Prayer,” he said, “is not supposed to be a spectator sport.”

On Rosh Hashana morning, dozens of texts, Facebook messages and tweets responded to the question, What is the shofar sounding saying to you? Worshippers responded:

  • It reminds me that I have a chance to redeem my past actions to work toward a brighter year.
  • The shofar sounds like an ancient song coming to us from thousands of years ago.
  • We need to wake up and see what is happening in the world we live in. We are at a tipping point and at stake is the existence of both the State of Israel and the life we cherish.

For the first time in a long time, people did not clap after the sounding of the shofar. Does this mean the invitation to respond by social media turned them inward? It was unclear. While such innovation can be meaningful, such breaks with tradition can also alienate others. We did hear how social media engaged some participants more deeply in the experience. One Or Ami congregant texted after the service, “Thanks so much for today. The texting during the service was engaging.”

There is Holiness When…
On Yom Kippur morning, we twice invited the congregation to interact through social media, promising that their thoughts would become part of the sermons. As LA Weekly reported in Texting During Yom Kippur Services? How One L.A. Rabbi IsBringing Social Media to His Synagogue,

…giving congregants tacit permission to mentally check out of
services was not Kipnes’ intention in bringing social media to the bimah (the
stage); in fact, it was quite the opposite. “Look, worship is supposed to
be an interactive experience, but in many places it stopped being that,”
he explains in an interview.

Before a particularly inspiring prayer-song on kedusha (holiness), we invited worshippers to complete the sentence “There is holiness when…” The responses, shared as part of a drash on holiness, included:

  • When I am with family and friends, people I truly love.
  • When we are humble.
  • When you realize you have wronged another and you then correct that wrong with a right. That is truly holy. 
  • When you wake up every morning and walk out of bed and get ready for the day ahead.
  • When we all come together to pray to the One who gave us the power to pray. 
  • When all hatred fades, when all differences dissolve, when all judgment dissipates, and when we can all look at each other as one under God. 

To Me, the Brit (covenant) with God Means…
Lisa Colton, Founder and President of Darim Online, has been agitating for rabbis to experiment with the Social Sermon, wherein rabbis announce topics ahead of services and invite social media conversation during the week. The sermon that is preached (or the Torah discussion that ensues) on Shabbat, incorporates the discussion that has preceded it. The Covenant Foundation similarly has blogged about grassroots-driven preaching, in Twitter + Community + Jewish Education = Social Sermon.

Marrying the social sermon with our willingness to push the boundaries of traditional prayer, we wove  a d’var Torah in realtime as the congregation responded to the statement “To me, the brit (covenant) with God means…” Since Or Ami like many Reform synagogues reads Nitzavim (Deut. 29-30) on Yom Kippur morning, the slew of social media messages allowed a wide ranging exploration about our connection today to the brit between God and the Jewish people. As worshippers explained, “To me, our Brit with God means…”

  • To stay with it NO MATTER WHAT. To never give up on the truth of our souls. 
  • Dedication to an unbreakable chain.
  • To do the right thing when no one is looking, and to pass down our value system to the next generation.
  • That God does God’s part and we must do ours. 
  • Our covenant is continued, when our Torah breastplate, rescued from the ashes of Kristallnacht, still adorns our scrolls and dances through Jews 74 years later.
  • That we can even question our brit with God.
Is Social Media Integration into Worship the Wave of the Future or Just Techno-Heresy? 
Initial comments following services about these social media experiments during the High Holy Days were overwhelmingly positive (but not unanimously so). Still, we heard that some participants preferred to leave their electronic umbilical cords turned off. So whether Jewish worship is flexible enough to integrate Social Media in an ongoing, meaningful way has yet to be seen. Or as LA Weekly’s Amanda Lewis wrote: 

On a holiday meant to generate inward reflection, does it
make sense to ask congregants to take out their phones but avoid the plethora
of temptations, distractions and push notifications?”

What do you think? Wave of the future or Techno-Heresy?

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