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Live streaming the High Holy Days: A way in, or a way out?

To think synagogue members would stay home just so they could watch High Holy Day services in their pajamas is nonsense, said one rabbi. Live streaming will actually "increase your ability to reach out."

Control room technician Richard Meyer (left) and his son, Bryan Fine, 18,  prepare to  live-stream Shabbat services at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
Control room technician Richard Meyer (left) and his son, Bryan Fine, 18, prepare to live-stream Shabbat services at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.Read moreMichele Frentrop

For more than three decades, Jim and Cindy Meyer listened to the sound of the shofar signaling the start of the High Holy Days from their seats at Temple Sholom in Broomall. They prayed the prayers marking the 10 Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur surrounded by memories of family confirmations, baby blessings, and vow renewals.

This year, though, Cindy Meyer is hobbled by surgery on an arthritic ankle and won't be able to make it to the synagogue for the holidays, which begin at sundown Wednesday. So she will participate in what she calls the next-best way: watching services via live stream on a 55-inch TV in her family room.

"To me, it doesn't feel distant," said Meyer, 71, who has been following Temple Sholom's live streams since her operation in July. "It's like, 'Oh my God, there's Judy! There are my friends!'  It's a wonderful alternative."

Meyer's Delaware County congregation is among a growing number of synagogues that are streaming weekly services, special holiday observances, and family rituals.  By clicking on a homepage link, members can feed their spiritual hunger without having to dress up, search for a parking space, or rush through crowds.

Streaming's proponents say it offers a religious lifeline to people unable — or unwilling — to attend, and a way for synagogues to reach them. It particularly appeals to the much-coveted population of tech-savvy millennials, said Rabbi Hayim Herring, co-author of Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose. "Part of it is not wanting to seem outdated and out of touch," he said. "When millennials go to your website and you have sermons on from past High Holidays with a rabbi who died 20 years ago, you've lost something."

At Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Rabbi Lance Sussman does shout-outs to his online audience from the bimah.  The synagogue has invested $20,000 in equipment to put its live streaming on the cutting edge. "People live on their cellphones, iPads, and laptops," he said. "It's transforming Jewish life."

Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues that are "not as concerned" about adhering to limitations of  Jewish law are more likely to offer streaming, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Jews who strictly observe Shabbat, including Orthodox communities, refrain from using electric appliances during the Sabbath and holy days.  But Conservative synagogues are finding ways to adapt. Adath Israel, a Conservative congregation in Merion, uses a stationary, wall-mounted camera that operates on a timer, so no one has to touch it on the Sabbath and other holy days.

The viewing audience varies. Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro averages about 100 to 130 log-ins on the High Holidays, the only time the 500-family synagogue live-streams. Nashuva, a Los Angeles congregation that collaborates with the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles newspaper to offer services, expects 100,000 to tune in for its Yom Kippur live stream, reportedly the largest online audience for any Conservative congregation in the nation.

Still, clergy and congregants alike ponder the potential pitfalls.

"Watching at home is not like being there," said Jim Meyer, 72. "If you go to a concert, you're surrounded by the concert. If you watch the same concert on television, it's not quite the same — even if it's [almost as good]."

By making it easier to stay home, does live streaming jeopardize the sense of connection vital to maintaining a synagogue community — especially as affiliation rates decline and young Jews search for expressions of Judaism that aren't tied to the buildings or institutions of their parents?

Then, there's the money thing. The most sacred time on the Jewish calendar is also the time when the congregations are packed and membership dues are renewed, helping to secure the finances needed to sustain synagogues' infrastructure and programming. Tickets to High Holy Day services are typically a benefit that comes with membership, and an important motivation to pay dues that can amount to thousands of dollars.

"If you offer streaming, why should they join?" asked Marc Rothstein, executive director of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill.

Officials of the 700-family synagogue have been discussing the issue since they began a test stream of services six months ago, including Shabbat and family rituals such as bar and bat mitzvahs. It will stream its first High Holidays services starting Wednesday; a password will be required, making access a benefit of membership.

Even if the live stream were available to everyone, Rothstein said he doesn't believe people would stop coming to services. Watching online is just another way to participate, he said.

To think that members would stay home just so they could watch in their pajamas is "nonsense," said Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "The value of a synagogue community is most meaningful through human interactions. So I don't think streaming will take away from that value. If anything, it will increase your ability to reach out."

The streaming of High Holy Day services, among the most spiritually powerful of the year, has prompted visits and even donations from nonmembers watching online, said Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel.

"We have people in underserved, far-flung communities where they don't have a rabbi or even a synagogue," he said, "and they'll call us after the High Holidays and thank us for providing a Jewish connection."

Synagogue leaders say audiences have included college students who watch together in dorms, a National Security Agency official viewing from her office in Washington, and seniors watching from retirement communities in Florida.

"We got a letter last year that said, 'If you could see my father in hospice, his last Yom Kippur with his granddaughter on his lap, singing along with the prayers — you would know what a mitzvah [good deed] you have done," said Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva.

Congregation M'kor Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Cherry Hill, is starting to see an uptick in young families joining the congregation, a development that communications chair Sarah Honovich credits in part to its live streaming.

"We have to be creative and open-minded," Honovich said. "And maybe with all the things happening in the world, people are starting to see that they need our community."