Even though I’m thrilled to return to the pulpit next month as the rabbi at Bromley Reform Synagogue, I do feel some foreboding.
After a decade’s hiatus since my last congregational post at Alyth, and since stepping down as Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism last year, our physical and cyber worlds have been transformed. I want to make sure these developments are healthy, and not a hazard, for synagogues.
We may be inching, or leaping, to living in nebulous online spaces which claim that everything we need in the real world is abundantly available in cyberspace. This turns my kishkers – guts. I don’t want our glorious in-person interactions to be superseded by synagogues and communal institutions migrating to virtual reality, or setting up permanent offshoots on digital landscapes and abandoning existing ones.
It’s true that online resources have helped exponentially to bridge devastating pandemic-induced chasms facing our community. From livestreamed services, shivas and shiurim (classes) to Whatsapp support groups, innovative and socially-distanced measures have allowed us to stay connected. Joining distant family members and friends for services or socials strengthened our community’s vitality and openness during a time of crisis.
Particularly for physically limited, vulnerable or lonely members of our community, this has been a wonderful initiative and a true kiddush hashem – sanctification of God’s name.
‘Out of sight, out of mind’ simply won’t wash any more.
Last night a group of European rabbis shared a beautiful, moving and impactful series of blessings on Zoom in solidarity with fellow communities in Ukraine, as well as in Russia and Belarus where so many oppose military aggression. Technology can bring us together to amplify our prayers, especially that ‘the Maker of peace may bring that peace upon us and upon all the world.’
I’m glad that companies and regulators are waking up to the extreme dangers the Internet can enable when misused, especially for children. The new Online Safety Bill would help us fight some of the worst of this, making social media companies responsible for stopping harmful and illegal activities. That way we can focus on the amazing things the Internet can offer.
In one recent digital development, the first unashamedly Jewish NFTs were launched on the metaverse. For those of us still wrapping our heads around this craze, NFTs – ‘Non-Fungible Tokens’ – are unique, own-able items that only exist digitally. One new creator getting in on the action is The Kiddush Club, which creates one-of-a-kind digital art pieces which they call ‘mensches’. Named after the Yiddish term of endearment, these showcase a dazzling and commendably diverse variety of Jewish faces.
A mensch is a quirky and fun collector’s piece, but ranging from $180 to over $3,000, it’s unlikely they will be widespread any time soon. In any case, I definitely don’t want my spiritual needs to just be administered to an avatar which looks somewhat like me in an alternate reality which looks vaguely like the real world.
In my old-new role as a congregational rabbi I will need to be more creative than last time around. I’ll need to welcome valuable digital facilities that difficult conditions have accelerated, but also avoid dangerous ones.
However glorious the gains of digital are, give me an in-person kiddish and I’m a happy Jew. Nothing can ever replace a hug and a fishball.