SAN FRANCISCO – 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, California, 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
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 home-bound 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
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 PunkTorah.org
, based in Cincinnati, so unusual.
“It’s a taste of the future,” said Rabbi Laura Baum, 30, spiritual leader of OurJewishCommunity.org
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
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
“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
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 (jewishjumpstart.org
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
“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
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