'Second Life's' virtual Judaism gains a new congregation

During Hanukka, virtual candles are lit four times a day.

second life 88 (photo credit: )
second life 88
(photo credit: )
By 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the second night of Hanukka, Beth Odets had lit candles for the third time that day and still had one more lighting session to go. She recited the blessing first in Hebrew, then in English and about 15 people called out, "Amen." Or rather, they typed "Amen." They, being a group of on-line characters or avatars. "Happy Hanukka, everyone! I am so grateful to be here with y'all," wrote Odets to the group who joined her in lighting candles on-line in Second Life (SL), an Internet-based community where Jewish life is growing at a momentous speed. The on-line world allows its users, the "residents," to assume personas and interact with each other via instant messenger software. Odets, a 33-year-old artist who goes by the name Beth Brown in real life, wrote from Dallas, Texas, but the crowd was multinational and included participants from countries around the globe, including the US, Holland, Germany and Israel. During Hanukka, virtual candles are lit four times a day to accommodate different real-world time zones. "Virtual Judaism is becoming as diverse as in the real world," said Julian Voloj, editor of 2Life, the Jewish magazine of SL, which began in April 2007. Jewish SL organizations include the Jewish Business Development Group, Jewish Defense League, Zionist Association of Second Life, France Israel/Juifs de France and Kosher Nostra, a group interested in the history of Jewish-American mafia, among a list of others. And, as in the real world, anti-Semitism is no stranger to SL Jews. An avatar named after Albert Speer, architect of the Third Reich, is rumored to roam SL. "I experienced two anti-Semitic attacks," said Chava Weissler, a religious studies professor at Lehigh University, who is studying the relationship between Jewish life in SL and Jewish life in the real world. Created in 2003 by Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based technology company, Second Life (www.secondlife.com) has grown from a small niche venue into a mainstream phenomenon. Companies like Toyota and IBM have opened Second Life branches, Reebok sells virtual sneakers for avatars and Reuters has an office in Second Life. In October 2006, Second Life welcomed its millionth resident. Today, Second Life is about the same size (in virtual square meters) as New York City, with over ten million registered users spread around the virtual grid, either on the mainland or on any of the various themed "islands" in the virtual landscape, making it one of the world's fastest-growing communities. "So where are the latkes [potato pancakes traditionally eaten on Hanukka]?" Nigelanigela Palen wanted to know. "Kat left one on the floor," Brown/Odets chimed in. A virtual latke had been left on the floor of the courtyard near Temple Beit Israel, the first Second Life synagogue, which was opened a little over a year ago by Odets. Temple Beit Israel, also known as the Second Life Synagogue, was created in August 2006 by Brown. When Temple Beth Israel was first developed, there were just a few members. Today, her synagogue is booming and membership has grown to over 500. "A year ago I couldn't have dreamed this," said Brown from her studio in Texas. The synagogue is located on TMA, one of two main Jewish areas in SL. The other, Ihr Shalom, is an island that has a Jewish museum, a shopping center, and several music and dance venues. Israel is also a growing presence in SL, with the island of Tel Aviv. Later this month, an island called Israel will officially open. At the 10 p.m. EST candle-lighting ceremony, a discussion ensued over whether it was okay to recite the shehehianu blessing on the second night of Hanukka. Ever Student, an avatar who created a replica of the Tabernacle, explained that the blessing is said to celebrate a new thing one has never done, or something one has not yet done this year. "Well, we've never ever lit this many candles or had this many people at this event... at this time... today?" said Brown/Odets. The success of last year's Hanukka lighting inspired Brown/Odets to begin weekly Shabbat candle-lighting ceremonies, which she now hosts every Friday at four different times. Throughout the night, Odets told the gathering how "amazing" it was to see so many people attend the candle lighting. She would know. She opened the synagogue initially in 2006 to house a stray virtual Torah, when Second Life was still in its burgeoning state. Within hours of building it, the first visitors arrived. A year later, the synagogue had bred an entire Jewish neighborhood that includes the SL Kotel, the headquarters for 2Life (www.2lifemagazine.com), the Tachles gallery and Aufbau Café, the Jewish Quarter Budapest, the Ark, the Mikveh, Yeshivah Modim, a meditation station and more. "I hate to light and run, but you know it's getting dark in Dallas, and I need to do it (light candles) for real," wrote Brown/Odets at 15:24 SL time, and signed off. For Jewish SL users, the relationship between real life and Second Life is growing ever more interesting. For some, lighting candles on SL is the only candle lighting they will do this week, despite the fact that the leaders of these virtual ceremonies made clear that doing so does not fulfill the religious obligation. For others, Jewish life in SL is an extension of their real-life practices. And for some, Jewish experiences in SL have inspired toward initiating real-life practices. Brown said she knew of 26 people who have begun lighting Shabbat candles in real life, after doing so virtually. Jewish life on SL "reinforces how I feel," said Nigelanigela. "For someone who is a shut-in, I see this as an amazing way to participate." "I'm pretty shy and uncomfortable around (large groups of people), but in SL I have no problems," added Jstar Morales. "So I normally wouldn't attend a synagogue, but here it's easier." "I never go to shul[synagogue] because I hate socializing with the rich women lol [an acronym for laughing out loud]," said Bracha Letov. "I've extended my daily learning to Second Life," said Reuven Fischer, whose SL name is GruvenReuven Greenberg. Fischer, who is affiliated with Chabad, started by building a virtual Kotel with information points to learn more about Judaism. Now, he participates in daily religious study sessions on-line. Fischer said that 15 people showed up for a religious class Wednesday night, "People from all walks of life, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox." Though Chabad has a strong presence in SL, the local branch has not yet received an official stamp of approval. But the yeshiva recently moved to a virtual brownstone, an almost-exact replica of the Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn. Fischer has also created virtual tzedaka (charity) boxes. He uses the SL exchange rate to convert Linden dollars into real money. Before Rosh Hashana, he donated $348, which he collected on-line, to Chabad. "It's amazing to hear comments like, 'Now, I'm going to light candles in real life,'" said Fischer. "Someone told me he likes wearing the tzitzit[fringed garment traditionally worn by religious Jewish men under their shirts] so much on his avatar, he went out to buy one for himself. We are little by little allowing folks to take on mitzvot [religious obligations] and extend them to real life, until they feel comfortable going to shul and lighting candles."