Last Rosh HaShanah morning, I was forced to admit it: my bronchitis was too severe to allow me to make the evening rounds of dinner and services. But the thought of missing the first of the High Holiday services was as distressing to me as my coughing and wheezing.
Possibility A: I asked Rabbi Jordan Goldson, my rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Baton Rouge, LA, if he might be broadcasting services to connect with shut-ins, as he used to.
"We haven't done that for several years now," he told me regretfully.
In the deep South where I live, synagogues do not offer broadcast services as churches do, so I moved on to Possibility B: searching the Internet to see if, perchance, I could "attend" a streaming Rosh HaShanah service somewhere else.
This proved to be a great revelation! I discovered that live-streamed services would be available in real time and made note of three, all in the Eastern Time Zone. At the appointed hour, I returned to my computer swathed in a bathrobe and sucking cough drops and entered the world of e-Rosh HaShanah.
First visit: ourjewishcommunity.org, self-described as offering Progressive Judaism. Clicking on before the service, I enjoyed watching congregants milling about, visiting and chatting. Meanwhile, online participants were exchanging comments through an interactive dialogue box. Once the service started, this became a distraction, so I maximized the video screen and the interactivity disappeared. Then the service seemed just for the worshippers and me.
The setting was unadorned - no flowers or other embellishments - but the vibe was warm and inclusive. Two rabbis in street clothes, standing behind a blond wood lectern in what appeared to be their social hall, followed a liturgy from a prayer book unfamiliar to me. I stayed with these folks long enough to sing the familiar "Hinei Ma Tov" along with their lay choir, which stood, with the director, along the right aisle of the sanctuary. I knew this because the changing camera shots guided me around the sanctuary, focusing tightly on the rabbis reading and praying, showing the congregation from the rear, and moving to the singers. I might have stayed for the duration of the service, but I was curious to see what my other two options had to offer.
I next accessed K.K. Bene Israel, known as Rockdale Temple, in Cincinnati through ustream.tv/channel/sackermann. (Steve Ackermann is the congregation's new president.) The platform, Ustream TV, I later learned, is a live, interactive broadcast format available to "anyone with an internet connection and camera" who wants to share content, and Rockdale Temple leaders had chosen it in order to support their own members who could not worship with them because of illness or distance. They had also chosen a simple production, single-camera approach in order to not distract their own worship, while making sure that the sound their members heard from afar would be exactly the same as what was being heard in their own sanctuary. Personally, though, I believe that utilizing more complex production techniques would have been a better choice, for the sake of a broader online audience.
Rockdale Temple's service was set in a larger, more attractive space than the previous service. Flowers decorated the front of the pulpit, and a handsome, art-deco-looking ark framed two white-robed women rabbis. A small choir of perhaps four people, accompanied by piano, was positioned on the left side of the bimah - but this is just a guess, as I could only see the right side of a keyboard and the cuff of someone's white sleeve, because of the single, static camera stationed at the rear of the sanctuary. This meant that any animation of the scene came only from the movements of people on the bimah - the rabbis reading and praying, and the new board members being installed.
Nonetheless, I found myself drawn in as the service progressed. I sang the Mi Shebeirach and hummed the Avinu Malkeinu with the congregation and listened intently to the sermon delivered by Rabbinic Intern Meredith Kahan: "Why," she asked us, "do we confess for Yom Kippur as a group, engage in a 'we' prayer, when it is personal confession?" She then answered, "It is impossible to be Jewish alone, because Judaism requires community." I smiled at my computer, for the rabbinic intern had given the perfect explanation as to why I was eavesdropping long-distance on her service.
My third "visit" was to Central Synagogue in Manhattan at central synagogue.org/livestream. The congregation's lively service seemed the most familiar and engaging to me, although I found it odd that, for erev Rosh HaShanah, Central Synagogue had moved to Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center - that is, until Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein explained that Central's sanctuary at Lexington Avenue and E. 55th Street was not large enough to accommodate their 2000+ member families, and he felt strongly that the congregation should all pray together.
The service was dramatic, grand, and "old style Reform" in its presentation, with a small orchestra accompanying singers and Cantor Angela W. Buchdahl chanting and singing as well. Some of the sung prayers were old, familiar, Reform-style melodies and some were more contemporary, á la Debbie Friedman. It was a pleasant mix.
Beyond the venue, what most distinguished Central Synagogue's service was the professionalism of the broadcast. It seemed as if it had been produced by a director who knew how to vary the shots to convey a great sense of place and emotion appropriate to the occasion. Images of the interior; close-ups of the rabbi, cantor, and musicians; and sweeps of the congregation were so well integrated that I had a real sense of place, almost as if I was there, too.
It all felt so familiar and rewarding (perhaps I like my Judaism on a grander and more dramatic scale than I'd realized…) that I returned to Central Synagogue's broadcast for the Rosh HaShanah morning service, held in the synagogue's grand sanctuary. Again, the camera moved expertly, capturing the soaring ceiling and dark wood paneling, resting on a beautiful blue rose window during the silent prayer, panning the congregation, and seamlessly moving between the rabbi and the cantor on the bimah.
No doubt, the experience of sitting at home alone at my computer during Rosh HaShanah lacked the intimacy and power of attending services at my own congregation and the pleasure of greeting my friends. Still, live streaming services proved a splendid substitute, far preferable to what my father used to do because of physical problems: he'd lie on his bed and read his prayer book alone, while the rest of the family trooped off to services. If I was as physically alone as he had been, I didn't feel it.
At the conclusion of Rosh HaShanah I gave thanks for the technology that allowed me to participate, in a singularly 21st-century way, in observing the holiday in the company of hospitable Jewish strangers, including one woman who smiled into the camera and said, surely speaking to me, "L'shanah Tovah to everyone I know and everyone I don't know." Thank you, I responded to my computer. L'shanah Tovah to you, too.
Where to Stream
If you can't make it to services, many Reform congregations offer streaming options. This list includes synagogues, descriptions, service times, and URLs. If your congregation should be on the list, leave a comment to let us know, and we'll add it.