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Attending Synagogue Without Leaving Home

Growing numbers of congregations are live-streaming services to those who can’t join in person but want to stay connected

Paula Jacobs
February 16, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original images: Shutterstock

Until his death this past December at the age of 91, David Margolin attended weekly Shabbat services at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, the Conservative synagogue where he belonged since his wedding was held there 66 years earlier. When Alzheimer’s and declining health impaired his mobility, Margolin remained a Shabbat regular, “attending” live-streamed services on his iPad and singing along with the congregation as he watched from his Michigan home and his winter residence in Florida.

“Live-streaming is important because if you can’t be there physically, you can still connect with your place of worship,” said Steve Margolin, David’s son and a past president of the synagogue. He tells how one elderly congregant, Bessie Glazier, dressed up on Shabbat as if she were going to shul when she attended services via live-stream from her home; she streamed Kol Nidre services right before she died in October 2016.

“We are really trying to reach out to all of our members at various stages of their life journey, especially those who are ill, wherever they are,” said Rabbi Aaron Starr, spiritual leader at the 1,000-family suburban Detroit synagogue, which began live-streaming five years ago with a donation from the Richard and Sharon Brown Live-Streaming Fund.

Shaarey Zedek is one of dozens of synagogues across the U.S. that live-stream services, life cycle occasions, learning, and special events to make synagogue life more accessible. These days, snowbirds, travelers reciting Kaddish, and prospective members attend daily minyan and Shabbat and holiday services via live-stream. “For me, live-streaming is a vehicle to mitzvah. It allows people who are not coming to shul to be able to connect to God, Judaism, and the Jewish people in a way they couldn’t connect previously,” explained Starr.

For Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, the decision to live-stream services three years ago reflected its long-standing commitment to meeting the needs of shut-ins, as a natural extension of its decade-long practice of creating worship-service DVDs for hospitals and nursing homes. The 1,200-family congregation in suburban Minneapolis live-streams various lifecycle events, such as funerals or brit milah ceremonies, so family members who cannot attend due to illness or distance can still watch from afar. Approximately 300 people from across the U.S. and abroad tune in monthly—including 30 to 50 each Shabbat—according to statistics generated by the live-stream service.

“For me and for the congregation, it’s a wonderful tool that has made Beth El more accessible,” said Rabbi Alexander Davis, speaking from personal experience. When Davis’ father was hospitalized for an extended period, it gave him great pleasure to tune in from his hospital room and watch his son conduct services. In another instance, a grandmother undergoing cancer treatment was able to watch her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah before she died shortly afterward.

Non-Jews who are exploring Judaism have also tuned in. “It is difficult to come to a foreign environment where everything is in Hebrew. This way they get to explore Jewish ritual from home before they try out a synagogue,” explained Davis.

Davis is now preparing for conversion a candidate who had studied about Judaism online. Prior to approaching the rabbi, this individual had attended Beth El via live-streaming every day for an entire year from his living room in North Dakota: “When he even told me about my sermons, I knew that this was the right place for him.”

Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, California, began live-streaming three years ago to serve homebound congregants, some of whom were already watching services live-streamed by other synagogues. But soon the 950-family Conservative synagogue faced another challenge.

“How do you make them feel part of the community and not just voyeurs?” asked Rabbi Stewart Vogel. “We understood that it was a communal lifeline for those at home.”

To make his virtual community feel connected, Vogel acknowledges their presence during services. He looks up at the camera at special moments, e.g. when reading a loved one’s name on a yahrzeit, reciting special words of comfort during the misheberach healing prayer, or acknowledging grandparents unable to attend a grandchild’s aufrauf.

Indeed, staying attached to community is vital for homebound congregants such as Barbara and Jack Fishbon, longtime and formerly active members of Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation of approximately 430 families in Needham, Massachusetts. “When you can’t get out, you feel detached from what you used to do,” said Barbara.

Temple Aliyah just live-streams audio and is evaluating the merits of live-streaming video, according to Rabbi Carl Perkins. Meanwhile, audio streaming has filled an important void for the Fishbons, who listen to High Holiday services on their computer, while following along in the prayer book. “Hearing the services, the singing, and the rabbi’s sermons gave us a very warm feeling of community. Hearing the shofar blow was very meaningful,” explained Barbara. “Streaming has kept us in touch.”

When Adath Israel, an 800-family Conservative congregation in Merion Station, Pennsylvania, began live-streaming in 2012, the objective was to reach the homebound. Each year before the High Holidays, the synagogue distributes information packets about live-streamed services to area hospitals, nursing homes, and senior living centers.

“We’re making it available to people who would not be able to connect Jewishly in any other way,” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff, spiritual leader of the 800-family suburban Philadelphia congregation. He never anticipated, though, the audience or unintended consequences of live-streaming services: the woman who had planned to visit her parents for Rosh Hashanah but was unexpectedly called home; the homesick college student who watched Kol Nidre services with campus friends; the grandmother stranded in New York during a major storm and couldn’t attend her grandson’s bar mitzvah; and physicians on call during the High Holidays.

Among his favorite stories: A U.S. serviceman serving in an overseas war zone watched his daughter read the Prayer for Our Country during Shabbat services and saw his entire family on the bima while the congregation thanked him for his military service. An elderly man living in a nearby senior-living facility had lost speaking ability for seven months, but after tuning into Adath Israel weekly, one Shabbat he began singing along with the Ein Keloheinu hymn.

Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, plans to go live in March after a trial launch in February. “Part of our mission is to reach congregants, friends, and community beyond the circle of our building,” said Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of the 1,550-family Conservative congregation.

For Valley Beth Shalom, the focus will be on broadcasting learning and cultural programs—such as Torah study and special cultural events—rather than Shabbat services, which are already taped and posted online a few days after Shabbat.

“It’s not a replacement for synagogue life and a face-to-face community. We would like to share our learning and celebrations with those who can’t come,” said Feinstein. He views it as a continuation of the large worldwide network of internet followers that Valley Beth Shalom has attracted over the years—including the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet, which used Valley Beth Shalom’s Haggadah and commentary posted on its website.


The way live-streaming is used, and the issues it raises, can vary across denominations.

Reform congregations originally used live-streaming to make life cycle events available to family members who could not attend, but they have since expanded their objective to include reaching out to those who don’t attend services regularly. “Assuming that only people who want to stream are the elderly is a limiting assumption,” said Amy Asin, the Union for Reform Judaism’s vice president for strengthening congregations. She sees live-streaming as an evolution of the decades-old tradition of Shabbat radio broadcasts by synagogues such as Keneseth Israel of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and Temple Emanu-El of New York City.

Some Reform synagogues, including Temple Emanu-El and Central Synagogue in New York City, also broadcast weekly Shabbat services via Facebook Live so viewers can post comments in real-time—or, like Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, just for special services or events. In some instances, particularly where there are logistical and traffic issues, congregations have set up special locations, such as conference rooms, where High Holiday services can be viewed remotely but communally.

For Reconstructionist congregations using live-streaming, the aim is to be more inclusive. Oseh Shalom in Laurel, Maryland, uses live-streaming for these reasons, and so does Congregation Shir Shalom in Buffalo, New York, which also makes its events available after the fact on Youtube. “Halakha is always a starting point but each synagogue makes its own decisions,” explained Jackie Land, associate director of affiliate support for Reconstructing Judaism, which plans to live-stream its November 2018 convention in Philadelphia for greater accessibility.

For Conservative synagogues, which typically adhere to a stricter interpretation of Jewish law and Shabbat and holiday observance, implementing live-streaming requires a complex understanding and application of the minutiae of Jewish law. Conservative rabbis with whom Tablet spoke said they made the decision to live-stream only after carefully studying Jewish law and the teshuvot or responsa of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis. Some rabbis and congregations studied together teshuvot such as Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner’s Wired to the Kadosh Barukh Hu: Minyan via Internet, about praying in a virtual community.

They wrestled with such halakhic issues pertaining to Shabbat and holidays including: turning on equipment; using electronic devices; and typing text or URLs by remote users as a form of writing (a rabbinic prohibition)—and when countervailing halakhic values may prevail out of respect for the dignity of the infirm or disabled. To address these concerns, Conservative congregations use equipment and built-in stationary cameras that turn on automatically or are operated manually by custodial staff immediately before and after services and do not monitor or use social media on Shabbat or holidays.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of The Rabbinical School of The Jewish Theological Seminary understands concerns about providing access for the aged, disabled, and infirm, while also being mindful of technical halakhic issues such as writing and recording on Shabbat. “We have multiple values in this discourse and, in some cases, the value of Shabbat should have the upper hand, and in some cases, dignity should have the upper hand. When it comes to a rabbinic prohibition, dignity may override.”

Conservative synagogues have implemented live-streaming within halakhic guidelines largely to provide access to community and spiritual life for shut-ins.

As to whether live-streaming will replace synagogue membership, the consensus is that the opposite is true. “One of the fears is that people will tune in and not come to shul,” said Rabbi Davis. “We have gained because it has brought more people who checked out the synagogue from afar.”


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Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.