When the Temple of the Arts synagogue in Beverly Hills began to broadcast its High Holiday services on television 22 years ago, the response was overwhelming.
David Baron, the founding rabbi of the 25-year-old synagogue housed at the historic 1,800-seat Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, said they expected to get a few responses from the elderly who were homebound or from those who resided in assisted living facilities.
But, he was pleasantly surprised.
“The messages we received were truly eye-opening,” Baron said. “They were from people who were recovering from surgery. Young people in drug rehab programs. Women with fibromyalgia who wanted to watch the services together as a support group. A wonderful Christian group that wanted to learn more about Yom Kippur.”
For two years, the synagogue has also been streaming its High Holidays services online. The services that are broadcast on the Web are edited versions from the High Holidays the year prior.
In 2018, however, the temple will begin to livestream High Holiday services on the West Coast, Baron said.
Rabbis have been divided about whether to broadcast or livestream High Holiday services, but of late, more and more synagogues have begun to do so, taking into account the elderly, disabled and those who cannot afford to pay hundreds of dollars for tickets to attend these services.
Synagogues in Southern California take different approaches to technology during the High Holidays. Some livestream the services free to the public. Others use pre-recorded broadcasts. Some livestream services that are only accessible to paying members of the congregation.
And then, there are orthodox Jews who will not use electricity or electronic devices on the Sabbath or during the High Holidays and traditional congregations that prefer a good old-fashioned personal, face-to-face connection.
Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana has been streaming live broadcasts of its High Holiday services for five years.
“We wanted to make ourselves more accessible to everyone,” said Rabbi Heidi Cohen who has served the congregation for the last 20 years. “We’re trying to open the doors even wider through the use of technology.”
She said she’s even thinking about using Facebook Live during next year’s High Holiday services.
But the decision to incorporate technology on the Sabbath and High Holidays hasn’t been easy, Cohen said.
“I really did not want people to think they could just sit in front of their computer and have the services playing in the background,” she said. “Nothing beats the sense of community we get when we actually show up. Nothing can replace a warm hug or the touch of a hand.”
So during these services, Cohen issues gentle reminders that those who are able should be sitting in the pews, enjoying that sense of community and contributing what they can to their local synagogues.
“Remember, if the institutions go away because they can’t support themselves, there’s no more live streaming,” Cohen said.
Live streaming has not been without challenges — technical and financial — she said. The temple initially used Ustream, a free live video streaming company. However, the service had pop-up ads, some of which were inappropriate for a worship service, she said.
A few congregants stepped up to sponsor the live streaming of High Holiday services so the temple could use a paid streaming service without ads.
“The technology was challenging at times, too, but with the right software, hardware and equipment, it runs a lot smoother now,” Cohen said.
The benefits of technology, however, have far outweighed the hurdles, she said. The synagogue’s High Holiday services are watched by elderly congregants who are just blocks away to at least one person who lives as far away as Nebraska with no synagogue within a 200-mile radius.
Last week, during Rosh Hashanah, a congregant was in the hospital tending to her mother and was able to watch the services online on her mobile phone, Cohen said.
“For that day, she could find that healing moment as she watched the service from where she was,” she said.
But, traditional leaders say technology is no replacement for human contact.
Rabbi Reuven Mintz, who leads the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Newport Beach, says his synagogue has conducted more than 30 High Holiday services in assisted living facilities in Orange County.
“I’ve gone in with the shofar so they can hear that sound and get a real experience,” he said. “It’s different from watching it on television or on a computer. It’s very meaningful for them.”
On Saturday Sept. 30, for the center’s free Yom Kippur service at The Duke Hotel in Newport Beach, he’s ordered a special chair with armrests for a 96-year-old woman who served as a nurse during World War II.
“I feel like we owe more to the senior population, to those who blazed the trail for everything we as a community have today,” Mintz said. “We must make a point to reach out to them.”
There are nearly 80 Chabad centers in Southern California and all of them offer free High Holiday services, he said.
“A big part of the experience is to be there physically with your people and your community,” he said. “It’s heartwarming. You feel the emotions and you feel the vibrations. The impact of being there is simply irreplaceable.”