Reform shuls welcome virtual congregants

By Jessica Elgot, August 18, 2011
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Congregants unable to get to synagogue are singing the praises of the Reform communities which are streaming Shabbat and High Holy-Day services online.

Finchley, Glasgow, Alyth in Golders Green and Sha'arei Tsedek in Whetstone are the Reform congregations leading the way and West London Synagogue plans to join them.

Glasgow Reform streams audio from its services every Shabbat. Congregant Jim Jarvie put the technology in place after equipment was donated by another member, Martin Morris.

"We set it up because a few congregants were very ill and housebound," Mr Jarvie explained. "Anyone can log into it.

"Now I get so many letters and emails, some from people in Israel, originally from Glasgow, who want to keep in touch. It's very touching. We've had people log in from the US and South America. There's such a variety.

We’ve had people watching in Nova Scotia

"There's around 10 at any one time, with the most on the High Holy-Days, but people go off and on during the service. There's also a library of some past services."

Restricting the service to audio meant things were "much less complicated. No one's really seen it as controversial, it's about helping people out."

Alyth's Rabbi Mark Goldsmith said 100 people watched its Yom Kippur service in 2010, five times the number who tuned in the previous year.

"We've had people watching from as far away as Nova Scotia. We only stream High Holy-Day services at present. We think it's too much to ask someone to operate it every Shabbat.

"I've spoken to people who say it has rekindled their interest in Judaism. We had a member who was very ill who passed away last year. He told me how he had participated in the whole service, with his book propped on his lap, singing and reading along.

"We had another elderly member who was in charge of making Rosh Hashanah lunch last year, but was so captivated watching online that he forgot to do any cooking."

Rabbi Goldsmith saw the provision as "a mitzvah. It's a way of reaching out to people."

In 18 months, more than 300 people have logged into the Finchley Reform audio-visual streaming, covering Friday and Saturday services. Numbers increase if there is a barmitzvah.

With the launch of a new website, the facility is now open to the public, having previously been password protected for members.

The streaming is co-ordinated by Laura Tobias, who said it benefited "those who have no choice - whether distant from a synagogue, or due to illness. We have provided them with an opportunity to be with a community.

"Some members use it when they are travelling and it's great for simchahs when family or friends can't travel."

At West London, the system is being tested with the aim of going live in September.

Executive director Simon Myers said it would be useful to have the experience of streaming Shabbat services before Yom Kippur, when he anticipated high demand.

Last updated: 11:51am, August 18 2011