New technology is giving shuls creative ways to reach out
Wednesday night, and a group of nine people is debating the finer points of a Jewish text with their rabbi. It is the kind of scene you would expect to find in any synagogue during the week. But these members of London’s North-Western Reform Synagogue are not in shul. They are all at home, wearing headsets and linked to each other by computer.
Since the beginning of the year, Rabbi Mark Goldsmith has been running monthly interactive classes using Skype voice-over-internet technology. The software, together with the internet, has transformed the notion of distance learning and is spreading the reach of Jewish education.
“I saw that Noam, the youth movement, had tried it,” Rabbi Goldsmith says. “And I thought, ‘Brilliant, that can work for us, too.’ The problem we are addressing is people who don’t normally get involved in adult education in synagogue.
“For instance, they might find it difficult to get to an evening class at the regular time. Or they could be studying in university or on business trips abroad.
“They can be from any age. We have a 93-year-old, and it is not easy for him to get out of the house at night as he cares for his elderly wife. This is a wonderful opportunity to study at home.
“For a 17-year-old on a school year in Paris, this is a way to keep in contact with his community.”
Prospective students are asked to sign up for the session a week in advance. Rabbi Goldsmith then emails a PDF of half-a-dozen “short, pithy texts” in Hebrew and English on a particular subject a few hours before the “Skype Shiur”, which runs from 10.30pm — a time that suits the current roll — for three-quarters of an hour. As the class proceeds, they can consult the texts on screen.
The technology is easily acquired. “One of our congregants bought all the equipment she needed off eBay for £1.99,” he said.
Using Skype, the participants can talk to each other, and although video links are possible, Rabbi Goldsmith thinks that speech-only is better for open discussion. “It would take longer to build up trust otherwise. People are very honest in the ethical subjects we’ve discussed, for example, about when it’s right to speak out in a situation or when to keep quiet.
“People also don’t have to worry about what they look like at 10.30 in the evening. One man said he can sit at home with his glass of whisky in his hand, which he couldn’t do in shul.”
High-tech learning aids have also come in handy for Jaclyn Chernett, of the Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue in Edgware, Middlesex, and the UK’s first ordained female chazan. Six months ago, she set up the European Academy for Jewish Liturgy.
“I offer a service to people, mainly in Europe,” she explains. “We’ve got a lot of little congregations popping up everywhere and there are people who don’t know how to lead services or life-cycle events. What I do is to match them with a professional mentor in their own language. I’ve got people learning in French, German, Spanish and Hebrew.”
Thanks to the net, they can enjoy one-to-one tuition in video classes with a teacher in a different country. “We’ve got 10 students,” she says, “including two in England — one in Lincoln and one in the West Country.”