One Sunday in May Citi Field, the home of New York Mets baseball team, which has a capacity of about 45,000, was filled with Jews. In Britain, if we were having a gathering of more than 40,000 Jews, one would assume that this was a rally in support of Israel. I remember standing in Trafalgar Square several years ago when we came together to express our support for the Jewish State, being with so many Jews in one place was a tremendously powerful experience. However, this was not a rally for Israel, this was an ultra-orthodox, men-only event all about the dangers of the internet!
This rally brought together a variety of ultra-orthodox groups, all united by a fear of the ever-growing influence of the internet. A number of Rabbis addressed the gathering, which was also streamed live (I imagine making use of internet-related technology) into a number of venues in orthodox neighbourhoods, where women could attend. The problem appears to be the vast array of material which is available on an uncensored world wide web – it may not have been a coincidence that this event was sponsored by a newly formed group, linked to a company selling internet filtering software to orthodox Jews.
This reluctance to engage with new technology is in stark contrast to my experience of the wider American Jewish community, which appears eager to harness the innovations of the modern world to better serve the needs of the community. During my first year here in the US I have been offered several opportunities to take part in sessions about how to use technology more effectively in the Jewish community; these have included webinars, in person conferences and one-off events. All of them have stressed the importance of engaging with new technology if the Jewish community is to remain relevant; this has led me to engage with Facebook, Twitter, blogging and podcasting as a Jewish communal professional.
And while I haven’t had the opportunity to attend an event with tens of thousands of Jews, I was recently at the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in Boston, which brought together 500 Rabbis for four days of learning . It might not have been 40,000, but it was quite amazing to be at a convention which brought together so many Rabbis in one place, and to recognize the size and scale of a Jewish community where these Rabbis represent just one of the denominations. The overwhelming majority of Rabbis came together from across North America, with others from Israel, France and our very own Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner visiting from Britain.
There are many elements of this convention which are worth talking about, but in contrast to the recent Citi Field rally I was most struck by the way in which technology was utilized and a glimpse was given of the way in which Judaism is developing hand in hand with that technology.
While the convention took place in a hotel in Boston, it was clearly also taking place on Twitter, out there in the virtual world. People were live-tweeting from sessions, and the discussions were continuing in upto 140 characters, long after the teaching had finished. This was accompanied by the use of QR codes (a type of barcode which can be scanned by smart phones to link to webpages), the options to download and view handouts online and an Apple style Genius Bar with Rabbis helping Rabbis how to use technology more effectively.
The CCAR have been engaging with technology and have published their Siddur as an iPad app. This is obviously less useful for a Shabbat service, but as we were gathering together during the week, it provided a wonderful opportunity for people to pray iPad in hand. The enduring image which I will take away from the convention is of people wrapped in their tallitot praying with their iPads, alongside others using the “old-fashioned” Siddur, the contrast, to say the least, was quite striking. And in some services you didn’t need an iPad; you didn’t even need a book, as the prayers were projected onto screens at the front of the room for everyone to follow. Visual t’filah meant that hands were free, heads were looking up, and our bodies were opened up to join together in prayer. Quite surprisingly, it is a very different feeling when one is looking up, rather than down, at the words of our prayers.
While it seems clear that from Citi Field one section of the Jewish community was fighting back against the use of technology, my experience is that progressive Judaism is increasingly going on-line. Many years ago the idea of writing down a Siddur in book form seemed unlikely, and yet today we can download a Siddur onto our iPads. I’m rather looking forward to seeing what will be coming next in this fast developing age of technology and how that may impact on us as Jews.