Reform synagogues offer live video; It’s not for everyone, but some see benefit

Attending high holiday services this year could be as easy as one click of a mouse.

Several Milwaukee-area Reform congregations will again be live-streaming their high holiday services this year. The goal is to provide an authentic service to elderly and out-of-town congregants who are unable to attend.

Congregation Sinai, Congregation Shalom and Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun have links on their websites to stream their services. Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun’s services can also be found on the congregation’s mobile app. 

The three Reform congregations have been streaming for several years and began with the motivation to conduct outreach to congregants with mobility issues who have been unable to attend services in person. 

But there are other congregations in the Milwaukee area that said they choose not to stream for halachic reasons. Observant Judaism does not permit certain activities on Shabbat or High Holy Days. Reform congregations see accessibility as a worthy trade-off.

Why they do it

“We’ve always had a certain number of congregants who by virtue of physical disabilities or limitations … were not able to be here for High Holy Days. So, we’re really providing this as a service for members of our congregation who otherwise wouldn’t be able to partake in the festivals in the same way,” said Rabbi David Cohen of Congregation Sinai. 

Though streaming can be helpful for these congregants, the congregations acknowledge that attending in-person can be better than streaming. 

“It’s not as good as being there. For people that don’t have a choice, I think it’s a very nice option … [but] being with other people is a very important part of Judaism, to pray with everyone,” said Andrew Appel, the executive director of Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun.

Although streamers may not get the same community experience as in-person attendees, Appel emphasized that the congregation still wants to engage members who can’t attend and make an effort to give them as authentic an experience as possible. 

Cohen said that the experience of the streamed service would be different for each viewer.

“I think for some people the experience is more like being live, and for others the experience is more like it being taped,” he said. “There are people who get a lot out of it and feel like it’s the next-best thing to being there … [for them] it is as spiritually moving an experience as if they were physically in the room.”

For in-person attendees, the disruption to the services is virtually non-existent, the synagogues said. Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun keeps its streaming equipment in a separate room, and Sinai’s camera is small and mounted inconspicuously in the sanctuary. 

Congregation Shalom’s live-stream technology is also kept out of the way.

It can serve as an asset for elderly and visually and hearing-impaired members to participate more in services in person, said April Harris, Shalom’s executive assistant.

However, some smaller congregations have been unable to stream their services, as the necessary technology like camera equipment can be expensive and unattainable.

Congregation Emanu-El of Waukesha, a smaller congregation of 80 members, does not stream because of a lack of funding. 

“We can’t afford to do it. We don’t have the technology,” Emanu-El’s Cantor Deborah Martin said of streaming. 

Rosh Hashanah this year starts at sundown, Sunday, Sept. 29. Yom Kippur this year begins the evening of Oct. 8, ending the next night.