Reach Out and Touch Someone — circa 2011

I can’t remember whether it was the 1963 New York World’s Fair; my first visit to Disney’s EPCOT in Orlando sometime in the early ‘80’s; or possibly both – but I vividly remember being introduced to the concept of the videophone.  My, how far away that all seemed at the time.  But that time is now, isn’t it?

A few weeks back I received an email from one of our former Temple Shalom students.  I’ll call him Max.  Max is living and working on another continent for the year.  In his new world, there aren’t many Jews around, and he finds himself being asked many questions.  It may be that he’s the first Jew that some of the people he is encountering in this primarily Catholic country have ever met.  Some questions are easy.  Others get him thinking.  So Max shoots his rabbi an email (more about that anon.)  He hadn’t intended the email to be lengthy, just a few questions.  But by the time Max has finished typing he has asked some mighty provocative and powerful questions.  He hits send and waits.

Cut to: me at my computer.  In comes Max’s email.   I am delighted to hear from him.  Max and I have kept in touch throughout his college years, but it has been a while.  It’s great to hear what he’s up to, and does he ever have some great questions.  So I write back, “Could we find a time to chat, perhaps over Skype, as I’d rather talk than type?”

Max answers pretty quickly.  He’s delighted, and with a few fits and starts we’ve arranged a time to chat.  As we each log in at the appointed time, he exclaims, “Rabbi, I didn’t know you had a camera.”  We’re both smiling, and 45 minutes later we’ve caught up, wrestled with what it means to be a Jew, and agreed to connect again really soon.

As I hit disconnect, I found myself grinning.  Am I the same guy who preached about the ways in which technology is taking over our lives back in the fall?  Yes, I am.  I am not a technophobe, nor am I technology averse. In fact, my entree into the world of email came at a time when it was brand new, and I saw it as a way to keep in touch with the college students from my congregation (which at the time was in Jackson, Mississippi.)  I even wrote an article about Rabbis and technology that was published in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (see article from December 1994 below).  I wrote that I was bringing my rabbinate “into Cyberspace” because that’s where our young adults were.  It’s still true. (In fact, I am surprised at how much I still hold to some of the caveats I wrote about in 1994.)   I remember how some students were so surprised when they heard from me via email.  But they wrote back!  But as my own children tell me time and again (along with our high school students at TS), email is “so yesterday.”  Myspace, Facebook, Twitter – it’s so hard to keep up.  But Skype, that’s something I can wrap my brain around because it can be relational, it’s still face-to-face.

And my “visit” with Max was far from my first foray into the world of Skype.  But I see a whole new possibility.  So my rabbinate is still crawling into cyberspace almost twenty years later.  BTW (that’s “by the way”), if your young adult is away and would like to be in touch, tell them they can find me on Skype!  It beats typing, especially because I was kicked out of typing class in high school (because there were not enough typewriters!)

Until next time!

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Rabbinate in cyberspace

Eric S. Gurvis (Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility — Dec. 1994)

Abraham Joshua Heschel begins his magnificent essay, The Sabbath, with the statement, “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space”. This has come to mind often in the past year as I have wandered down the by-ways in a different type of space–cyberspace. Heschel’s words ring true as more and more of us sit at our computer terminals and join in humanity’s latest conquest of space, traveling around the world via “the information superhighway.” I’d made several ventures into this world before, but only in the past year have I come to understand the power of this spatial dimension.

Lately, much has been written about the various uses of the Internet in Jewish life. For me, the most powerful and useful aspect of my foray into cyberspace has been the ways in which it has helped me as a congregational rabbi. I connect with members of my congregation, their children, my colleagues the world over, and the greater Jewish world-all from my desk. If, as Heschel suggests, “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space,” then the ever-expanding possibilities of reaching out to the world through cyberspace are a living testimony to the truth of these words.

Connecting With My Collegians

I still consider myself very much a novice at maneuvering my way through cyberspace. Yet, since making my first connection back in January, I have watched my interest, my technical skills and my involvement in this technology grow. And with this growth has come an ever-expanded range of possibilities. It started when a colleague told me that his congregation had compiled a list of the electronic mail (e-mail) addresses of its college students so that the rabbis could keep in touch with the students at school. What a wonderful idea, I thought, and so I set out to do the same. I had only arrived at my congregation 18 months earlier and I didn’t know many of our college students. I knew this would be a wonderful way to reach out to and get to know them. The response was gratifying, and in large part one of surprise and curiosity. “Rabbi of the 90’s!?” came one of the earliest replies. They were intrigued, it seemed, by a rabbi who was playing in their medium, in their world. Soon, the students and I began to connect. Some wrote for advice about papers they were doing for classes while other wrote about personal matters. One student wrote asking for help with the teaching she was doing in a local Jewish school. Others wrote to comment on social issues. The response to an electronic call from a rabbi the students didn’t even know told me that the Internet was going to become a valuable tool in my rabbinate as I reach out in hope of touching the lives of the Jews who form my congregation.

Access, Access, Access

In the months since I first “logged on”, my electronic mailbox has become quite active. At first I had to find time to sneak up to our attic at home to conduct my correspondence. But now, I am “on-line” from my study at the synagogue as well. Rare is the day when I do not log on at least three times, if not more! I have spoken about my cyberspace activities from our pulpit, and now a growing number of congregants are reaching back to me through this medium. I have regular contact with some congregants who I suspect I would not know if they approached me at the synagogue. In the aftermath of the Nachshon Waxman kidnapping and Tel Aviv bus bombing incidents, I heard from some concerned members of my congregation who wanted to “talk” about their reactions. As in so many other areas, the Internet has become a medium for sharing concerns, ideas and feelings when life calls us to joy or confronts us with sadness.

Increasing Efficiency

As the year has gone by, I have found that a growing amount of congregational work is being transacted through on-line connections. Whether it is press releases about congregational events from our publicity chairperson, or the planning of adult education events, some of my congregational leaders are finding it easier to send me their work by way of e-mail so that we can both have the text before we actually speak to talk it over and work out details. And yes, I have even worked on a few Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches with some of my students through email. For me, it does not replace sitting in my study and studying a portion with a student. But once we are into the writing and editing process, it speeds the exchange of drafts and comments back and forth in a timely manner. The newsletters and information which I receive daily from the various Usernet groups and information services to which I subscribe is a rich source of material for sermons, educational programs and discussions.

We Still Need Intimacy

Sometimes I wonder whether this new concept of space with its technological advances will ultimately lead to greater distance between rabbi and congregants. After all, if we can “talk” to one another through our keyboards, will we need the immediacy and intimacy of a face-to-face meeting? My answer is a firm, “yes!” I don’t want this new technology to ever get in the way of what is ultimately more real, more important, and more Jewish — interpersonal exchanges. Our conquest of cyberspace can never be allowed to replace Martin Buber’s powerful statement, “All real living is meeting.” And so perhaps there must be some caution in adopting cyberspace as a rabbinic medium.

Yet, I have found this new tool a very useful one in my rabbinate. It has opened paths of connection with members of my community, near and far, with whom I might otherwise have little or no contact. I find this new dimension of my rabbinate worthwhile, useful, helpful and very exciting.

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