On Tuesday, when Washington Rabbi Deborah Reichmann gave a shpiel about Tu B’Shevat — the Jewish holiday known affectionately as the birthday of the trees — she wasn’t in front of a crowd, out in nature or even in a synagogue.
Reichmann was alone in a room.
Reichmann was video streaming on Facebook Live in advance of the holiday that falls on Saturday as part of the online synagogue Sim Shalom. The synagogue was launched in 2010 by Steven Blane, a New York rabbi and cantor. Blane also founded Jewish Universalism, a denomination that challenges conventions in contemporary Jewish life with its approach to inclusivity, use of technology, funding model and, some would say, its standards for rabbinic ordination.
Sim Shalom streams the Ma’ariv service every weekday evening, a Shabbat service on Friday nights and High Holiday services. In January, its daily series of web videos that include “Music Mondays” and “How-To Tuesdays” debuted. The services and web series receive anywhere from a dozen to a few hundred views, according to the Sim Shalom website.
Reichmann received rabbinic ordination through the denomination’s Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, a two-semester online program, and performs lifecycle events as an independent rabbi in Washington. She described participating in Sim Shalom’s online community as “deeply emotionally and professionally fulfilling.” She added that she likes to see how the services’ viewers kibbitz with one another through a chat function, catching up on things like illnesses and their pets.
Universalism “embraces everyone who wants to participate in Jewish prayer and rituals,” according to Blane’s website.
“The Universalist perspective and warmth really speaks to me and to others,” Reichmann said. “This is a good model. It’s not the model for everybody, but for those it works for, it provides them with the community they need.”
The Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute has received criticism for not providing the rigor and level of professional development as traditional rabbinic seminaries. Three mainstream seminaries, the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the Modern Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University have ordained most rabbis in the United States.
(Other seminaries include the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y.; the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles; and two nondenominational seminaries, at Hebrew College near Boston and at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles.)
Historian Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University told the Forward in 2012 that the big three seminaries were founded in part to handle the problem of questionable rabbinic credentials, which was a common problem in the 19th century. “The idea was, if you went to one of these three we could rely upon you; you would be bona fide,” Sarna said.
According to its website, people can receive rabbinic ordination through the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute by studying online for a year for the fee of $12,250. By contrast, the HUC-JIR entails five years of in-person study (including a year in Israel) and costs more than $100,000, although many students receive financial aid.
Blane, the founder of the Universalist movement, said that these fees and the requirement of in-person study are barriers for people seeking rabbinic ordination, especially for those in their 50s and 60s, who make up most of the people he ordains.
“Very few people can [study at a traditional seminary] later in life,” said Blane, who added that his organization has ordained 116 rabbis. “That’s the dilemma that the seminaries have and that’s the niche that I’ve filled.”
Blane worked as a cantor in various brick-and-mortar synagogues before receiving rabbinic ordination from another abbreviated program, the Rabbinical Seminary International. He emphasized that the Universalist denomination welcomes everyone, regardless of their faith.
“With such a significant interfaith community today, the movements are all making little adjustments,” he said. “We started by welcoming everyone. It’s in our DNA, so we we’re not making it up as we go along.”
Blane also said that Sim Shalom operates on a shoestring budget raised through online donations and a High Holidays concert he puts on every year in New York City. He said that despite having sought grants, he “hasn’t received a dollar from the mainstream Jewish world.”
Blane leads Sim Shalom’s Friday night services with his guitar in a friendly, casual way. He often greets people as they come online and join the page’s chat room. Sometimes his small dog makes an appearance at services. He finds the interaction online to be easier than in a traditional brick-and-mortar synagogue.
“This is another way to experience being Jewish,” he said. “You certainly can do it being in a traditional community, but this is a beautiful way because of the barrier to entry — there is none.”
Blane also said there is a significant difference between Sim Shalom’s services, which are only online, and streamed services from synagogues, which are becoming more common. “We’re built to be online as opposed to just throwing a camera in the back of the sanctuary,” he said.
For Reichmann, another advantage of creating an online synagogue community is that people have control over the way they present themselves online.
“When you’re typing, you have more time for reflection,” she said. “This opportunity to make first impressions the way you want is valuable. Over time, for people who stick around, people’s personality comes through. This isn’t about hiding one’s personality; it’s a way of mediating it.”
Blane emphasized that the online synagogue provides an outlet for people who are geographically isolated or who for whatever reason don’t feel welcome in mainstream synagogues. “You can literally sit back and watch services with a glass of wine,” he said. “It’s brilliant.”