Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

I Went to Temple in Cincinnati

There was some discussion about Sophia coming to New York for Rosh Hashanah, but I said I wasn’t in the mood, because when she is here, it requires a big readjustment in my mind, so we ended up being separated during the holidays — again.  I was home with my mother during Rosh Hashanah, and was too unorganized to find a temple to go to for services.  Luckily, I follow a female rabbi on Twitter of all places, named @RabbiBaum, who is involved with an organization named ourJewishCommunity.org .  During the High Holidays this organization video streams Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services from Congregation Beth Adam in Greater Cincinnati .  So, for the first time in my life, I (and my mother) participated in Rosh Hashanah services via the Internet!  Talk about being geeky with God!

Conservative or certain religious Jews who won’t be thrilled with this concept of a streaming service.  It is not exactly “kosher” to be making a video of a live service on Rosh Hashanah or on Shabbat.   This temple’s brand of Judaism also wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of Manischevitz.   This is a temple serving “Judaism with a Humanistic Perspective,” and the first thing I noticed is that most of the men were without yarmulkes.  Over the Torah ark were stain-glass windows, which isn’t unusual in a synagogue, except when one is an image of the Big Bang, signifying the congregation’s adherence to science over Biblical thought.

I’ll let others get involved in the religious arguments.  I thought it was a cool and generous gesture on the part of this unorthodox temple, and it brought a bit of Rosh Hashanah into our home when otherwise we would have just ignored the holiday.  And that is a mitzvah in itself.

If you are Rabbi Baum and you are reading this post, you might want to skip the next paragraph.  No, I changed my mind.  You should read it.  You might as well know the true story of how we experienced your temples’ unique experiment.

As we all know, whether you go to synagogue or church, there is a social dimension to attending a religious service.  There is the connection to God or something bigger in ourselves, but there is also the human contact, which elicits the eternal questions about our fellow congregants, ranging from, “What type of shoes is HE wearing?” to “”She’s pregnant AGAIN?!”   Normally, you save all this gossiping until you get back home, or at least into your car.   When you are watching a service in a streaming video, the experience is more akin to watching the Oscars on TV, and you feel you have the right to talk about Nicole Kidman’s latest gown.

“No one is wearing yarmulkes in this temple.  They must be very reform.” said my mother.  “I don’t like it.”

“There’s a guy in the front row wearing a yarmulke.”

“Good for him!”

My mother is not religious at all, but she seems to be stuck in thinking that only those doing things the old-fashioned ways are the “real” ones.  The choir began to sing.   One of the women in the choir was wearing a sleeveless dress.

“She shouldn’t wear that dress to temple.”

“Why not?”

“You don’t show your arms like that on Rosh Hashanah.”

“She’s not wearing a bikini.”

“It’s just disrespectful.”

“She’s in temple singing in a choir, and we are sitting here eating breakfast, and SHE’S disrespectful?”

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, even though we had already finished our real breakfast, we were munching on toast and jam, and drinking coffee as we were at “services.”

“Did you know when I was in Rome…” continued my mother, “…before you go into the Vatican, if you are a woman who is sleeveless, they give you a shawl to cover your arms?”

“I thought you never made it into the Vatican?”

“I heard about it from some other couple on the ship.”

“This temple is not the Vatican in Rome.  It is in Cincinnati.”

Eventually, the woman in the choir put on a sweater.  Either she was cold or she felt the evil eye of my mother on her from the streaming internet.  Whatever it was, it made my mother happy.

The synagogue had two rabbis, Rabbi Barr and Rabbi Baum.  Rabbi Baum read from the Torah.  In the temple, this is a time when most of the congregation is quiet, listening intently.

“So, this Rabbi Baum…” asked my mother. “Is she single?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought she was your friend.”

“I follow her on Twitter.”

“So you don’t know if she’s single?”

“Do you know all the details of everyone you talk to on email?”

“Yes.  Isn’t that the normal way?”

There were about 330 people following the service.  We know that because there was a counter on the video feed.   Sometimes the counter went up, and sometimes the counter went down, especially during a lull in the service.   This made my mother chuckle.

“Uh-oh, the rabbi better tell a joke,” she said.  “We just lost two viewers.”

Thank you Rabbi Baum and Congregation Beth Adam for letting us participate.   There were other virtual congregants on Twitter during the service, which was somewhat odd, but added to a sense of a community.   I hope my talking about the experience in a true, and somewhat humorous manner, doesn’t take away from the feelings of gratitude.   The sermons about the Torah passage were inspiring, and the choir was excellent.   It was a innovative and refreshing high-tech religiously geeky experience, and actually made me WANT to attend your service in real life!

For a good year — here’s a repeat of my fake Hassidic tale from August.

24 Comments

  1. I am planning to come up to NYC to go to Shabbat services at some big beautiful synagogue everyone told me has an amazing service.

    You up for it?

  2. ACG – B’nai Jeshurun on 88th? Uh, you mean actually GO to the services?

  3. That’s kind of a cool experience

  4. I use to do Shabbat dinner with friends until they moved to DC (I always time my visits to be there on a Friday night) and I started going to services again with the Greek (& would like to keep it up even though he’s not around anymore). I am not sure where the synagogue. An actor I worked with in FLA (not the one you met at the comedy club) told me about it & goes sometimes.

  5. Actually, Cincinnati is a sister city to Rome. True fact. Cincy definitely got the best of that bargain. Seven hills notwithstanding.

    Shanah tovah! Hope you have a great new year and have less bread to toss next time. Or more. Whatever you want.

  6. Alana – that is totally weird and coincidental. Or IS IT?

    In 1790, Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory, changed the name of the settlement to “Cincinnati” in honor of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which he was president. The society gets its name from Cincinnatus, the Roman general and dictator, who saved the city of Rome from destruction and then quietly retired to his farm. The society honored the ideal of return to civilian life by military officers following the Revolution rather than imposing military rule. To this day, Cincinnati in particular, and Ohio in general, is home to a disproportionately large number of descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers who were granted lands in the state. Cincinnati’s connection with Rome still exists today through its nickname of “The City of Seven Hills” [3] (a phrase commonly associated with Rome) and the town twinning program of Sister Cities International.

  7. Services online? I love it! What a great idea! You don’t have to get all dressed up! I will virtually attend on Yom Kippur. Thanks for the heads-up, Neil!

  8. Neil, I the Orthodox Jew, say that online services are pretty unOrthodox, but if your computer got you to High Holiday services, good for you — and Mom!
    Think of it this way: you guys saved yourself several hundred dollars in synagogue membership and/or tickets for High Holiday services.
    BTW, did you “go back to shul” today to hear the blowing of the Shofar?

  9. Better to do something than nothing.

  10. I’m so embarrassed I’m reading this post while wearing a bathrobe and drinking tea. My mother taught me better.

  11. I have an old high school friend in Cincy who probably goes to that Temple. I think church services of any kind are great on TV and internet, especially for shut-ins.

  12. Maybe I should have covered my arms while reading this. Don’t tell your mom!

  13. My religious beliefs are conflicted but this is the coolest thing I’ve heard in a long time! Glad you and your Mom got to attend Temple together.

  14. I’m conflicted. On the one hand, making Judaism through online accessible to more people is cool. On the other hand, Judaism (for me) is all about connecting people sometimes more than actual reaching out to God. So the main reason I went to Shabbat in college wasn’t to remain true to Shabbat, but because it was a time for all my friends and I to reconnect at the end of the week and bond over dinner. Judaism is a very people-oriented religion (that’s why we don’t have monks/asceticism much), so I don’t know that it was true to the spirit of the holidays to “attend” services in this way, or that more synagogues (even humanist ones) should do this. And I’m much younger than your mom, but I agree with her that some things just “feel” wrong if you don’t do them, like covering up at services or not wearing a kipah to synagogue. Practically in everyday life, I think wearing a kippah is ridiculous, but I feel uneasy if someone’s not wearing one in shul. Anyway, great post, lots of food for thought. 🙂

  15. The real-time follower counter was awesome. I’d love to see that sort of thing applied to all live speaking events: presidential addresses, the nightly news, sporting events…

    I’m sure it was an interesting way to attend a service.

  16. I fully understand how conflicting the idea of an online service can be, but at the same time the people who “attend” the online service are very likely to be people who would not have attended at all otherwise. I don’t think Jews who would have otherwise gone to daven in shul would chose to stay home and ustreamdaven instead.

    If a non practicing Jew can see how meaningful a service can be, that’s a good way to reach out and entice to do one more mitzvah.

  17. “Uh-oh, the rabbi better tell a joke,” she said. “We just lost two viewers.”

    This line made me think of my childhood. On the rare occasion that my mother brought us to church, we always sat way in the back so we could sneak out after communion “unnoticed.” The effort was pretty pointless since a) it was abundantly obvious who left , and b) communion is practically the end of mass anyway.

    I guess you can’t slip out of an online service without drawing attention either.

  18. We have young kids, so my husband and I generally have to take turns going to services. He went on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and I stayed home. It was great to be able to watch this service at home (while I was drinking wine! Shhhh!).

  19. Great post. I love it when you write about your mom.

  20. I actually saw the link you posted on Twitter and decided to go and watch the service. I was curious. I’ve never witnessed a Jewish service and thought it might be interesting.

    It was, but it wasn’t what I expected either. Not that I really knew what to expect.

  21. I like virtual church. I’m Mormon and twice a year we have our general conference, where the message from church leaders is broadcast worldwide. It goes under the hashtag #ldsconf and its great to sit on twitterfall and talk to people about what they think and everything

  22. I love this! Partially because it is very difficult for some people to get out, for various reasons, like childcare or disability, but also because it lets people not of that religion, experience a service.

    I know I would be welcome, for example, if I went to Shul just to sit in back and watch. But as a Catholic, I don’t know that I’d feel comfortable without having seen it once or twice before. It just would not feel right to go there, if that makes sense.

    This way, I can learn about it, or teach my kids about it, and if I accidentally speak out loud, or say the wrong thing, no one cares!

  23. I live in Cincinnati and attend Beth Adam, for real. I am there every year at High Holidays, and it is, for me, the one of the best reasons to live in Cincinnati. I know Rabbi Barr. I know Rabbi Baum. Their humor is contagious on and off screen. Welcome to Beth Adam!

  24. I do consider all the ideas you have introduced for your post. They are very convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are too short for novices. Could you please lengthen them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

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