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Standing Against Amazon Shul

When we decided to begin Zooming Shabbat services at the outset of the pandemic, I warned the community of a Pandora’s Box nature of the decision, wherein we should expect unexpected repercussions.
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September 9, 2021
Olha Pohorielova/Getty Images

In June, Blair and I and the kids travelled to Miami to meet some of our closest friends, the Koettlers, a family we befriended when we lived in Jerusalem.  We visit with them each time we visit Jerusalem, and we usually travel with them to the beach in Tel Aviv.  This time we all travelled to the beach in Miami.  After the lockdown of the Pandemic, both families wanted to get out and for the kids to have fun so an itinerary was created that included a trip to the Florida Everglades.

So both, our family of 5 and their 7, our families drove up in a 12 passenger van to the swamps.  We walked down a raised wooden pier and boarded a big airboat.  An airboat is basically a large flat metal 30 person bathtub with a giant propeller on the back.

We met Gary, our swamp guide, who was born and raised in that area.  He knew everything about the wildlife.  We saw turtles from a distance.  And then he blew a kind of duck whistle and threw fish onto the water and low and behold, within moments, two giant alligators appeared next to our boat.  In my opinion, way too close for comfort.  In Gary’s opinion, we were fine because most alligators are usually friendly.  Long story short, we all survived.

In fact, we enjoyed it so much that after the boat trip, I asked Gary if my family could take a picture with him.  It was a great photo.  And then the Koettlers asked me to take a picture of them.  Because they have 7 people, and their kids are younger and don’t smush together as easily, I stepped back to get everybody in the picture, and then I stepped back again… And I fell back right off the wooden pier.

As I’m falling, and I don’t know if I’m going to land in the swamp or the grass hill, I take my phone and throw it off to the side behind me, hoping that it wouldn’t get wet.  As it turns out, I landed on my back on the grass incline a few feet below the pier.  Everybody – my wife Blair especially – was laughing their heads off.  Then I noticed that my phone bounced off of the grass hill and landed in the swamp water.  Without even thinking, I immediately reach out my right hand toward the water, and every swamp guide started screaming for me to stop.

Why am I sharing this story with you?  Our phones are not just phones.  They represent all the technology in the world.  Emails, libraries, Zoom, YouTube, Amazon Prime are all on our phones.  It’s the tool we use to communicate, shop, entertain, and access information.  In many ways, unfortunately, our phones are our lives.

Even in an alligator infested swamp, I didn’t hesitate to reach out to try to save my phone.  I admit that I reached for the wrong connection.

Unlike me in that swamp, I want to thank all of us here today and watching at home – engaged in the service – I offer my wholehearted Kol HaKavod to all of us collectively for reaching for the right connect, for reaching for synagogue life.

The reason I bring this up today is because I sense that that the larger Jewish world stands at a precipice.  We find ourselves falling in a precarious position.  If we’re not careful, technology may soon devour most of what we know as synagogue life.

When we decided to begin Zooming Shabbat services at the outset of the pandemic, I warned the community of a Pandora’s Box nature of the decision, wherein we should expect unexpected repercussions.  It’s true that the streaming is successful and provides access to those who are home with health concerns.  I’m so proud that this synagogue has managed to maintain a bond with those of us who remain home sick or immunocompromised.  For that reason we engaged with this tool.  And I still believe it was the right thing to do.  We provided relationship for those of us at home and we still provide a connection for those of us who are hesitant to return because of health concerns.

Yet, one of the unintended consequences is that many people prefer accessing synagogue services from the comfort and certainty of their own home at the time of their choosing.  In this way, streaming services is no different than Netflix, or Apple Music, or YouTube.  We watch services when we want, where we want.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal of waking up late, not getting dressed, not fighting traffic, and not looking for parking.  But there’s also a danger.  If we’re not careful, all of services will be streamed.  More and more, synagogue buildings will disappear.  And I think that would be a tremendous loss.

I understand the appeal of waking up late, not getting dressed, not fighting traffic, and not looking for parking.  But there’s also a danger.

Last year, on an episode of my YouTube program the “The Rabbi’s Neighborhood” with Rabbi Ed Feinstein, we discussed the role of the bookstore in a community.  Does everybody remember the old fashioned bookstore with shelves and books of somebody else’s choosing?  By and large, they’re gone.  We didn’t realize bookstores were in jeopardy.  Nobody warned us.  So, for the most part, we didn’t fight for bookstores.

The New Yorker published an article in 2012, almost a decade ago, titled “The Bookstore Brain” by Sam Sacks where he stated that “bookstores are human places…” Sacks explained that “The chance of discovery is vital to the act of book-browsing.”

Here, in this community, I love seeing congregants involved in “the chance of discovery” whether it be looking at another page of the Siddur or Machzor, or learning new concepts in our adult education courses, or bumping into friends at a program.  It’s hard to bump into anybody on Zoom.  I believed in discovery when I began the Yom Kippur Book Club.  Our tradition is wide and varied, and we need different access points to engage.  This “chance of discovery” is part of what makes this community so special.

It’s hard to bump into anybody on Zoom…This “chance of discovery” is part of what makes this community so special.

Last year, I argued that our community is more than a building.  I stand by that argument.  This year, I’ll add onto that speech that virtual communities are not the same as real life communities.  All I have to do is point to my Facebook account with thousands of friends, but very few who I’ve ever met or really know IRL – In Real Life.

Synagogues are also human places.  I don’t think I’m telling you a lot of new information.  I’m sure that you can feel much of society shifting this way.  Work life is changing.  School is changing.

I get one chance to ring a bell to raise your awareness on an issue.  I usually do it today.  I’d like to discuss the issue of synagogue life before it goes the way of book stores, and Blockbuster, and soon movie theaters and so many other parts of our social fabric.

We have to advocate for synagogue life.  And, we have to start prioritizing it now.

For if we don’t make synagogue a priority, and we don’t show up, then we could very easily and very quickly find ourselves in Amazon Shuls.  What do I mean by an Amazon shul?

Amazon currently operates approximately 20 Go Stores, and 26 Go Grocery Stores in the country.  The Amazon Go Store which contains what you’d imagine as similar to a 7-11, has no employees in the store.  You simply walk in and the app on your phone recognizes what you take and charges your credit card on file.  All human interaction has been stripped away.  It fosters efficiency.  It’s catered to what you want.  And I think it’s a shame.

In just a few weeks we will read at the beginning of the Torah, God looks at humankind and says,

לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ

Usually translated as “It’s not good for man to be LEVAD alone.” (Gen 2)

Today for this purpose, I suggest reading the Hebrew word VAD, as cloth or fabric, meaning that “It’s not good for a human to always be cut in his or her own cloth.”  We must be part of a larger social fabric.

We’re losing the human interactions of our collective social fabric in favor of a more technological, more isolated, more partisan, more extreme experience.  Today, Apple Music only plays me preselected songs I like when I want – Beatles, Billy Joel, James Taylor, and Elton John – might be the only music I ever listen to for the rest of my life.  I’ll be trapped.  It’s terrible.  There’s no more chance for me to encounter new music on the radio.  When we shop for groceries online, our previous orders pop up to expedite the process, so we order the same foods over and over again.  There’s little chance of discovery.  Our news is curated for us from sources whose views we prefer so we don’t become aggravated.  I’d argue that we also don’t grow.  The physical bookstore, the library, offers us a chance to see the book we didn’t know existed.

The American Jewish community spent decades, even generations, building beautiful synagogue communities – Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox – that all served crucial roles during the pandemic.  Now, as the pandemic begins to lift, many face similar challenges of personal convenience whether it be the role of technology or a small neighborhood backyard minyan.

The American Jewish community spent decades, even generations, building beautiful synagogue communities – Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox – that all served crucial roles during the pandemic.  Now, as the pandemic begins to lift, many face similar challenges of personal convenience whether it be the role of technology or a small neighborhood backyard minyan.

HaAretz published an article on May 4, 2021, about the work of Mouna Maroun, the first Israeli-Arab woman to become a professor of neurobiology and to head an Israeli University Department in Neuroscience.  In the article she observed that, “I think that children are the population group that was most affected by the pandemic. They suffered the greatest damage in the past year: They had minimal social interaction, they did their learning via Zoom, they were glued to screens. I believe that in the future we will see impairment of their social abilities as well as emotional problems.”

I think adults have been affected as well.  On August 22, 2021, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Remote Work May Now Last for Two Years, Worrying Some Bosses.” It observed that executives are worried that the longer employees work form home the less willing they are to return to offices, ever.

Don’t get me wrong, the streaming will continue here as it’s intended to provide access for those still worried about the health conditions.  We understand the pandemic is not yet over, new strands still emerge, and the technology allows us all to remain together.  And that’s crucial.

But, the pandemic will be over one day, and most are forgetting the significance of knowing our neighbor, and the chit chat with our coworker outside of meetings, and our ability to make new friends and hear new stories, the special feeling we sense when we pray together or learn together, the meaning of the hugs we receive in Shul.

And for those of us who do get it, and I believe most of us do which is why we’re engaged, it’s time to explain to others, why our synagogue community is so important to us.

For if we don’t fight for synagogues, then they’ll go away like bookstores.  Before too long, you might see Cantor Schatz and I standing in front of a green screen and we will lead High Holidays in front of a digital background of our beautiful sanctuary or perhaps a rendering of the Holy Temple.  No hassle of getting dressed or parking.  No building fee for the facility.  It will be available at your leisure.  We have to ask ourselves now, is that what we really want?

The good news is that it’s not too late.  We are a community of dreamers and doers.  We dreamed up Shabbat Across Adat.  We dreamed up Film Screenings about Jewish Identity.  We dreamed up musical concerts.

It’s time to dream again.  Not about if they’re going to happen, but how they will happen again soon.  Shabbat Across Adat will return.  And some of us will feel comfortable in backyards and some of us will feel comfortable in one another’s homes, while some of us might still prefer Zoom.  A new option will be that some of us can utilize this patio.  The synagogue will begin providing space for groups to meet for Shabbat dinner, for Sukkot get togethers.  Keep an eye out for more details.

Our virtual trips to Jerusalem and our upcoming virtual trips to Tel Aviv, cannot replace our synagogue trip to Israel.  We’re going to have to recommit ourselves to that trip as soon as the time is right.

But all of us have to champion the very simple notion that the synagogue, in particular this synagogue, as a house of Jewish life and spirituality must be important to us.  I know how amazing it is for many to attend services at synagogues around the world on YouTube.  It’s the blessing of technology.  But the blessing of humanity, of a home synagogue community, is the ability to celebrate Simchas together with encouragement and hugs of Mazel Tov, and to console one another, sitting together in times of mourning.  You can’t get that through virtual attendance of synagogues halfway around the world.

I’m not afraid of change.  I am afraid of loss without warning.  So, here’s the warning.  Synagogue life will irreparably change unless we support it.

We stand here on Rosh Hashanah and the liturgy tells us that our fate is not sealed.  Today we acknowledge we can help direct our future.

So here’s my simple suggestion, join me in supporting this synagogue.  Some of us feel like we’ve been falling for the last year, maybe more.  Let’s not reach for our technology.  Let’s reach for our humanity.  Let’s reach for one another.  Let’s reach for this community, for Torah, for learning, for our sense of togetherness.

Someday soon, you will see articles about the giant synagogues in Los Angeles, who have been converted into Jewish content creation studios without much human experience.  They will be lauded for their ability to adapt.  I don’t want that for Adat Shalom.  And judging by your engagement today, I don’t think you do either.

Let’s decide today that Adat Shalom will be an outlier.  Let’s celebrate our nature, our size, and our campus.  Let them tell the story of the great synagogue community of Adat Shalom that fought for the basic notion of Jewish community in real life.

For someday soon, there will be Jews in Wyoming who will be lying in their pajamas in bed on a Tuesday evening while streaming Shabbat services from their Synagogue in Los Angeles, using a virtual background of Jerusalem.

Let us be the Shul that prioritizes Shabbat Dinner on Friday Night in person, accessible in different ways, but always cognizant of the fact that our tradition wanted us all – us all – to surround the candles at that exact moment, so that Divine flicker could illuminate within us a sense of our tradition, a sense of one another, a sense of the power of our togetherness.

Shanah Tovah – may this year be one filled with health, happiness, humanity, compassion, and the chance of discovery. Happy 5782!


Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz is the Rabbi at Adat Shalom in Los Angeles, directed the documentary “Roadmap Jerusalem” and is pursuing his PhD at Claremont Graduate University.

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