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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Digital Platform Blends Technology and Spirituality for Easy Online Services

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Erin Ben-Moche
Erin is the Digital Content Manager at the Jewish Journal. She also covers Jewish art, entertainment and culture.

In 2011, Rabbi Daniel Medwin had an idea to digitize prayerbooks and project them onto a screen using a PowerPoint slideshow format. He never imagined the resource, titled Visual T’filah, would thrive during the pandemic.

Medwin, who is now the current Director of Digital Media at the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), says the platform now allows congregations to digitize religious texts and display them on Zoom or other live streaming services. Like PowerPoint, each Visual T’filah slide can be personalized to include specific prayers in addition to creative backdrops such as a synagogue, nature scenes, artwork and other images that create a meaningful and engaging service.

Understanding that technology could be a strong force in uniting people for a religious experience, Medwin devoted his time, energy and rabbinical thesis to creating Visual T’filah and the uses it could give to a community.

“Part of my work is possible because of my affinity for technology, but part of it is my rabbi side where I want to help people who have trouble using technology and also don’t know where to start and are resistant,” he said. “I want to help them see how they can lead the community using these tools, which is why I became a rabbi in the first place.”

The son of a rabbi and mechanical engineer, Medwin used what was passed down to him, spending nearly a decade perfecting his concept. He said its original purpose was to enhance in-person services through the use of projection. Now, it has become an essential service, compliant with almost every live-streaming provider that screen shares or splits the screen. Working with the CCAR, he shares this service with any Jewish organization who needs it.

Temple Menorah Rabbi Leah Lewis did what most clergy did at the beginning of the pandemic and transitioned her community into safe, virtual, online services.

The Redondo Beach synagogue serves around 200 families. Lewis said because their community doesn’t have a predominantly Jewish presence, they needed to figure out a way to bring families together without using their campus as home base. Through CCAR, she learned about Visual T’filah.

“CCAR was so helpful in knowing what rabbis and congregations were gonna need to be thinking about,” Lewis said. “In a time where everything was so stressful, to be able to have an answer before I even needed it was the best.”

Since March Lewis has used Visual T’filah for Shabbat services, weekly programming, daily minyanim and religious school. Because many of the Visual T’filot templates are based on existing print literature, congregations don’t have to spend time digitizing their own prayer books. They can also select templates and personalize them with backgrounds that are creative, fun and visually meaningful. In preparation for the High Holy Days, Lewis chose to utilize Visual T’filah to make the experience more engaging for her community. The clergy changed the host of the service so various families could lead in prayer in front of the virtual congregation. Even if they had a prayer book at home, they could still follow along using the prayers on the screen.

Because many of the Visual T’filot templates are based on existing print literature, congregations don’t have to spend time digitizing their own prayer books.

Now she feels her Temple Menorah team can “create community with less emphasis on the physical space” until they’re able to join together in person. She is also looking ahead. As part of the religious school curriculum, students will be able to personalize their own Visual T’filah slides for a presentation used when they have their bar and bat mitzvah service.

“As we learn to adapt and live with it, I see numerous benefits,” Lewis said.

Chief Executive of CCAR Rabbi Hara Person told the Journal the goal was to make virtual services special when in-person is not possible. To date, Person said more than 333 communities were given free access to templates, hundreds of templates were purchased, and more than 1 million households utilized Visual T’filah in North America during the High Holy Days. Many of the shiva minyanim and service templates are free, with some pre-made Visual T’filah presentations available for a discounted rate.

“It was made for this moment,” Person said. “We knew this was going to be an issue, How do you keep congregants involved? How do you do services remotely? How do you meet people’s needs? We have these electronic resources available. We are going to offer them to congregations so they can function. Our mission is to support rabbis and by supporting rabbis, we’re supporting their communities.”

Before Medwin worked for CCAR, he was an intern for Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. Senior Rabbi Paul Kipnes, whose congregation serves around 400 household communities, told the Journal that his congregation was one of the early adopters of Visual T’filah in 2011. Visual T’filah has been a resource to Or Ami to engage with congregants who couldn’t always attend services, especially in the last few years when the space had to close and evacuate because of wildfires. Now it’s used even more during the pandemic.

“We have known for years there is a community that can’t get to the synagogue but wants to worship with us,” Kipnes said. “However, since March, I have delved more deeply into Visual T’filah’s offerings and it has been amazing. We live in a visual culture, different from the past. The congregants love the artistry, they also love the flexibility. We change up versions of the prayers all the time so with some clicks and creativity to change the service from one to another, we don’t have to send more pages, you don’t have to download them, it’s all there.”

He added with virtual services, congregants can walk into the virtual synagogue by logging on and with Visual T’filah congregants can participate. He said “it’s an indispensable prayerbook,” that transforms the praying experience.

Medwin hopes that more people continue to utilize Visual T’filah services and technology in their services. He has devoted his time to teaching Jewish leaders and clergy how to become more technologically savvy.

Kipnes and Lewis feel the use of technology in services is not going anywhere. Instead of thinking about technology and in-person services as a “this or that,” Kipnes encourages others to view it as a hybrid of “this and that.”

“When we go back, we are not going to be fully back. People have tasted the ability of praying without schlepping into the synagogue and they’re going to want to keep that,” Kipnes said. “Screens are an essential part of our existence now. Some would say we should move away from that for certain pursuits of prayer and religious community. I would argue that we need to embrace that technology and use it to promulgate Jewish values, and inspire Jewish souls.”

While Medwin agrees nothing can replace in-person communal experiences, he says technology and faith go hand in hand and remain a crucial progression in religious experiences. Medwin is even looking into how virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree cameras can be utilized to enhance services.

“As Jews we have always used technology we just don’t think about it like that,” Medwin said. “Carving into stone tablets is a technology that was invented at some point and writing on parchment scrolls was a technology, and the printing press, all of these things were new technologies that we adopted at some point for religious text. Now we are continuing that tradition with the new technology that we have today.”

For more information about Visual T’filah, visit CCAR’s website.

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