September 22, 2019

Bar mitzvah invitation comes with an added dimension

As they began organizing the bar mitzvah of their oldest son, Josh and Kareen Rubel knew they wanted to “do something creative.” 

Of course, a parent who works with product developers at YouTube — which is owned by Google — might have a different view of creativity than a person who flips through fonts and card stock at a traditional stationary merchant. 

Invitees to the March 5 ceremony at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills received not only a link to a 2 1/2-minute video invitation to Aidan’s bar mitzvah, they also got a Google Cardboard viewer enabling them to watch the video in 360-degree virtual reality. You might say the Rubels took a panoramic approach to their invitation … a 360-degree panoramic approach.

By accessing the YouTube app on their smartphones, viewers can “enter” the invitation, moving around inside the family’s house and the temple’s sanctuary. In that last location, Aidan stands at the bimah flanked by Rabbis Stewart L. Vogel and Gabriel Botnick. Pan to the left or the right and you encounter Aidan’s friends and relatives of all ages rocking out to an abbreviated version of Eminem’s award-winning song “Lose Yourself.” 

“Kids thought the invitation was cool,” Aidan said. “Some said it was the best invitation ever.”

A select 150 people received actual invitations to the ceremony, but as of March 11 more than 840 viewers have checked out the “World’s 1st 360/VR Bar Mitzvah Invitation,” as it’s titled on YouTube, since the family posted it Jan. 10. 

“We thought it would be a nice twist,” Josh Rubel said. “I know about 360-degree video through my work, and we came up with the idea and thought it would be a neat and different thing. … Technically, it was a little tricky, but not as tricky as explaining to people how to use the Cardboard who had never used it.”

Rubel originally intended to shoot the video himself but he ultimately elected to hire a production crew, which used a system of six GoPro cameras to film the locations from a multitude of angles. The two rabbis arranged to give up an hour to appear in the filmed invitation, with Botnick being particularly gung-ho about embracing the new technological frontier that efforts like this could usher in.

“The technology right now is not inexpensive, but the price is only going to come down,” Botnick said. “This invitation is proof of a concept of where we could be going in the next couple of years that ought to be really awesome. You have a glimpse into the relationship of the family, all the siblings and friends, in a much more personal way.” 

Asked whether his high-tech savvy earned him extra coolness credit with his son during the bar mitzvah ramp-up, Rubel demurred.

“I think for your children you’re never that cool, and I wouldn’t say we were trying to be cool,” said Rubel, who has three other children. “In fact, it was out of my personal comfort zone to do something like this — to be on camera, lip-syncing and doing my version of dancing.”  

In his professional life at Google, Rubel helps companies use YouTube to enhance their brands. He envisions 360-degree virtual reality capability as a tool that businesses will embrace with greater frequency. Imagine an automobile company that, through virtual reality technology, can place potential customers in one of their cars and send them rocketing down the Autobahn.  

Rubel and administrators at Temple Aliyah have also brainstormed ways that some of the technology could be used for educational purposes within the Jewish world.

“It would be really neat to be able to get tours of great synagogues all over the world, or be up on Masada,” Botnick said.