March 29, 2020

If you stream Kol Nidre, they will watch


When Rabbi Naomi Levy conducted Kol Nidre services this year, her congregation numbered 200,000, stretching from Canada to Colombia and from Japan to Norway.

Watching online on their computers were a student group at a Dartmouth College dormitory, Jews and non-Jews in small isolated communities across the United States, the bedridden and terminally ill, disaffected young Jews who never go to shul and single mothers who couldn’t afford the cost of High Holy Days tickets.

The Kol Nidre service was transmitted from the Brentwood Presbyterian Church via the broadband channel of the Jewish Television Network , and the response stunned Jay Sanderson, CEO and executive producer of JTN Productions.

“This must have been the single-largest Jewish religious service ever,” Sanderson said, and he is still sorting through the more than 400 enthusiastic, at times ecstatic, e-mails he has received from all over the world.

Among the most involved viewers was Ruth Levy, the rabbi’s mother, who was bed-bound in a Boston hospital.

The service itself was as unusual as the global online outreach, and as Nashuva, the live congregation that overflowed the seats and courtyard of the Brentwood church.

Levy founded Nashuva, which translates as “We Will Return,” four years ago after a successful career as a Conservative congregational rabbi and author, not to mention wife of Jewish Journal editor-in-chief and mother of two.

“While I was on my book tours, I kept meeting these incredible people, deeply spiritual Jews, who had turned away from communal Judaism,” she said. “They weren’t atheists, as I had expected, but they just couldn’t fit in. They would come to a bookstore to hear me, but not to a synagogue.”

With eight people sitting around her kitchen table, Levy founded the “post-denominational” Nashuva as a community that would mesh spirituality with social action.

“Every Shabbat service is followed by an action day, for adults and kids, be it working with at-risk people in the inner city, planting trees, participating in an AIDS walk, visiting a home for the aging or holding a candlelight vigil for Darfur,” Levy said.

The services themselves are characterized by the same energy as the social action, with a heavy infusion of musical styles, from reggae to klezmer, performed by a four-piece band.

Prayers are traditional, but with new translations by Levy, who also delivers all the sermons with lots of soul and a leavening of humor.

Nashuva has grown, purely by word of mouth, to some 300 at Shabbat services and 500 at holiday services, with a database of more than 1,000 names. The demographics are predominantly on the young side, with a fair number of intermarried couples, complemented by baby boomers and seniors.

Nashuva has no membership dues or charges for holiday tickets and carries on through voluntary donations and some foundation grants.

Sanderson was an early member of Nashuva and, combining prayer with business, started recording and transmitting an occasional Shabbat service.

The response by viewers across the country and the continents was encouraging, and this year he broached the idea of transmitting the Kol Nidre service.

“We’ve created a virtual congregation of 200,000 people who weren’t attending synagogues,” he said. “In my 20 years on the job, this has been my greatest contribution.”

That’s quite a statement for Sanderson, who was a key producer of the three-part PBS miniseries “The Jewish Americans” and is completing a two-hour film on global genocides for PBS, based on Daniel Goldhagen’s forthcoming book “Worse Than War.”

Also on his agenda for next year is a global online Passover service.

Levy is now getting calls from various parts of the United States, asking for advice on replicating Nashuva-type congregations in other cities.

Her general answer is that basically you need 10 dedicated people to get started, and she is ready to share her prayer book, music and business model with interested persons.

Levy also advises would-be founders to follow her example and talk extensively with rabbis in their area before going public.

“I called the rabbis in the Los Angeles area and assured them that I was seeking out the unaffiliated and would not try to poach members from their congregations,” she said. “All the rabbis I talked to gave me their blessings.”

With enough dedication and energy by volunteers, the Nashuva prototype can be emulated in any other city, Levy said, adding, “If you build it, they will come.”