August 18, 2019

‘Pokémon Go’ capturing Jewish hearts and sites around L.A.

With “Pokémon Go” suddenly a craze across the world, it was only a matter of time before the augmented reality game’s creatures started showing up at Jewish sites across Los Angeles.

The impact was felt almost immediately at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), much to the dismay of the museum’s executive staff. The site was designated a PokeStop, a real-world location incorporated into the gameplay where players can collect items.

“We expressed to the folks at the game company we didn’t think the … museum was an appropriate place for the game to be played out because of the sensitivity of the material being presented and educated,” LAMOTH Executive Director Samara Hutman said in a phone interview. 

But like the rest of the country — the game has been downloaded more than 30 million times in the United States, according to SurveyMonkey Intelligence — Hutman said she’s intrigued by the possibilities such technology presents.A Pidgey, a type of Pokemon, appears outside the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Photo by Joey Schoenberg

“I think if I had to sum it up, I would say we like to think organizationally we retain a curiosity about emergent ways of connections,” she said.

Elsewhere in the city, Pokémon are making their presence felt — from the purple, snake-like Ekans discovered at the Museum of Tolerance, a PokeStop, to the cute, yellow Pikachu who has made appearances at Pan Pacific Park outside LAMOTH, to the wild Mankey this reporter found in his Jewish Journal cubicle. 

A number of local synagogues also serve as PokeStops, including Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. While this might make visiting temple more attractive to some, the end result might not always be positive.

“It’s become enough of a concern that now we’re going to place a sign out on Shabbat asking people not to play during services,” said Elana Vorspan, director of marketing and communications at VBS. 

She wrote this in an email on July 22 after spotting a Pidgey, a tiny bird Pokémon, in one of the social halls, and a Zubat, a poisonous bat Pokémon, in the hallway.

A Graveler shows up outside of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Photo by Ryan Torok

“Pokémon Go,” available on iPhone and Android devices, fuses smartphone and GPS technology to create what has been described as an augmented reality gaming experience. Game characters are set against real-world environments so that a Pokémon appears in a real location and a player can interact with it. Developed by the Pokémon Company International and software company Niantic, “Pokémon Go” was released in the United States, Australia and New Zealand on July 7 and has since become available in many other countries. 

Represented in the game by avatars, players walking around town are charged with capturing the virtual creatures and collecting items essential to training and powering up their Pokémon. A vibration alerts one to a Pokémon nearby — whether it’s an Ekans curled up on the sidewalk across from Pat’s kosher restaurant in Pico-Robertson or, a few blocks away, a yellow Sandshrew across the street from Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy. 

Rosanna Tornel, 25, was walking her pug, Fiona, and playing “Pokémon Go” recently when the Sandshrew appeared. She said she’s been playing the game with her Mexican-Jewish fiancé, Dan, and both have been enjoying the experience. 

“I think when ‘Pokémon’ came out, the TV show, I was 9 years old and loved it as a little girl … and I think it’s a fun game,” she said. “You need to go and walk around, and I know all the Pokémon.”

Tornel said her fiancé has more powerful Pokémon and that he frequents “Pokémon Go” gyms, places where players battle other players. Young Israel of Century City (YICC), despite being under construction, has been designated a gym by the game. 

Yoel Rubin, 23, was walking to YICC on Friday before Shabbat when this reporter discovered an Ekans on the sidewalk. 

“It’s a waste of time, if you ask me,” he said, a black tefillin carrier bag hanging from his shoulder. “People are spending so much time on their phones, not with their families.” 

Temple Beth Torah Cantor Sarah Fortman Zerbib-Berda is among those in the Jewish community who have been won over by the game after initially being unsure. She said the game has helped her keep her exercise routines, among other reasons. 

“When the “Pokémon Go” game first came out, I was skeptical and guffawed like a lot of the world, but now I’m a true believer that going outside to play this game has more positive elements to it than negative,” said Zerbib-Berda, whose Ventura synagogue is a PokeStop. “It’s getting autistic children to be social, and agoraphobes and those with other mental illness such as anxiety and depression to feel like going outside and interacting with the world for the first time in a long time, if ever.”

The IKAR community has been playing the game, according to Meredith Hoffa, its media and communications manager. She said IKAR Rabbi Ronit Tsadok even delivered a recent Shabbat sermon about how the game’s augmented reality is its appeal. 

“Real-world life is challenging and crapola right now,” Hoffa wrote in an email, “so it’s not surprising that millions of people are opting for an overlay of adventure and fun to deal with it all.” 

Zerbib-Berda agreed, saying the release of the game came just in time, on the heels of tragic shootings involving African-Americans and police officers. 

“The game came out at the end of a horrible week and it was good timing,” she said. “We needed to have people out enjoying life together and meeting each other, making the world smaller and less scary.”

While some synagogues are concerned about the potential distraction of the game, other rabbis are reacting with nothing but good humor. 

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul said his synagogue’s name sounds like a character from the game. (Probably the most famous character is the lovable, yellow Pikachu.) 

And his wife, Pico Shul rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein, said, “I do think it’s very cool for our neighborhood and certainly for the neighborhood kids, or the grown-ups who play the game, that synagogues are on the map, or are Poke-destinations.” 

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said in an email that having a Pokémon at temple might even help make services possible, though he hadn’t seen any at the Bel-Air Reform synagogue as of press time. 

He offered a halachic question: “If you’re short one person for a minyan, will a Pokémon count?”