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Skyping the Minyan

by Temple Emunah / June 13, 2012
by Rabbi David Lerner

(This article originally appeared in the Journal of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Summer 2012)

 

People were giving me strange looks.

I guess it was to be expected – I had come into the minyan and opened up my laptop, which now was making strange noises. People were curious about why the rabbi would be disturbing the sanctity of the daily minyan by playing with his email.

At the end of services, the mourners observing yahrzeit got up to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. At that point I turned to the laptop and looked in, and a woman on the screen stood up to recite the Kaddish with them.

SkypeI explained to the minyannaires that we had a new participant in the Temple Emunah daily minyan. Her name is Maxine Marcus, though everyone calls her Max. She lives in Amsterdam and works in the Hague, where she serves as a war crimes prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The story behind the story: My wife, Sharon Levin, and Max have been close friends since they participated in USY’s Poland Seminar/Israel Pilgrimage 25 years ago. Theirs was among the first USY groups to visit Poland to see the instruments of the Nazi death camps. Both Max and Sharon were profoundly moved and transformed by that experience.

Max’s parents were survivors of the Holocaust. Her mother was deported from the Hague in 1942 at age 12 and was imprisoned in more than 10 concentration camps. She spent her 14th birthday in Auschwitz and endured unspeakable horrors, tortured by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, Max heard these stories and internalized a profound commitment to Judaism and a deep sense of justice.

During her college years, Max spent her summers volunteering at a Bosnian Muslim refugee camp helping the victims of war crimes, often Muslim women. My wife also was a volunteer during the Yugoslavian war in the early 1990s. After law school, Max worked for human rights in Africa and eventually wound up in the Hague.

In recent years, Max had been dealing with her parents’ aging and the cancer that eventually took her mother’s life. She discovered that it is not easy to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. She and I realized that she could participate in our daily minyan through the free internet video calling service known as Skype.

But would it be kosher? Interestingly enough, 10 years ago Rabbi Avram Reisner wrote a teshuvah, a religious responsum for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, explaining that should such technology arise (Skype had not yet been created), it would be permissible for someone to join in a minyan, although not to count in the quorum of 10, and to recite the Kaddish. While it also would be allowed through the phone, it is much better to have a real-time audiovisual link.

After examining dozens of sources and precedents from thousands of years of Jewish history, Rabbi Reisner concluded that a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, an audio- or video-conference, or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, that is being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (the prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.

Once a quorum has been duly constituted, however, anyone hearing the prayers in that minyan may respond and fulfill his or her obligations, even over long-distance communications of any sort. A real-time audio connection is required. Two-way connections to the whole minyan are preferable, though connection to the shaliach tzibbur alone or a one-way connection linking the minyan to the mourner is sufficient. Email and chat rooms or other typewritten connections do not suffice. Video connections are not necessary, but video without audio also would not suffice.

Rabbi Reisner defines a hierarchy of preference. It is best to attend a minyan for the full social and communal effect. A real-time two-way audio-video connection, where the mourner is able to converse with the members of the minyan and see and be seen by them, is less desirable. Only in exigent circumstances should you fulfill your obligation by attaching yourself to a minyan through a one-way audio medium, which essentially is just overhearing the service.

As long as someone who is physically present in the minyan recites the Mourner’s Kaddish, a participant at another location may recite it as well; this is not considered a superfluous blessing.

As you can see, Skyping into the minyan is permissible according to Rabbi Reisner’s teshuvah. It has been a powerful experience, as members of the minyan got to know Max, schmoozing with her for a minute or two over Skype after minyan. This has been a great blessing. It is a reminder that our minyan is not just a gift to each participant – allowing us to experience the power of God, prayer, and community – but it also reaches out to include all who participate, even those on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Last summer, Max visited Temple Emunah in person. For the first time, our members, who had never been in the same room with her but felt close to her through her Skyped recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, were able to meet Max.

Today, we occasionally Skype in members who are ill as well as members of other shuls who have heard of our Skype minyan. It is our hope that many shuls will add this option to their daily minyans.

Kol Yisrael areivin zeh ba’zeh – all Israel is responsible for one another – whether in person or through the internet.

 

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