Congregation Or Ami's Rabbi Paul Kipnes is the type of plugged-in religious leader who peppers his sermons with references to Star Trek and jokes about the NFL's replacement refs. Standing on stage at the Fred Kavli Theater at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza this past Wednesday, with a vibrant purple, gold, green and blue tallit draped over his shoulders and a white yarmulke atop his bald crown, Kipnes opened Yom Kippur morning services by asking the nearly 1,000 Reform Jews in attendance to honor this Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and repent, by turning off their cell phones.
But this prohibition only lasts about forty minutes.
“Because it's the 21st century, you're going to help me with my sermon,” Kipnes says, as we transition into the Kedushah prayer (“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts!”). The congregation's Facebook page and Twitter handle, along with Kipnes' cell phone number, appear on an enormous screen to the right of the stage, along with a request to text, tweet or post an ending to this sentence: “There is holiness when…”
And, one by one, smartphones emerge from purses and suit jacket pockets throughout the theater, casting their unmistakable glow on sidelined paperback copies of Gates of Light, a high-holidays prayer book.
Kipnes' efforts to integrate technology into the daily life of his synagogue have earned him three Techie awards from the Union of Reform Judiasm (URJ): Best Twitter Feed, Best Blog and Best Overall Use of Technology. The synagogue livestreams services to congregants in college or in the hospital; Kipnes posts probing questions on his blog and on Facebook (“Do you find social justice work to be connected to your spirituality?”); and Cantor Doug Cotler (the cantor is the singer at Jewish services) made a music video shown on Kol Nidre, the night before Yom Kippur, about what God wants from the chosen people.
But giving congregants tacit permission to mentally check out of services was not Kipnes' intention in bringing social media to the bimah (the stage); in fact, it was quite the opposite. “Look, worship is supposed to be an interactive experience, but in many places it stopped being that,” he explains in an interview.
And yet for the remainder of the three-hour services, at any given moment a small, rotating handful of worshipers are beholden to their phones, checking their email or perusing the news through silent meditation, through the reading of the Torah, through a rousing speech about being Jewish from a polished teenage girl (“I am sleepaway camp… I am the complicated reason you take the cheese off the burger at the Saturday morning tailgate.”) On a holiday meant to generate inward reflection, does it make sense to ask congregants to take out their phones but avoid the plethora of temptations, distractions and push notifications?
Half an hour later, after scrolling through a flood of responses to his first question, Kipnes reads a few aloud. “There is holiness when our kids say something funny and insightful. There is holiness in my kitten's heart,” he says. “There is holiness in fighting to keep your Jewish community together. There is holiness in the perfect bagel and schmear.”
He comes to a new text from his wife. “There is holiness when the rabbi corrects himself, because Sam Gross is the son of Hedi Gross, not Heidi Gross,” whom Kipnes had mentioned only minutes earlier. An easy laugh; self deprecation has been the bread and butter of Jewish humor since the time of the Talmud.
“You wanna know where I find holiness?” Kipnes asks. “I find it on my Facebook page,” he says, describing the photos he's posted depicting the synagogue's community service projects, the 7th-12th grade program with triple digit enrollment and the adult b'nei mitzvahs, all as a segue into asking for donations.
Envelopes circulate; wallets materialize. We're halfway through services, and during this five-minute fundraising break, numerous smartphones again twinkle among the restless, hungry families, though this time without the pretense of an assignment.
Kipnes finds that he's able to stay in regular touch with more congregants and ultimately provide spiritual and emotional guidance for more people in the digital age, and he doesn't think communicating about serious matters electronically dilutes the substance of the exchange.
“Over text message, I have conversations with people about life and death, about depression, about problems in the families, about how to deal with their parents,” he says, in our interview. But not all of his forays into social media have been easy. He calls himself “an immigrant to texting” and admits his children, aged 22, 18 and 15, have “warned [him] not to overdo it” and urged him to only send private messages on Facebook, rather than posting on a college student's wall.
“Cause sometimes it's weird,” Kipnes says. Indeed, many of the teenagers in Congregation Or Ami seem bewildered by their rabbi's online presence.
“I wouldn't think that really religious people would use those kinds of social networks,” Cameron Klein, 13, says.
Colette Franz, 15, insists she would never “follow” the temple on Twitter or Facebook, and seems skeptical of congregants texting, tweeting or posting their thoughts online during services.
“I think it gave people an excuse to go on their phones,” she says.
During the Hakafah, when the Torah is removed from the ark and paraded around, Kipnes again asks for electronic contribution: “To me, our brit (covenant) with God means…” He introduces this one somewhat defensively, perhaps imagining criticism from older congregants or Conservative and Orthodox synagogues. Weren't prayer books themselves once a new technology? Jews have been around for 5773 years, the printing press for a paltry 558.
“Each generation finds new ways of communicating, and we Jews make it holy,” he says. “As we bring the scrolls around, make the scrolls your first focus, but also text, Facebook, Tweet.”
Many obey his request, but during this lull, as the Torahs make their slow, winding ways around the theater, it seems difficult to avoid the lure of blinking updates from those outside this room.
Steve Bloch, on his way out later with his wife and daughter, comments that he liked the way Kipnes integrated social media, that he didn't think the phones caused anyone to lose focus.
“Any that were distracted were already distracted,” he declares. And did he choose to respond to either of the prompts?
“I was kind of sworn to not be on the phone, so I kept it in my pocket,” he says.
“It is a work day,” his wife Dina says. “He had to take the day off work, and his phone doesn't know that.”