For many, the novel coronavirus pandemic has closed the physical doors of their virtual church, synagogue or mosque, but not the virtual ones. So, dot.LA asked, how does one keep the faith when the pandemic disrupts the entire world's religious activities?
Tuesday's interfaith virtual roundtable on "Religion's New Faith inTech" opened a window into how different religious leaders are approaching the coronavirus crisis as it begins to intersect with major holidays such as Passover, Ramadan, and Easter. Many are turning to digital communications methodsto maintain their communities.
At Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, Southern California's largest Conservative synagogue, the shul will host a virtual Seder using Zoom on Wednesday night that features two of its rabbis, who happen to be married, and then that Seder can also be replayed for the second night.
Strategy Session: Religion's New Faith in Tech www.youtube.com
Wolpe described a Saturday Shabbat service this past week where their cantor sang from his home in the Valley via Zoom, other rabbis led the service from their homes down the street, and Wolpe gave the sermon from his home.
It's a scenario that has played itself out in community after community, faith after faith, in different ways across the country and world.
Among Muslims, scholars have said there is no longer a religious obligation to attend services in person, "in fact, it's your obligation to stay home because the social welfare takes precedence over the religious obligation," said Imam Jihad Turk, founding President of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School.
"But it won't count towards a congregational obligation, which is no longer required anyway under the current circumstances. So it's very convoluted and very much in the weeds, but these are the kinds of conversations that are taking place around Muslim communities around the country and around the world."
In Jewish and Muslim communities, religious laws that require in-person congregating have made a move toward technology and livestreaming a little more difficult. Evangelical Christians have found in technology an easy way to get the message of Jesus out further and faster.
Evangelical Christians are more familiar with religious uses of technology, going back to the early days of television. Over the last decade, churches have been steadily moving online and into the digital world. Pastor Adam Mesa is the lead pastor of Abundant Living Family Church in Rancho Cucamonga and a member of the Global Leadership Board for Silicon Valley's first faith-based app, pray.com, which has seen a surge in participation. He said the church has roughly 6,300 people participating via the virtual platform pray.com.
"When you put people alone, they start wondering more and more what's out there, where's God in all this? It's created a hunger in the absence of being able to go out and get lost at the football game, or go to the gym and just get your mind out," Mesa said. "Now people are at home actually having to introspect, and now it's creating curiosity. And so churches, by and large, we're all talking with one another, and everyone's very excited about what this has taken us through in this process."
Faith leaders tend to be involved in the highest and lowest points of peoples' lives, from coming-of-age ceremonies to marriages and funerals.
Wolpe said he's done a few final confessions using virtual technology instead of being there in person and has also participated in virtual funerals.
Imam Jihad Turk previously served as the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, L.A.'s oldest and largest mosque
He said Islamic scholars have weighed in and said it's OK to waive some of the obligations for washing the body after death due to the danger it may cause community members who volunteer for the ritual.
Turk has also officiated at two weddings and will do a third, virtually, this coming Sunday using Zoom. One of those he did in the Westwood area of Los Angeles in person, with just the bride and groom and Turk himself at a distance. Meanwhile, dozens of people who had planned to fly in from all over the country Zoomed in instead.
Mesa lost his father-in-law two weeks ago as the order to stay home was announced. The family planned a virtual ceremony with only the immediate family members in the church. The funeral was live streamed on YouTube and emailed privately to guests. Roughly 1600 people ended up watching the funeral.
"My mother-in-law remarked, 'I actually liked this,'" Mesa said. "Because, number one, the family was really there for one another, and then she also said, and more people gathered for the funeral online than would have actually come to the building."
The technology can be intimidating for those who didn't grow up with it. Meanwhile, younger people worry they're missing out on finding the one, the religious leaders say.
"For some people it is (even more) isolating" because of their lack of tech savvy, Wolpe said. "They feel cut off from their community, and they even feel cut off from the virtual community that all of us are participating in, and that's very hard."
Mesa's church has created its own version of "Love is Blind" that it's calling "Christian Zoom mates" where they're going to take 10 singles and have them turn their cameras off and respond to some fun Bible trivia. At the end, everyone will turn their cameras on and meet each other for the first time.
Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @latams. You can also email me at tami(at)dot.la, or ask for my Signal.
Rabbi David Wolpe was named one of the 500 Most Influential People in Los Angeles in 2016 and again in 2017, Most Influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 Most Influential Jews in the World by The Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple. Rabbi Wolpe previously taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, Hunter College, and UCLA. A columnist for Time.com, he has been published and profiled in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post's On Faith website, The Huffington Post, and the New York Jewish Week. He has been featured on The Today Show, Face the Nation, ABC This Morning, and CBS This Morning. In addition, Rabbi Wolpe has appeared prominently in series on PBS, A&E, History Channel, and Discovery Channel. Rabbi Wolpe is the author of eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times. His new book is titled David, the Divided Heart. It was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, and has been optioned for a movie by Warner Bros.
Tami Abdollah is dot.LA's senior technology reporter. She was previously a national security and cybersecurity reporter for The Associated Press in Washington, D.C. She's been a reporter for the AP in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times and for L.A.'s NPR affiliate KPCC. Abdollah spent nearly a year in Iraq as a U.S. government contractor. A native Angeleno, she's traveled the world on $5 a day, taught trad climbing safety classes and is an avid mountaineer.
Adam Mesa is Lead Pastor of Abundant Living Family Church, under the leadership of Senior Pastor, Diego Mesa, and speaks to a congregation of 12,000 about how the gospel of Jesus Christ brings purpose to every life. In 2019, Eagles' Wings chose Adam, as one of a 30-person delegation, to visit Israel with the goal of building bridges between Christians and Jews. In March of 2019 the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev invited Adam to speak at a religion symposium on behalf of Evangelical Christians. His powerful influence as a Millennial Evangelical has earned him a global platform.
Among many other accomplishments, he is the West Coast Director of Israel Christian Nexus, a member of the Global Leadership Board for Silicon Valley's first faith-based app, Pray.com, millennial strategist for Church United and a keynote speaker. He lives in Southern California and takes most pride in his role as a husband to Ashlee Mesa and father to Matthias Malachi Mesa. He loves spending time with his family, traveling, and going to Disneyland.
Jihad Turk is the founding President of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School, the nation's first Muslim graduate school to offer accredited Master's degrees in the fields of Islamic Studies, Education, Chaplaincy and Leadership. Jihad previously served as the Imam/Director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, LA's oldest and largest mosque. He is a sought after national speaker on issues related Islam, Muslims in America, Muslim Reform Movements, Ethical Leadership, and Spiritual and Identity Formation of Youth. Additionally, Jihad has committed himself to building bridges across faith communities to collaboratively address issues of homelessness and poverty.
Jihad has been consulted by the White House and has traveled around the world (Indonesia, Morocco, Qatar, and France) for the US State Department to speak to Muslim communities abroad and represent the American Muslim Community. Jihad is a member of the USINDO, an NGO that aims to strengthen ties between the US and Indonesia. Jihad has been profiled on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, regularly appears on NPR and other news outlets, has appeared numerous times on the History Channel and was featured in a documentary produced by the Annenberg Foundation's www.explore.org about the Abrahamic faiths, entitled "Traveling with Jihad." Jihad has received awards for his religious leadership by Congresswoman Jane Harmon, the Valley Interfaith Council, and the South Coast Interfaith Council, has been acknowledged as a Local Hero in 2008 by the World Festival of Sacred Music and was most recently recognized as one of the 500 Most Influential people in Los Angeles by the LA Business Journal.
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Things seemed almost normal along the strip of Pico Boulevard near South Robertson, an L.A. intersection that has for decades become the center of Jewish life, especially Orthodox Jewish life. A man dressed for Shabbat walked purposefully through the quiet neighborhood this past Saturday. Others milled about visiting at a distance, or went for what appeared to be a stroll.
But this kind of scene in the age of coronavirus has set off a social-media firestorm in the community: Why are they out, and where are they going? With Passover just days away, some members of L.A.'s Orthodox Jewish community took to social media, upset over alleged secret prayer gatherings and underground efforts to celebrate the Sabbath and upcoming holiday in person. Some advocated that those who arrange these meetings along the Pico-Robertson corridor be turned into the police, according to messages and screenshots reviewed by dot.LA.
The Orthodox Jewish community is wrestling with a new era of religion, one in which people have flocked to online platforms like Zoom, live streaming social media, and pray.com for their religious needs. But that's a hard sell if you're Orthodox and strictly abide by Jewish law, which prohibits the use of electricity on Shabbat and holidays. Continued efforts to congregate in person led a rabbi at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to issue an urgent dispatch last week about "an alarmingly high ratio of Frum (Orthodox) patients among those that are positive for the disease."
In one of multiple Facebook posts on Sunday, community member Aryeh Rifkin, wrote: "If you hear about minyanim or gatherings (in person), post the names and addresses. Expose them. Don't be afraid to do the right thing. Weak leadership must be cut off especially finanically [sic]. If you have information and say nothing then you could be endangering lives."
Rifkin, who founded SKSI Plans and Permits and attended a neighborhood shul, has himself been fighting the novel coronavirus since March 18, and has been hospitalized twice because of it. One woman replied, saying her son was told by another person that he attended a community meal this past Friday with five other people. The woman did not respond to a request from dot.LA for more details. Others who did provide details were kicked out of groups and WhatsApp chains.
For weeks the debate over whether it is OK to meet has been ongoing on social media and in more private messages, as families and close-knit religious communities have tried to figure out how they will celebrate the upcoming holiday of Passover — which begins on Wednesday evening and lasts for eight days — amid the L.A. order to remain home unless for crucial necessities like food or medicine. Many in the heavily Persian-Jewish and Orthodox communities around Pico-Robertson are also ardent supporters of the Trump administration and have been slower to adopt distancing measures or believe in their necessity.
Such questions over whether ritual Passover meals, or Sedarim, could go forward, led the primary representative body of Orthodox Judaism in California, the Rabbinical Council of California, to put out a letter to rabbis and community outlets last week on this specific issue, according to a copy provided to dot.LA on Monday by Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the RCC.
The letter noted that "all travel for any part of Yom Tov (the holiday) is forbidden, both for travel out of town or with family or friends locally."
Then, in bold, it stated that it's an absolute necessity and obligation under Jewish law, "to abide by government and health department restrictions. This is for our protection and the protection of everyone around us."
Rabbi Jason Weiner, the senior rabbi and director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, also sent out a letter to community rabbis last week urging people to stay home and practice social distancing. That letter ultimately ended up being circulated on Facebook among Jewish groups.
The Modern Orthodox B'nai David-Judea Temple on W. Pico Blvd.
The rabbi said in the letter that "we are entering the most intense period of the COVID-19 outbreak and an alarmingly high ratio of Frum (Orthodox) patients are among those that are positive for the disease."
Cedars-Sinai, which was originally founded as a Jewish hospital, is also the closest major hospital to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
"Avoid Shabbos walks with others - no backyard minyanim, even with physical spacing!" Weiner wrote. "No play dates for children - schools are closed for a reason; this causes great danger! No guests at the sedarim - this includes family members outside of the household. With regard to the Seders, it cannot be stressed enough that only family members already living together under the same roof and in close daily contact should have the seder together."
Passover is especially difficult this year for many because it is a religious holiday that celebrates the Jewish peoples' freedom from slavery in Egypt with a gathering over a festive and ritualistic meal. Children sing songs and families have traditions that are passed on from generation to generation.
The Orthodox community has been split on whether to allow technology to "count" as the requisite congregational prayer for Shabbat and festivals during this COVID-19 pandemic, with leading rabbis deciding that it is better to pray alone than to use forbidden technologies like Zoom during such holy days.
A ruling by Israel's chief rabbis last week stated that Jews cannot use technology to pray during religious holidays has left families split and more religious members to pray at home alone. That's despite an earlier decision by prominent Sephardic rabbis in Israel to allow such technology for the Passover Seder to allow for remote gatherings amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Many slammed that letter once it became public.
But that eschewing of technology may also be leading Orthodox families or those with more Orthodox members, to decide to meet in person. New York's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods saw a swift rise in coronavirus cases due to their continued gatherings for prayer, and many Jewish-American communities have taken it as a cautionary tale.
On Saturday, Rabbi David Wolpe, a senior rabbi at L.A.'s Sinai Temple — Southern California's oldest and largest Conservative congregation, whose congregation includes a large number of Persian Jews — dedicated his Zoom sermon to pleading to those in the congregation who had plans to gather for Passover (or Pesach, in Hebrew), to cancel those plans.
"It is my understanding that there are some people in our community who are going to have a Pesach Seder with lots of people in spite of the fact that they've been instructed not to," Wolpe said. "It is to them primarily I'm speaking now."
Wolpe, who was named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, said he understands the pain of celebrating alone or through an electronic medium rather than collectively as a family.
"But I want you to know that anybody who invites people over to the Seder this year is violating Jewish law in the most serious way," Wolpe said, warning that while you may be fine, you or another invitee could be a vector for disease and devastating consequences.
"This is not the year to be a hero, this is the year to be a little afraid, this is the year to allow your intelligence and your concern and your empathy to override your ego," Wolpe said. "It is better to be sad, then to be sad and sick. It is better to be smart than to have made a decision that will haunt you the rest of your days."
Shabbat Sermon by Rabbi David Wolpe: A Passover Like No Other- 04/04/20 www.youtube.com
Conservative Jewish leaders have also grappled with how to hold services, but ultimately
decided to allow them to count because of a prevailing human need right now.
B'nai David-Judea, a modern Orthodox shul in the Pico-Robertson area, is using technology to facilitate prayer only during the weekdays and not on Shabbat or festivals. That includes having everyone gather together at a certain time to pray, even if they are alone in their home.
"We're living in a very painful time where people have a strong yearning to be close to each other and to be close to God and need to reach out for community," said Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn. "At the same time, the way in which we can be closest to each other and closest to God is by not showing up in person. And that's a spiritual tension that is jarring. That is very challenging for us to digest."
Thomas-Newborn said the synagogue has not been in the position of having to reprimand its congregants for trying to gather and has been repeatedly emphasizing the need for people to stay home.
For those who are in mourning — sitting Shiva — or observing the anniversary of a close family member's death, the inability to gather has been particularly difficult because of requirements that prayers are done with a certain number of congregants present. Zoom can help bring people together, but it doesn't "count" as if they were there.
"We've had people who have sat Shiva during this time," Thomas-Newborn said. "When they sit Shiva, we've done it on Zoom where people visit and see each other, provide words of comfort and condolence and share words of reflection."
The congregation has provided its members an alternate prayer for Kaddish, the mourners prayer, that can be said solo, instead.
Meanwhile, in Israel, a minyan of coronavirus patients who belong to Chabad, an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, have offered their services to recite the mourners prayer for those who are currently mourning or have an anniversary during this time via an online form anyone can fill in.
"Simply enter your info on this form, and Kaddish will be said on your behalf three times a day until Minyanim will be reopened around the world," the website states.
In an emotional video posted to Facebook at the end of March, Rabbi Shimon Freundlich, the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who is in Beijing, China, spoke passionately about the need for people to stop gathering for a minyan, or congregational prayer, even if outdoors.
VIDEO 2020 03 27 18 18 44 www.youtube.com
Jewish law 'is full of the importance of a minyan," Freundlich said "Not when it comes to a pandemic. Not when peoples' lives are at risk. People are dying, but somehow people have to run to this minyan."
Freundlich noted that in Judaism, saving a life supersedes all other religious obligations, including observing the Sabbath -- and that includes requirements to gather with at least 10 adult men to pray.
"Therefore, I implore you to make sure that you don't do anything reckless or irresponsible because you want to, you feel like you want to do it," he said. "We need to be responsible. We are fighting an invisible enemy. Because you can't see it doesn't mean it doesn't exist."
For more on religion, technology and COVID-19, read this story and watch our virtual panel here. Reach out to me on Twitter @latams, where my DMs are open, email me at tami(at)dot.la, or ask for my Signal.
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When Pope Francis delivered a special prayer in advance of Easter this past Friday, he did so to a hauntingly empty St. Peter's Square in the Vatican.
A tiny figure in white, the leader of the Catholic Church's address is a particularly dramatic and high-profile example of how the inability to gather has played out in houses of worship around the world.
As the novel coronavirus has spread, prompting the closures of schools and workplaces, religious spaces have also been forced to empty and typical outlets for many to manage fear, anxiety and stress in a time when that's elevated, have been upended.
The month of April will prove a particularly challenging time for religious adherents, with Passover starting the evening of April 8, Easter on April 12 and Ramadan starting the evening of April 23. All three holidays are almost guaranteed to be celebrated virtually this year in many parts of the world.
Meanwhile, online prayer platforms have seen their usage numbers jump often in ways that have mimicked the global geographic spread of COVID-19, dot.LA has found. One Los Angeles group said a regular religious gathering of 1,500 ballooned to 600,000 online. Prayer groups that attracted a few thousand have become phenomenons as people look for hope in what seems like an endless news cycle of death.
Religious leaders have turned to Zoom, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, customized apps and their own online platforms to try to connect with their faith communities, seeing massive surges in participation from people who cannot gather physically.
The new realities have made pastors Instagram stars and forced rabbis to act more like stage hands than the spiritual guides that they are. A sort of Netflix for Islamic studies has gained traction.
But it hasn't come without difficult decisions as traditions that hark back thousands of years have had to be bent and the solace of communion has been interrupted.
Photo courtesy of Churchome
Breaking physical barriers
In a time where Americans have seen the growth of megachurches, the Churchome app was an effort years in the making to engage with people outside of more traditional means, who might be curious but hesitant about walking into a church.
David Kroll, the CEO of Churchome, knew something needed to change when he realized nearly all of his church's growth was made up of congregants from other churches rather than non churchgoers. Three years ago the church changed its name from City Church to Churchome and decided to focus on the idea that people can also do church at home.
"The church has historically used large buildings to reach people," said Kroll. But over the last two years, Churchome decided to use technology to reach people despite their physical locations, which draws some 7,500 people to its four churches in the Seattle area and one in the Los Angeles area.
Online prayer platforms have seen their usage numbers jump often in ways that have mimicked the global geographic spread of COVID-19.
Provided by pray.com
Their app, built by L.A.-based Seventh Spark, launched in November 2018.
"We're grateful to not be limited to the physical barriers of the church because every single one of them over the past few weeks have been closed," Kroll said.
Their app provides daily content, live events, digital groups and on-demand classes and sermons, among other options. Seventh Spark also developed " Guided Prayers," or free five to six-minute meditations, that are posted daily on the app.
Meanwhile, Seventh Spark is also working on an app for people who might still find value in sermons and other religious resources outside of the Churchome community. Marissa Bell, CEO of Seventh Spark, is aiming to have that new app available this summer.
A test of the new model
COVID-19 has proven to be a test of the new model the church bet on years ago.
Before COVID-19, more than 3,000 people attended Churchome services via the app every week; those figures have since shot up 150%. When the church counts YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook traffic, a total of 1.33 million joined live for virtual church one recent Sunday, Kroll said.
"We're using every and any channel we can to get our message out," Kroll said. "The hunger for that content is unlike anything I've ever seen (and) I think church will never be the same"
Case in point, Churchome has a service every Wednesday night at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills that typically draws 1,500 people. After transitioning to an online service, it had over 600,000 people tune in live. Part of that is due to influential members of the congregation like Justin Bieber and Chris Pratt publicly discussing their faith and tuning into various services.
Churchome app attendance has also gone up internationally given that 20% of its active users are outside of the U.S, Bell said. In the United Kingdom app usage went up 136% after COVID-19 hit. Similarly, it went up 127% in Singapore, 168% in Canada, 5% in India, and 212% in Mexico.
Since March 12, average Sunday church attendance went up 146%, account creation grew nearly 148% and pastor chat usage is up 72%, Bell said.
Kroll said the impacts of COVID-19 have economically impacted the church, and finances have "absolutely taken a hit." There has been a 35% decline in donations amid $100,000 worth of requests from church members for financial assistance.
Justin Bieber on Churchome www.youtube.com
The Muslim community: "There's a lot of Zoom"
Though Islamic law doesn't allow prayers outside of the congregation to count, after much community consternation, religious leaders determined it was permissible to miss that aspect and instead people pray together, separately in their own homes with services streamed online, said Jihad Turk, founding president of Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School.
"Technology is the lifeline of the community to stay connected during these times because we are observing social distancing and not congregating at places of worship," Turk said. So, "there's a lot of Zoom."
Mosques have started live streaming Friday sermons if they weren't already. Meanwhile, groups like the Islamic Center of Southern California have been streaming spiritual and educational programming to fill the void left by closures and social-distancing. Other Muslim influencers and scholars are tailoring their online content engaging on social media and through webinars.
Turk, who served for seven years as the imam and religious director at the Islamic Center of Southern California, the largest and oldest mosque in the L.A. area, is also part of an international organization called The Concordia Forum. The forum is a small exclusive network of cross-sector leaders from the U.S., Europe and Australia who happen to come from Muslim backgrounds that typically meets annually at exclusive invite-only retreats.
So far, the forum has put on several sessions of what it cheekily calls "distance socializing." The sessions are 24 hours of continual streaming that allows people to tune in to leaders in art, science, religion and education, who present in hour-long segments.
Turk recently led an hour of Koran study, after which a choir master had people all sing together, then there was an economist looking at gold and cryptocurrency.
Netflix for Islamic studies
Bayan Claremont has also made BayanONLINE, a kind of "Netflix for Islamic studies" started two years ago, free for the next two months.
The platform features hundreds of hours of graduate level courses on Islam. It's still in beta mode, but within a week of opening it up, traffic went from 250 to 400 users, Turk said.
"You can just binge watch a course on Islamic spirituality or Islamic law or just watch it at your own pace," Turk said. "Online learning is really filling an important gap that has been caused by this inability for people to physically be with one another."
Turk said the school is also planning on rolling out an app in the next month. "We're trying to get that out as quickly as possible because of what's happening."
Dr. Jonathan AC Brown - Prophetic Biography (Seerah) - Bayan Online Preview III www.youtube.com
A sacred time of year
For Muslims, Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year, a time when Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and is meant for intense study, introspection and is also a time of celebration to spend with loved ones. Muslims believe it was during this month that God revealed the verses of the Koran to Mohammed. This year the holiday begins the evening of April 23.
Turk is part of a WhatsApp group of Muslim religious leaders nationally who have all been closely following the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"Ramadan is going to be cancelled in terms of mosque gathering space," Turk said. But he said mosques have worked to roll out different programs, including streaming the reciter of additional daily prayers and reading of the Koran. Still, the breaking of bread and the larger community gatherings will be missed while other aspects are modified.
"There's no other spiritual experience like Ramadan," Turk said. "Whatever is done hodgepodge online, combined with what you can do at home is going to pale in comparison, but people will try and make do the best that they can. And maybe they'll develop some new traditions."
In Judaism: COVID-19 pushes a synagogue to get radical
At Southern California's oldest and largest Conservative congregation, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, services have changed "radically," said Rabbi David Wolpe, the Max Webb senior rabbi at the congregation.
The synagogue typically attracts an average of 1,000 congregants on a typical Shabbat morning, but is now streaming services daily in the morning and afternoon. On Saturday or Shabbat, Judaism's day of rest, the service was streamed with two rabbis (who are married) from an empty chapel and the sermon was streamed from Wolpe's home.
"Because of the advances of technology, it's unprecedented in human history, not just in Jewish history," said Wolpe, who was named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the World by the Jerusalem Post.
Conservative Jewish leaders have grappled with how to hold services, which requires at least 10 people in a room together to be counted as congregational prayer.
"We've decided we are counting them, but it wasn't a snap decision," Wolpe said. "It was discussed and thought about, and we realized the human need was overriding and there really was no other way to do it."
In addition to regular Torah classes, last Thursday Wolpe taught a course in New York online via Zoom that was attended by 350 people and hosted by Temple Emanu-El's now virtual Streicker Center. The topic was lessons on resilience from the Torah, through the lives of Moses, King David, Naomi and Jacob "and how also for all of them, part of resilience was learning solitude, which was crucial now."
Wolpe has also been sending out one-minute daily words of inspiration on YouTube, receiving "tremendous" response. He said he primarily uses YouTube, Zoom, Facebook and Twitter, and has recently contemplated using Instagram live.
"People want to see that you're still there and that you're okay, and even hear a brief message so they don't feel quite as disconnected," Wolpe said. "So in that sense, this would be a much much more isolating and difficult time without technology."
File:Sinai Temple, Westwood, Los Angeles.JPG - Wikimedia Commons upload.wikimedia.org
A little bit of Hollywood advice
In a funny bit of apropos, after Wolpe's first couple of one-minute videos, his L.A. area congregation ended up sending him a number of comments not just about the content but also about the lighting, his clothing choices, and questions about who is framing him.
"I thought, 'No one is framing me,' I sat down in my living room and turned on the camera," Wolpe said with a chuckle. "It's partly the age we live in and partly the city we live in."
Wolpe ultimately received a long memo, from a member of the synagogue who does lighting for commercials and movies.
"He said do this and this and this, it'll look much better," Wolpe said. "So we did. It was really useful and really great that he did it, because I had no idea."
His Torah classes meanwhile have grown from 30 to 40 to 50 people live, with some writing in to say they're watching from Perth in Australia, or from New York. Others are watching the videos online later, giving them a second life
Celebrating a holiday of freedom in captivity
With Passover beginning next week, the synagogue put together a virtual seder -- or ritual feast usually celebrated with a gathering of family. The major Jewish holiday celebrates the Jewish peoples' freedom from slavery in Egypt.
Wolpe also sent out a letter to the congregation telling them to do their best but also acknowledging the fact that the holiday would be much more difficult this year than in the past.
"The first time Jews celebrated Passover was the night before liberation, so anxiety and uncertainty are part of the DNA of the holiday, and that's the way we're going to feel," Wolpe said. "I'm particularly worried about people who are alone."
For Orthodox Jews, the use of technology has presented harder problems because the community is typically more strict about not allowing for its use on Shabbat and holidays. It is one reason why they've been less willing to give up in-person gatherings during the earlier days of the novel virus's spread. In that sense, Wolpe said, technology is quite literally saving lives.
Though the synagogue had previously debated streaming services, it never fully got there, Wolpe said. Should life return to normalcy at some later date, "I think this has proven how powerful and important it is."
VCs get in on some religion
The trend of people turning toward prayer has followed the novel coronavirus, said Steve Gatena, a founder and CEO of pray.com.
"I believe there has never been a more relevant time for pray.com," Gatena said. "For the first time in history everyone is being isolated and churches around the world are being shut down, and in times of uncertainty people turn to faith for strength for hope and for comfort."
The trend of people turning toward prayer has followed the novel coronavirus,. assets.rebelmouse.io
Today, in part due to COVID-19, pray.com is the No. 1 app for daily prayer and faith-based audio content, Gatena said. The app includes a free portion that allows you to join a church, post prayer requests and make donations; a paid portion includes premium audio content.
In February the app had more than 500,000 monthly active users, in March it clocked 850,000 monthly active users. Every month people share over one million prayers. Last year the app generated over seven figures in nonprofit religious organization donations. But over the last two weeks, pray.com has seen a 173% increase in donations and a 489% increase in daily subscription starts from March 16 through March 19.
The app has more than 50,000 religious communities, of which 99% are churches.
"That's mostly because we live in the United States and the United States is a Christian country," Gatena said. Still, pray.com is in 183 countries and the company is working on translating its offerings for multiple languages, especially into Spanish and Portuguese to try to permeate the Latin American market.
Because of COVID-19, the company decided to make kids Bible stories and Bible meditation free.
"We just thought that was the right thing to do to help ease peoples' anxiety and stress" and engage with their kids along with their faith, Gatena said.
A freak accident that killed Gatena's business partner became the seed for pray.com. To cope, the then 29-year-old began listening to self-help audio books. A podcast from a pastor his friend passed on particularly spoke to his heart and impacted him deeply.
Gatena recruited three guys and partnered with startup studio Science Inc. So far, Gatena's Westlake Village, Calif.-based company has raised more than $16 million in VC-backed rounds of fundraising. It's a strange silver lining that the company's timing -- it launched its audio subscription content last year -- has been just in time to stand in for gathering spaces that have been shut down due to COVID-19.
"When there's not a lot of physical destinations for faith available," Gatena said, "the digital destination for faith becomes more popular."
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