How do we define being present in a digital age?

Recently, I came across this incredible article, Congregation B’nai Yeshurun Hosts First-Ever ‘Internet Minyan’, describing a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, NJ establishing a live-stream to broadcast thrice daily prayer services so those who are homebound due to illness or injury can participate. While technically these people cannot halachically be "counted" for the minyan, according to Rabbi Herschel Schachter, a leading posek, they can answer to various key parts of the service like kedusha, kaddish, or amen via the Internet stream and can listen to the Torah reading.

While this sounds futuristic and far fetched it really should not come as a surprise. Almost a century ago, Rabbi Yisrael Avrohom Abba Krieger, my wife's great-grandfather and the rabbi in Boston prior to Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik issued some very similar halachic decisions in reference to the new technologies of his time, the telephone and phonograph. Rabbi Krieger stated that while one could never fulfill one's obligation of reading the Megillah on Purim or making Havdalah by listening to a recording, one could fulfill one's obligation by listening over the telephone and answering amen.

You can read these teshuvot below from volume one of his work תענוגי ישראל published by his son-in-law, my wife's Zaidy, Rabbi Yosef Goldberg. His teshuva about reading the Megillah over the phone appears in volume two of תענוגי ישראל. While these seforim are not available online, one can find many other of Rabbi Krieger's seforim by searching for his Hebrew name קריגער on

In his teshuva, Rabbi Krieger distinguishs between the virtual sound broadcast over the telephone or in a different teshuva over the radio which he considers to be akin halachically to an "echo" which is not considered to be the real sound of the person's voice and the intent of the person reading the Megillah or making Havdalah to cause those listening to fulfill their halachic obligation using the vehicle of Shomea Keoneh, listening intently is like reciting oneself. The principle of Shomea Keoneh states that the one who performs a mitzvah can transfer not only the verbal aspects of the mitzvah but his actions in their entirety from the performer to the one he is assisting in the mitzvah. (For a more extensive explanation of this mechanism see Women, Keri'at Hatorah, and Aliyyot by Aryeh Frimer and Dov Frimer in the Winter 2013 volume of Tradition.)

What is amazing is that according to Rabbi Krieger this intimate connection between the performer and the one being assisted in the mitzvah can be accomplished even if the two parties are at very different physical locations via the telephone or even a radio broadcast. Obviously, this would only be true of a live broadcast where one is actually reading the Megillah or reciting Havdalah but a recording of the mitzvah act via the phonograph or more modern recording devices would have no halachic significance. To put this in a modern context, Rabbi Krieger is stating that a virtual connection between two parties using technology creates an actual halachic connection. One priviso is that this only works for mitzvot which are fundamentally performance based like reading the text of the Megillah or reciting Havdalah. Mitzvot that are listening mitzvot like listening to Tekiat Shofar cannot be accomplished through a technological medium since such a sound would be likely considered to be merely an echo and not the real sound of the Shofar.

The ruling in this Teaneck synagogue updates this idea for the 21st century. Live streaming events which includes both video and audio compenents can create an even more intimate connection between the viewer and the performer than audio only technologies like the telephone. One can actually feel like one is there and in certain halachic cases this virtual presence is significant. Obviously the details of which acts would be sufficient through this virtual connection and which require one to be physically present in the synagogue would require a careful analysis of the halachic decision which cannot be done by reading a newspaper article but the principle is clear. Being virtually present at an event can create in many ways the same connection as going to the event in person.

This concept in the halachic realm has tremendous ramifications in everyday teaching as well. Where does one need to be in physical space in order to be present? This is a question that I have thinking a lot about lately. I am not just talking about the occasional snow day which I blogged about last month.

Recently in my school there have been two instances where we have been establishing genuine student teacher relationships virtually. 

We had one student who was out for an extended time due to surgery and we scheduled her to Skype into most of her classes. All we needed technically was to give another student who shared all of her classes an iPad dedicated to Skyping the student in. This student was able to genuinely be a part of class and even participate in the classroom discussions all from the comfort of her home. This technology is already pervasive and becoming progessively more advanced. In The White House Student Film Festival, there was one selection by the David Posnack Jewish Day School about a student with a long term illness who "attends" all of his classes using a video conferencing unit connected to a robot which "walks" from class to class and even attends lunch. You can watch this amazing video below.

In another situation, we had a teacher who won a research fellowship to spend the rest of the school year in Israel. Rather than only giving the students a sub, this teacher has continued to teach her classes using Skype. The setup once again could not have been simpler. Since the classroom computer already includes a webcam, it has only involved installing Skype and turning the computer to face either the class or the front of the room depending on the classroom activity. The students still have a substitute teacher who is very capable technologically who co-teaches the class with the virtual instructor. In many ways, the kids have the best possible educational situation since they continue to connect with their master teacher who they know and love while getting increased support in the classroom from the teacher in the room whose job is not to give over the material but to make sure that the students understand it.

These examples of virtual teaching and learning beg the question, what are the limits of this virtual presence and how does one define being present in a digital age?

I believe that the halachic decision regarding the virtual minyan can provide a template for an answer. One who is watching the prayer service virtually can be involved in many halachically significant ways. He might even fulfill his obligation for hearing the reading of the Torah or the Megillah and reciting many blessings. But he is not counted for the minyan by virtue of his virtual presence. He has to be in the synagogue to be counted for the prayer quorum.

Likewise, these virtual learning spaces can create lasting and meaningful connections between teachers and students. But this does not lessen the need for a brick and mortar school where most of the learning takes place. The virtual experience is meaningful and wonderful when it facilitates learning interactions that would not be possible due to geographic distance or other extenuating circumstances. But it is still virtual. It cannot replace the face to face interaction between students and between the student and her teacher. A physical presence is still required to foster many lasting learning experiences.

I can give an example to illustrate this from this past week. On Thursday, the school Internet almost came to a screeching halt. Why? Everyone was streaming March Madness. As technology changes, one can now watch the NCAA Basketball tournament from anywhere on any device. But there is something special about watching it together with your friends (while sneaking out of class) in school. It is the shared experience of watching an event in physical proximity to others. Students will look fondly back on this first day of this yearly ritual as Yaron Weitzman writes about touchingly in this posting. This I think is the primary mission of education in general and brick and mortar Jewish day schools in particular, to foster shared learning experiences; to bring together teachers and students in an atmosphere of shared comraderie and intellectual exploration. This can be augmented by virtual experiences but the virtual presence can never replace being physically present in the classroom.

We have experienced this as teachers as well. (Enter my shameless plug for Jedcamp.) Many of us have created rich online communities through our PLNs on Twitter or Facebook, through Jedchat, Jedlab, and the granddaddy of online Jewish educator communities, Lookjed and the list goes on and on. The virtual interactions are very valuable to me as I know they are for many of my friends and colleagues. But there is something uniquely human and special about physical meetups. One low cost model that has become especially rewarding for me is Jedcamp. (It's free!) So please join us for our next JedcampNJNY which will take place in Yeshivat Noam on May 4th. You can register here. I know there will also be ways to virtually connect with this event. Your virtual presence would be rewarding and most appreciated but at the same time there is nothing like sharing with your fellow teachers in this physical space. I hope to see you all at Jedcamp. May The 4th Be With You ;)