As we imagine together what the future of prayer and learning looks like (post pandemic), most agree that, halachic considerations aside, online engagement is here to stay. Many will acknowledge that the opportunities presented by digital engagement far outweigh the challenges and that digital participation in Jewish life is, on balance, a tremendous boon for sharing spiritual connection, rich learning, and for building community.
Whether we use meeting platforms such as Zoom and Meet or streaming platforms like YouTube and Facebook, there are important discussions and decisions to be had as we envision how to transition back into our physical sanctuaries while not losing what we have gained in the past year. Below I’m going to share three ways of approaching this new moment in Jewish life: Physical First, Digital First, and Hybrid. Each of these approaches has their own challenges and each offers a unique experience for our participants.
Prayer and Football
Prayer has often been compared to an NFL football game. At a big game, you have 50,000 people who desperately need physical exercise watching 50 people who really don’t - run around. At our big services, you have 200 people who desperately need spiritual exercise, watch two people who really don’t flex their spiritual muscles.
As it turns out the analogy doesn’t end there. Think about the ways we can experience a big football game. Some of us will be there physically - in the stands. Most of us will be watching from home or with friends. The experiences we will have if we are in the stadium or in our family room are radically different but both can be powerful and joyful. There is an energy and sense of community in the stadium; you can hear the roar of the crowd and meet your friends at a kiddush (tailgate).
From the comfort of your home or a gathering with friends, you get to watch the game from the best video angles, with commentary, and additional digital content - all of which greatly enhance your experience. What you are lacking in energy from the presence of 50,000 of your closest friends, you gain in intimacy, accessibility, and digital content creativity.
The production of a big football game, while a hybrid approach with people there in person and participating digitally, is very much focused on the digital experience. Even the people there, in person, rely on the digital experience as shown on the big screens in the stadium.
So what will our spiritual "superbowls" look like? Will we focus, as we always have, on the experience that our in-person participants have? Will we focus on creating the best experience for our digital participants and allow the natural energy of the room and the gathering take care of our physical participants? Or will we strive to create a true hybrid experience in which we treat both our physical and digital participants as equally deserving of the best experience possible?
Digital vs. Virtual
It's important before we go any farther to make an important distinction. In this guide I discuss "digital" experiences rather than "virtual" experiences. That's intentional. A "virtual" experience is, "almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition", while a "digital" experience is "involving or relating to the use of computer technology."
When we do this right, there is nothing "virtual" about our offerings. They are just as meaningful, joyful, educational, and spiritual as our "physical" offerings. It may be a tiny detail to use "digital" instead of "virtual" but let's set our expectations high and not allow ourselves to ever compromise and only offer something that is "almost or nearly as described."
Let’s take a look at each of these approaches and some of the considerations of each.
To create the best experience for our physical participants while still allowing our digital participants to access our offerings, albeit, in a limited way.
The physical first approach does not necessarily worry about making your digital participants feel as if they are part of the community or experience. As your focus is on those who are sitting, physically, in front of you, the physical first approach simply seeks to send a feed of whatever you are presenting out to those who can’t be there in person. There is no interactivity and no real participation from those online.
For those of us who don’t like change, this may be the easiest approach to take. By simply setting up a simple stream to Facebook or YouTube with one or more cameras (Logitech C920 or Smartphone) and audio from your in house mixer using an audio interface (Focusrite Scarlett 2i2) or wireless mic (Rode Wireless GO II), you can stream your services to whomever wants to watch online.
To create the best experience for our digital participants, allowing them to engage fully and be active participants while at the same time, inviting physical participation.
In a digital first approach, the emphasis is on the stream sent out digitally and the engagement level with your digital participants. A digital first approach is challenging when you have the presenters or leaders in a public space with other participants. It is best implemented when you can control the environment, the video, and the audio quality of your presenters/leaders.
Creating a digital first experience requires a focus on the quality of the stream you are sending out and how you are engaging your digital participants. The use of multiple camera angles that spotlight the leaders, the liturgy and the ritual symbols used (i.e. Torah reading) can give your participants unique perspectives throughout your offering. You will want to use high-definition cameras. If the distance isn't too far from the camera to the person/object, consider using a mirrorless or DSLR camera (I use the Sony a6400). For longer distances and better control, you might consider a PTZ (Pan, Tilt, Zoom) camera (PTZ Optics has some wonderful cameras.)
Having dedicated, high quality audio for the leaders that is mixed and balanced appropriately is an absolute must. I would suggest dedicated lapel or over the ear microphones as opposed to bringing in the sound from your sanctuary amplification system.
As your digital audience will be participating in your offering you will need to use a meeting platform such as Zoom or Google Meet instead of a streaming platform like Youtube or Facebook. To avoid audio feedback and echo, leaders should wear earbuds to be able to hear the digital participants. (If you do have people physically present in a digital first approach, having the leaders hear the digital participants using earbuds or in ear monitors will be odd, at best, for those participating in the physical space.)
It is equally important to have dedicated staff or volunteers to both facilitate and moderate the digital experience. In addition to your rabbi, cantor or shaliach tzibur, you may have one person switching cameras, scenes, and slides or lower thirds. You may have another engaging with participants through chat. The leader must recognize that the energy that naturally fills a room when people are physically present is not available in the digital space and so the leader’s focus on creating that energy in new and creative ways is vital.
To create an experience that is engaging for both physical and digital participants and one that creates a sense of community between and among these two groups of participants.
A truly hybrid experience is the most challenging of the three approaches as you must craft an experience that is equally engaging for your in-person and digital participants. Some of the challenges include audio considerations (feedback and echo), the cost of the additional technology needed, and the impact that the additional technology (cameras, screens, etc.) will have on the perceived sanctity of the space.
In a fully hybrid experience both groups (physical and digital) are seen and heard by the leader and one another (as appropriate) and both groups are able to participate fully in the experience (albeit in different ways). Like with the digital first approach, having multiple camera angles and high-quality audio is key for your digital participants to feel included.
The hybrid approach also requires the use of a meeting platform such as Zoom or Google Meet instead of a streaming platform like Youtube or Facebook so that participants can be heard and seen just as your physical participants can be. This requires the use of screens in the sanctuary for both the leaders and physical participants to be able to see those online and, possibly, the placement of a camera facing the physical participants so they can be seen by those at home also. (It is important to note that the use of cameras in the sanctuary or classroom may be off putting to some of your physical participants. It will be important to consider how to accommodate those who do not wish to be in view of any camera shots.)
Audio is one of the most challenging aspects of the hybrid approach. Having those at home hear what is happening in the physical space is relatively easy - having those in the physical space hear what is happening in the digital space is more challenging as you have to deal with potential echo and feedback. For lack of a better solution, best practice would be to have a dedicated sound person who can facilitate muting and unmuting of Zoom and, just as important, mute the in-house microphones when someone from Zoom is speaking.
It is important to have dedicated staff or volunteers to both facilitate and moderate the digital experience. In addition to your rabbi, cantor or shaliach tzibur, you may have one person switching cameras, scenes, and slides or lower thirds. You may have another engaging with participants through chat. The leader must recognize that the energy that naturally fills the physical room will not necessarily translate to the digital space and so the leader’s focus on creating that energy for the digital participants is vital.