The sun has barely risen over the American heartland as Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn settles down in an armchair in his study in Overland Park, Kansas, places a laptop on his knees and prepares to lead Shabbat morning services.
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For his congregants, spread out in diverse locations thousands of miles away, it is much later in the day. Some are sitting in Internet cafes in the Amazon jungle, waiting for his image to appear on their screens. Others are gathered in makeshift synagogues on the outskirts of Mexico City and just beginning to log on. For a small group across the Atlantic Ocean in Spain and Portugal, it is way past the hour for reciting the traditional Shaharit services, but they’re happy to join in.
Almost all the members of this virtual synagogue are converts, most of mixed race. Some have not yet completed the conversion process. A fair number are out-of-the-closet homosexuals. One, sitting in his home somewhere in Colombia, is a former Roman-Catholic priest.
Ostracized by their families and friends for leaving the fold, most of these Jews of choice have not been made to feel particularly welcome in synagogues either, which even where they can be found tend to serve those born into the faith.
It is to provide these individuals, whom he regards as lost Jewish souls, with a sense of community that Cukierkorn, a Brazilian-born Reform rabbi, created Brit Braja, the first virtual synagogue in the world that streams Shabbat prayer services in Spanish and Portuguese. It is also one of the few, if not the only, virtual synagogue not affiliated with a brick-and-mortar place of worship.
“No, it’s not an ideal situation,” says Cukierkorn. "More like kissing through glass. But for the meantime, it’s better than nothing.”
For the past year and a half, Cukierkorn has been live-streaming Shabbat morning services every week, first in Spanish at 7 A.M. and then in Portuguese at 10 A.M., to a group of about 50 people scattered around the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world. About 30 of them have formed their own congregation in a small apartment outside Mexico City, from where their images are streamed live as well.
“People who log on have the choice of setting up their screen so they can either see just me, just the group in Mexico or have a split screen and watch me in Kansas and them in Mexico,” explains Cukierkorn.
His inspiration, he says, was the great Jewish philosopher and scholar of medieval times, Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, who did not allow great distances to come between him and his followers.
“The Rambam used the 'iggeret', or 'letters sent by messengers,' to communicate with them. The webcast is the modern-day iggeret,” says Cukierkorn.
Digital sermonizing is not his full-time job. For the past 12 years, Cukierkorn has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Greater Kansas City, a congregation of about 100 families. Like many Reform synagogues, it only holds Shabbat services on Friday nights, leaving Cukierkorn free on Saturday mornings for his other pursuits.
In the 18 years since his ordination, Cukierkorn has overseen roughly 500 conversions, mostly of individuals in Latin America who maintain they are the descendants of "anusim," or "forced converts." And even if they aren’t, Cukierkorn says he’s convinced they possess Jewish souls.
“It wouldn’t make sense otherwise that they would be willing to endure so much suffering to go through this process,” he says.
It is from the ranks of these converts that his virtual synagogue was formed. And now he’s taking his project one step further, with plans to establish a virtual yeshiva for his congregation, to be launched toward the end of the year.
“The idea is to create through this yeshiva a cadre of Jewish community leaders in these places, so that eventually they can conduct services on their own and don’t need me," he says. "We’re talking about a program that would include at least 1,000 hours of classes and would require the participants to pass certain tests.”
In recent years, several virtual synagogues have been created around the United States as part of an effort to reach out to unaffiliated Jews. The best-known of these is OurJewishCommunity.org, set up by Congregation Beth Adam, a humanist Jewish congregation in Cincinnati. These congregations not only stream services from within the sanctuary but also ceremonies like the Passover seder.
Because Cukierkorn sees these virtual communities as a tool of last resort, he makes a point of holding a physical gathering with his congregants once a year in Mexico, where he takes advantage of the opportunity to perform life-cycle ceremonies, like bar mitzvahs and weddings. It’s also a chance for him to follow through with his pet project – bringing members of these isolated communities Judaica items they cannot obtain where they live.
“I tell people, ‘You know that mezuzah your mother-in-law brought you, the one you hate about as much as you hate her but can’t bear to throw it out. Give it to me, and I’ll find it a good home,’ says Cukierkorn.”
An image of the rabbi now appears on the screen, his dog curled up at his feet. It appears that everyone is also finally online and hooked up for the Shabbat morning-prayer service.
“Hola,” Cukierkorn greets his virtual congregants from his home in Wizard of Oz country.
“Shabbat Shalom haverim [friends],” Edgar Mendez, the former Catholic priest, chimes in.