It’s not what you’d expect from an Orthodox Jewish community. But with the Rivkins – a father and two sons, all rabbis – the unexpected is the norm. A year ago September, the leaders of Young Israel of Tampa, a Chabad Lubavitch community of about 300 members, decided if YouTube was good enough to spread the word in the secular world, it was good enough to deliver their centuries-old message to those outside their flock. Fifty-eight short videos and nearly 78,000 views later, the Rivkins know they made the right decision.
“It’s been an amazing tool for us,” says Uriel Rivkin, 31, who oversees Young Israel’s University of South Florida branch. “Are people coming to our services and events because they’ve seen us on the Internet? Absolutely. This was the right thing to do.”‘What’s YouTube?’
The patriarch of the rabbinical family needed a little prodding at first. Not that Lazer Rivkin is afraid to try something different – years ago, he was the first local rabbi to lead a Sunday afternoon Jewish show on public radio – but YouTube was new territory. When Phil Levy, faculty adviser at USF’s Chabad House, first approached his spiritual leader with the idea of producing original film clips for the Internet, Rivkin, 58, had but one question.
After all, “I come from the ’60s and ’70s, when computers came in big boxes and required cards to operate,” he says.
Levy persisted. It really didn’t take much because when you are seeking potential converts for a lesser-known sect of the Jewish faith, you need to be proactive. That’s a hallmark of the Lubavitchers, who actively promote their Hasidic Jewish traditions through community outreach and education.
Although there’s no mention of YouTube in the Old Testament, Rivkin began to see the light as to its endless possibilities.
And so it came to the rabbi: Use what tools God has given us in this modern age. Use them properly, and they will bear much fruit.
Here’s a sampling of what you’ll see from the amateur filmmakers: “Rabbi Rivkin Teaches Talmud,” “Multilingual Yom Kippur Greetings,” “New Torah in Tampa,” “Purim Message,” “Rabbi Rivkin on the Meaning of Kaddish,” “How to Put on a Tallis” and “Chanukah on Ice.”
A standout for Uriel was the trio’s first YouTube production: his father blowing the shofar and the explanation for the High Holy Day ritual.
“That’s the one that really got us going,” he says. “People found us accidentally on the Internet, and we got their attention. So we responded to ideas and came up with a few of our own.”
A Way To Explain Tradition
His father, who came from Montreal more than three decades ago to plant Chabad Lubavitch branches, is completely sold on the 21st century concept. It’s an opportunity to visually explain why the men wear facial hair, why the sexes sit apart in the synagogue and why followers strictly observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. They use the clips for demonstrations on how to perform specific Orthodox rituals and explanations of the meanings behind Jewish holidays.
YouTube’s newest convert is now one of its biggest supporters.
“The main thing is we can reach any human being who can’t get out of the house or who lives too far away to get to our services. They can tune in 24 hours a day to get some Jewish thought … and help them make a connection to the roots of their faith,” the elder Rivkin says.
And for those who know nothing about the faith, who stumble upon the site while surfing the Net late at night, that’s just another bonus.
“Judaism is a universal religion that speaks to all humanity,” Rivkin insists. “Other religions have drawn from it and have transmitted its basic values in many ways. We like it when people are curious about us and ask questions. They’ll see we have much more in common than not.”
To see the videos, go to the group’s Web site at www.youngisraeloftampa.org and click on YIT YouTube Movies.