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by Patricia Averbach

Virtually Jewish

Whereby a quirky online world inspires real-life Jewish engagement.

Jews have found an unlikely place for rebirth: online — in Second Life. Recently spotted at SL Synagogue were Jewish avatars (Javatars) Shmoo Snook, the rabbit who types with a Yiddish accent, and GruvenReuven Greenberg, decked out in Grateful Dead tzitzit…. In despair about ever finding that hipster shul? Get your Javatar on it.

Through the millennia Jews have created vital, supportive communities in myriad unlikely locations. So it was not surprising that when I wandered into the three-dimensional, computer-generated virtual world called Second Life, I found not only Second Life Synagogue, but a virtual “mitzvah mobile” already parked around the corner.

Second Life allows users to fall through their computer screens into a richly rendered world where they can interact with objects and other people in a surprisingly fluid and natural way through the mediation of an avatar — a virtual representation of oneself. It’s a varied environment with many of the same charms and opportunities, temptations and pitfalls, as real life. When first entering Second Life, some avatars simply enjoy the scenery, visiting virtual cities and museums like tourists anywhere. Others spend their first weeks shopping to upgrade their avatar’s wardrobe and appearance. Some head directly for the sex clubs, where they spend their “second lives” in an orgy of virtual sex.

The more fanciful might recreate themselves as small furry beings or fairies. But most people, interestingly, fashion second lives not terribly dissimilar from their real-life identities: The politically active join groups that promote real-life causes; the socially conscious work for sustainable energy or accessible healthcare; sailors join sailing clubs; actors find theaters; and nice Jewish girls do what they always do when they move to a new neighborhood. Join a synagogue.

I joined Second Life Synagogue in September 2008, just after the High Holy Days. Membership was free and no one hit me up for a contribution to the building fund, although there was an impressive structure that I imagined had been built and paid for by someone. I later learned that Second Life buildings cost almost nothing, but virtual land can be expensive, and, as in real life, there is no avoiding taxes. The latter are called “tiers” in SL, and they’re payable to Linden Labs, the real-life company in San Francisco that keeps all the invisible cogs and levers moving. Tiers are payable in “lindens,” the Second Life currency which trades for reallife U.S. dollars (as well as euros, yen or pounds) at the current exchange rate of 245 lindens to the U.S. dollar. I discovered that the monthly tier for the virtual land where the synagogue sits (as well as the community acreage around it, harboring such structures as, for example, seasonal sukkahs in a courtyard) is $195 U.S. dollars.

As soon as I joined Second Life Synagogue, blue note-cards began appearing in the upper-right-hand corner of my computer screen inviting me to attend virtual candle-lighting ceremonies on Friday afternoons, telling me that I still had time to enter the virtual sukkah-building contest, that Fish Fry Bingo would be playing a raunchy, Jewish-content concert live at The Ark, and that I could study Rashi at Yeshiva Modim with GruvenReuven Greenberg on Tuesday evenings.

I tore through my clothing inventory (an avatar’s virtual closet) until I found a modest skirt with a coordinating sweater, a pair of fashionable boots, and a tasteful pair of gold earrings — all items that I had acquired free at one of the many shops catering to new SL residents. Once I had my avatar dressed, I teleported to my first Second Life event. (N.B. To “teleport,” I clicked on the small blue box marked “map” at the bottom of my screen. A menu of landmarks appeared and I clicked on “Second Life Synagogue.” Immediately another box appeared asking if I’d like to teleport to this location. I clicked “teleport” and my screen went black. I could hear the sound of air rushing past as a blue horizontal bar began moving across the screen to let me know I was nearing my destination. As soon as the bar reached the far side of the screen, t h e lights flashed back on and I could see my avatar standing in the synagogue.) About a dozen avatars were already gathered at the back of the shul where five sets of candles were ablaze, having been lit by avatars from earlier time zones.

The crowd was diverse. There was a guy in shorts and a T-shirt with a Jewish star on the front; GruvenReuven Greenberg was there in a black shtreimel (the fur hat worn by Hasidim), tzitzit (the traditional fringed garment), and a Grateful Dead shirt; and Jieux Shepherd was dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a Groucho Marx nose, moustache and glasses. One female avatar was dressed for a Japanese tea ceremony, and several others were wearing what might charitably be called “club clothes,” so skimpy they were virtually naked. An angel with enormous wings was hogging more than her share of available space, while Shmoo Snook, a dapper but diminutive rabbit, was heckling a guy in a cowboy hat. (N.B. If you have a microphone and a headset, you can participate in live-voice conversations that can be heard by everyone in the room; if you don’t, you can type comments in your chat box that will appear on the bottom of the screen for everyone to see. Private conversations may be conducted in IM or via SL phone calls.) I stood there in my Hadassahlady getup feeling more conspicuous than I ever had in my life.

The conversation kept returning to a single overriding concern, “Where’s Beth? Has anyone seen Beth? Is Beth coming?” Comments were made in a free-for-all of typing and live voice, the banter friendly, teasing, and often profane. Someone had just proposed that if Beth didn’t show, we could simply “pretend” to light the candles — Beth was the only one who knew how to make the virtual candles actually flicker and glow — when a petite, dark-haired avatar wearing a plaid shirt and overalls landed on top of the lady in the flowered kimono. Awkward entrances are a common Second Life occurrence.

Beth apologized for being late. One of her kids had been rushed to the emergency room because of a real-life mishap, but she’d made it back in time to bless the virtual candles with us. (Actually, this was only one of the six virtual-candle lightings she presides over each Friday, allowing observant avatars from different time zones to participate without violating the Sabbath.) Beth greeted several of the congregants, reminded us that she’d be playing a bluegrass concert in The Ark — the neighborhood hot spot — at 8:00 SLT (Second Life Time — otherwise known as Pacific Standard Time), then streamed the music that accompanies the blessing over the candles.

The room grew silent and respectful as the angel, the cowboy, the rabbit, the disco queens, and the Hadassah lady watched Beth perform the magic that makes the virtual candles flicker to life. “Baruch Atah Adonoi, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel shabbat” appeared in the chatbox at the bottom of my screen. “Amen,” typed the angel, “amen,” typed the cowboy, “amen, amen, amen,” added each avatar in turn. “Omein,” typed Shmoo, the rabbit who types with a Yiddish accent. Jieux Shepherd passed out free bottles of “wearable mani” (miniature bottles of Manischewitz wine) that attached to our hands when we clicked on them and animated our avatars to drink. ( Jieux had bought the Manischewitz as well as its facility to enact guzzling.) We resembled an AA meeting that had tripped and fallen down all 12 steps as the last bars of “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” faded from our computer speakers.

“Shabbat shalom!” “Shalom haverim,” “Gut Shabbos,” appeared in the dialogue box at the bottom of my screen as the members of SL Synagogue wished one another a peaceful Sabbath.

I sat at my computer in a suburb of Cleveland feeling warmed by the fellowship and quirky religious observance I’d just shared in a virtual world. I switched off my computer and went downstairs to light real Sabbath candles with my husband for the first time since our children had grown up and left home. Some months later, speaking with Beth, I learned that 75 SL Synagogue members had told her they started lighting real-life Sabbath candles after lighting them in Second Life.

There are many places to visit in Second Life, but SL Synagogue remains the place I feel most welcome. At first I was primarily a voyeur — I didn’t have the technical skills or experience necessary to function as a full participant — and the natural shyness that inhibits me in real life followed me to this world as well. On the holiday of Sukkos, I wandered in and out of the sukkahs being erected in the courtyard outside the synagogue and was charmed by their eclectic mix of traditional fruits, lulavs and etrogs [ritual fronds of myrtle, willow and palm, and citrons], fanciful art, meditation cushions, and tables suspended in mid-air. (Why? because people in Second Life aren’t bound by real-life constraints such as tradition or gravity.)

The courtyard hummed with activity as avatars worked on their various projects, chatting, asking each other for help, and running in and out of one another’s sukkahs to admire and advise. Something genuinely Jewish and communal was happening here. My definition of “real” began to shift and to stretch. I started to think, maybe it does depend on what your definition of “is” is.

Central to all this activity was the omnipresent Beth Odets (her avatar’s name), clearly the queen bee of this bustling hive. An early resident of Second Life, the real-life Beth Brown first arrived as an artist curious about working in three dimensions. She bought the virtual landmass on which the synagogue was built in June 2005, and dubbed it TMA for “Tragically Misunderstood Artist.” She spent the next year playing, learning, and networking in Second Life without any particular agenda — certainly not a Jewish one. Then in August 2006 she created a synagogue just because she wanted to show some non- Jewish friends what a synagogue felt like.

Second Life Synagogue was created from Beth’s memory of all the synagogues she’d ever known. She lined the walls with large mosaic murals, made rows of pews facing a raised bimah, and left out the gender-segregated seating that would mark it as an Orthodox house of worship. A ner tamid, or eternal light, burns above the ark and two giant candelabras with crayon-colored candles stand to either side. The wall behind the ark appears to be made from iridescent glass that permits a muted view of trees swaying in the courtyard.

Beth listed the synagogue as a Second Life location, advertising its existence to all SL residents. (In other words, if a person went into “search” and typed the word “Jewish” or “synagogue,” a photo of the new synagogue would appear along with an offer to teleport the resident to its location.) Without realizing it, she’d created the first Jewish content in Second Life. It took only two days for a nascent Jewish community to begin coalescing around the new structure. Curious avatars, soon dubbed “Javatars,” began wandering in from Great Britain, South Africa, Australia, Israel, Germany, Argentina, Spain, and every time zone in the US. Beth welcomed the newcomers, showed them around, answered questions, and soon knew many of their real-life names and stories. Beth’s openness about her own real life, combined with her non-judgmental attitude and excellent listening skills honed by her real-life training as a social worker, invites people to share information with her that is usually kept secret in Second Life.

I interviewed some of SL Synagogue’s 1,123 current members for this article and found out a little about their real lives.

There’s Chaim Teichman (in Second Life, we only use avatar names) who grew up knowing he was Jewish, but with no understanding of what that meant. Fifteen members of Chaim’s family were lost in the Holocaust, leaving deep scars on the family psyche. Chaim’s father moved his family to a small town in upstate New York with no viable Jewish institutions and threatened to disown his children if they ever became religious. Chaim, a college student, snuck into SL Synagogue behind his father’s back, more furtively than if he’d been perusing porn sites.

Namav Abramovitz is a little older, in his mid-twenties. He’s been wheelchair-bound and hooked to a respirator for the past 10 years, a victim of mitochondrial myopathy. He attended university where he earned a B.A. in creative writing, but he’s home now, in Mobile, Alabama, and isolated from other young adults. Although Namav spends his days productively at his computer working as an advocate for people with disabilities, he longs for friends who share his background and interests. His family belongs to a local synagogue, but Namav’s disabilities make it difficult for him to attend services or other programs.

GruvenReuven Greenberg is a middle-aged Hasidic Jew who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. He came to Second Life out of curiosity, just to look around. A computer techie and old Grateful Dead fan, Gruven had the skills and imagination to see the educational opportunities in Second Life. He got permission from Beth (that’s how SL works — she owns the shul) to build a replica of the Kotel [Western Wall] beside the synagogue with links to the weekly Torah parsha [synagogue reading], the daily Daf-Yomi [Talmud portion], and the medieval commentaries of Rashi. Gruven set up a tzedakah [charity] box that collects donated lindens for Kolel Chabad Charities, and he established SL Synagogue’s Yeshiva Modim to study religious texts.

It soon became evident that Beth’s virtual synagogue was filling real needs for Jewish education and fellowship. From the beginning, members were liberal and Orthodox, secular and religious, political and artistic. Beth explains that she “had to proceed very carefully to make sure that I didn’t do anything disrespectful. For example, we don’t do any actual services, so there’s no inter-denominational tension. Yeshiva boys will come to my bluegrass concerts if I do them on Saturday night, and there’s always a crazy mix of people who would never meet in real life sitting around Jieux Shepherd’s Mitzvah Bar getting virtually wasted together.” (That’s an outdoor bar, on the synagogue’s grounds, that belongs to Jieux — who’s from New Orleans — where patrons can hang out and buy liquor.)

Within a short time the synagogue grew into a Jewish neighborhood that embraced GruvenReuben’s Kotel, an art gallery, a live-music venue (that sometimes has music with some Jewish content), a meditation circle, Yeshiva Modim, Jieux Shepherd’s Mitzvah Bar, the headquarters for 2Life — the magazine for Javatars — and a Jewish store that sells virtual color-changing yarmulkes, mezuzot, prayer shawls, tzitzit, Shabbos candles, and Magen David necklaces.

Soon there were menorah lightings at Chanukah, a virtual Passover Seder — complete with traditional hunt for the afikomen [ritually broken piece of matzah] — and a wild party at Purim that included a ride on a virtual roller coaster. The community remembered Kristallnacht with a moving exhibit of real photographs by 2Life editor Kafka Shnabel which gave testimony to lost Jewish communities in small towns near Kafka’s real-life childhood home in Germany.

Jewish content began to appear in other areas of Second Life, too, particularly sites related to Israel. In 2007, Chaim Landau (his real name), a Legacy Heritage Fellow at the European Union of Jewish Students — known as Hagibor Shepherd in Second Life (no relation to Jieux) — asked Beth, based on her success in TMA, to work with him to create SL Israel. SL Israel opened that December and was an immediate success. Javatars and other well-wishers celebrated Israel’s 60th birthday on the new virtual land that highlighted the country’s historic, cultural, and technological achievements.

Beth became a Second Life celebrity, interviewed in real life for online editions of the Jerusalem Post, Washingtonpost.com, USA Today, The Forward, and News21, among others. She was interviewed by the BBC and NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” and she has been featured, at one time or another, in most of the publications and TV shows produced in Second Life. In real life, Beth Brown is a 36-year-old divorcee with two young children who lives in Dallas where she’s not only a social worker, but an artist and musician.

Beth spends so much time in Second Life that her real-life family frequently drops by to visit with her there. I’ve chatted with her mom during a Fish Fry Bingo concert, met Beth’s daughter riding a virtual pony around the neighborhood, and found Beth’s father, an Israeli-born Texan, wandering around TMA calling out, “Beth! Beth!,” trying to deliver a real-life phone message.

No one compensates Beth financially for the innumerable hours she spends creating social and educational programming for strangers, and she foots the bill for the monthly tier of $195 out of her own pocket — well, plus the tips we drop into her virtual violin case at her bluegrass concerts.

In case you haven’t fully figured this out, things can get a little loopy beyond the borders of real life. For example, it is not uncommon for two avatars to marry and set up housekeeping together. Cleansweep Broom and Tam Hyun were married by Reb Moshe Zepedski under a virtual huppah, because neither could imagine a wedding without a traditional Jewish ceremony. Tam circled the groom seven times, the couple shared a cup of wine, and a ring was presented to the bride.

“Is it on?”

“Yes, I’m wearing it.”

“It’s hard to see.”

“You’re facing the wrong way.”

Reb Moshe blessed the couple in English and Hebrew as he explained each step of the service to the 32 guests gathered to witness the occasion, and then, of course, there was a joyful celebration with much drinking and dancing and platters of virtual food. An Internet radio station, Martini in the Morning, streamed music to the event with warm wishes to the newlyweds from the DJ, who played a love song in their honor.

The bride wore traditional white lace, while the groom was debonair in his black tuxedo and top hat. Most of the guests dressed in their finest for the occasion. Shmoo Snook, the rabbit, wore a tiny tuxedo with a bow tie that could change colors to match the color-changing flower in his lapel; a fairy brought her magic wand to bestow good wishes on the couple; and I came in a red gown with a flowing “flexi”-skirt that swished gracefully when I danced.

What does it mean to be married in Second Life? In their SL profiles, couples list their partners, and there is frequently a romantic snapshot of the two avatars locked in an embrace. They usually buy land and build virtual homes together. Many plight their troth — to persons they will never meet in real life — with great seriousness, and, as in real life, some marriages are more enduring than others.

A few avatars are married to one another in real life, though most are single or married to other people. I assume that a virtual marriage entitles the participants to virtual sex, which is easily accomplished with the assistance of animations. I don’t know anything about the real-life Tam and Cleansweep, but, according to their profiles, their marriage has lasted for nearly a year and must have been consummated because they are now the parents of two boys, Menachem and Ephraim. Reb Moshe officiated at the Bris. Mazel tov. As I said, things get loopy.

During the time I’ve spent in Second Life, I’ve watched a very real community grow, morph, change its cast of characters, and mature. Lovely Jewish sites have been built, and, sadly, many of them have disappeared. But new sites appear, and will continue to do so.

And, as in real life, not all the experiences in this ephemeral world have been uplifting. We’ve had to deal with “griefers” (that’s SL lingo) dressed in Nazi uniforms marching through our community and attempting to build a giant swastika in the sky above the shul. (One reports hate crimes or mischief to real-life Linden Labs who can ban trouble-makers from Second Life.) And SL Israel has been picketed by anti-Israel avatars.

Beth takes these incidents as an opportunity to teach and build bridges and has tried to turn ugly situations into constructive dialogue. During a particularly heated confrontation over the Gaza Strip, Beth “rezzed” (SL slang for making something appear) a table in SL Israel and coaxed several of the picketers to sit down and talk. The talk wasn’t particularly friendly and no solutions were found, but SL proved a safe place to speak and to be heard. I left the demonstration shaken by the confrontation and by the emotional stories from both sides.

I needed to calm down and organize my thoughts so I teleported over to SL Synagogue. It was late afternoon and no one else was there, my avatar took a seat facing the ark and prayed for peace as I watched virtual trees rustling in the virtual wind beyond the window.

Patricia Averbach, a freelance writer, served as executive director of The Chautauqua Writers’ Center. Her SL avatar lives in Etopia, a village dedicated to sustainable living. In real life, Pat lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.