TORONTO — As the rabbi of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Cote St. Luc, Quebec, 46-year-old Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz not only gives sermons from the bimah, he has also found a way to offer words of wisdom through a virtual pulpit, by blogging.
A blog (short for “web log”) is a regularly updated journal on the Internet where people are invited to comment on entries. Rabbi Steinmetz is one of only a dozen rabbis in North America who have or operate a blog, a handful of them in Canada.
He refers to this ever-growing Internet tool as “the ultimate megaphone.” By opening this digital door, the rabbi has invited people all over the world into his shul, and into his head.
One of the many advantages he cites for having a blog is that his speeches can reach beyond the synagogue bulletin and the Montreal Jewish community.
“In this way, anyone anywhere can see something of interest to them,” he says. “A rabbi gets up on Shabbat, presumably because he has something to say, and on a blog, hopefully a lot more people can take a look at it.”
His blog, like most, includes archives of previous postings. Recent postings include an array of topics, such as how brand names are “junk food for the soul” that contribute to spiritual emptiness, and Jewish parents who pressure their children to achieve.
Part of what he says brought him to blogging five years ago was the opportunity to connect with a wide group of people of all religious spectrums, both Jewish and non-Jewish, although he is Orthodox.
“It’s something that could have a wide audience. It’s really just to connect with people and to share Shabbat morning sermons and basic Jewish wisdom for a good life,” he says.
His blog gets some 250 visitors a week, and that number is climbing.
He receives e-mail and visitors from North America, Europe, Australia, Kuwait, China and the United Kingdom.
“The web is an amazing way to connect, not just with congregants, but with the entire world,” he says.
Citing his congregants as his greatest source of inspiration and criticism, he says they often approach him with observations and commentary of their own. They inquire about his choice of subject, or suggest topics.
“This is co-authorship. People feel like they’re partners with you,” he says. “I think blogging is in some ways more approachable than a website or a sermon. It certainly offers people an opportunity to come back with comments.”
Rabbi Debra Landsberg, spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El in Toronto, expresses the same sentiment about her own two-year-old blog.
“I wanted to engage in conversation, albeit virtually, with my congregation about the Jewish universe – its vitality and diversity and challenges. I have been humbled by how this tool has served to build relationships with congregants I do not see face-to-face as often as I may like,” she says.
“As I thought about what needed to be said at the holy days, I knew there was much I couldn’t share with a congregation in a sanctuary setting. I was hungry for a more intimate mode of communication in which I could connect over thoughts both large and small.”
Recent posts have included a discussion on Rachel Papo, a U.S.-born Israeli photographer who took a series of photos of young women in the Israel Defence Forces. Another post discussed being engrossed by the prominent women of the U.S. Democratic party, such as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
An additional catalyst for blogging came when Rabbi Landsberg began to appreciate the spectrum of Jewish experiences in her life, such as being one of two Jews in a small town in Denmark, and living in New York and Jerusalem.
“I became acutely aware of the polyphony of voices that makes the Jewish world, all the more so that my father-in-law is from Vienna, Austria, and my mother-in-law is from Abadan, Iran,” says the 42-year-old.
Her goal of engaging Jews from around the world has been successful, she says – her blog is read as far away as Asia and Europe – and she also tries to engage and find illumination in Jews who have different beliefs from hers.
Two years ago, she began to participate in the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where she studied with a small group of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.
“We sit in a room with no agreement except text and the dates of the chagim. And not all of those can we agree on. I came to realize that although I am an impassioned liberal Jew, I am doing my beliefs a disservice if I don’t engage Jews whose identity is profoundly different than my own.”