It’s a sacred tradition on the Jewish Day of Atonement: Worshipers recite a list of sins, known as Al Chet, centuries-old wrongdoings like “proud looks,” “prattle of our lips,” and “deceiving a fellow man.”
This year, at Harvard University, the Yom Kippur ritual takes to the Twittersphere.
Congregants at Harvard Hillel have been asked to submit their own sins via Twitter with the hashtag #AlChetHarvard. Their messages of wrongdoing will be read alongside the traditional text during services Tuesday and Wednesday at Harvard’s Memorial Church.
The Tweet-your-confession initiative illustrates a trend in Jewish communities to use technology to connect with young people.
“Some people may not think this is appropriate,” said 20-year-old Alexandra Booth, a Harvard junior and cochairwoman of the Reform Minyan, the Harvard Hillel community sponsoring #AlChetHarvard. “But it’s about being inclusive and giving everyone the option to best engage with this special and important time in their own way.”
‘There’s a really important aspect of this — of finding support and community online.’
Only a few #AlChetHarvard Tweets have been uploaded.
“For the sin we have committed against you by not living out our values,” wrote one user Friday. Another posted, “For the sin we have committed against you by not listening to our hearts!”
Tweets will be accepted until Tuesday morning, just before Yom Kippur services start. The idea came from junior Michael Gil, 21, the other cochairman of the Reform Minyan, who said the traditional list can be challenging to absorb.
“It’s the confessions of the community, but it can feel very dated, I think,” Gil said. “People tend to feel like it’s not really something they’re connecting to.”
Soliciting contemporary resolutions for the Jewish new year is not new at Harvard Hillel, he said. For years, congregants have submitted reflections on cards with general thoughts such as, “I get too distracted by the unimportant things in life,” or more specific regrets like, “I should have studied harder for that final exam,” Gil said.
But collecting hundreds of notes proved cumbersome, and it was difficult soliciting submissions from congregants who only attended services on major holidays.
Gil said he hopes the incorporation of thoughtful Tweets in the service will help worshipers draw connections between ancient liturgy and the challenges present in their own lives.
After all, there’s not such a difference between the traditional sin of “disrespect for parents” and its contemporary analog, “I should call Mom and Dad more often.”
“For me, they seem like much more relatable things, smaller things that it seems reasonable that we can work on and improve on,” Gil said.
Harvard Hillel is not the only Jewish community to incorporate 140-character messages in holiday services: At Miami Beach’s Jewish Museum of Florida, during a Rosh Hashana service aimed at young adults, a rabbi asked congregants to anonymously text their goals, regrets, fears, and dreams, which were then projected onto a screen during the service.
Among local Jewish congregations, there are other forays into technology. Some temples have taken to live-streaming services online. The website JewishBoston.com has an “Ask a Rabbi” feature that answers e-mails from worshipers. The Riveryway Project, a Boston-based initiative aimed at connecting Jewish people in their 20s and 30s, asks members to submit holiday reflections via e-mail. The group’s director, Rabbi Matthew Soffer of Temple Israel, has conducted services using a prayer book app on his iPhone.
Soffer, rabbi at Temple Israel for two years, called actions like #AlChetHarvard “wonderfully provocative” because they integrate faith into the fabric of daily life.
“By writing it down, even by articulating it with just a few words, they themselves give meaning to a sacred moment in our calendar,” said Soffer. “Just because we’re tweeting or texting or e-mailing those words doesn’t mean they have any less potential for transcendence.”
Soffer said he expects older, more conservative members of the Jewish community to raise concerns about using Twitter as an avenue for spiritual communication. But, he argued, #AlChetHarvard takes the individualized focus of social media and uses it to bring people together.
David Levy, managing editor at JewishBoston.com, agreed that Twitter messages bolster, rather than undermine, the communal spirit of Yom Kippur.
“It’s very easy for people to look at something like this and say that it’s just young people shouting into the ether, but I don’t think that’s a fair characterization,” Levy said. “There’s a really important aspect of this, of finding support and community online.”
And Levy, who is 34, said even his own personal experiences suggest it will work.
“Look, I’m a product of my generation,” said Levy. “Discussing things in public on the Internet is way more comfortable than discussing things with a stranger face to face.”