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Swampscott temple creates a virtual memorial

A Swampscott temple has designed a quiet, comforting space where members can mourn departed loved ones in a decidely modern way

Lizzy Finer of Swampscott and her brother Alex use the kiosk in the rembembrance room at Congregation Shirat Hayam.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Lizzy Finer of Swampscott and her brother Alex use the kiosk in the rembembrance room at Congregation Shirat Hayam.

SWAMPSCOTT — Yom Kippur begins at sundown Friday, and as the day of atonement, it is one of the four holidays of the year when Jews hold a service to remember the departed.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The virtual remembrance kiosk at the Remembrance room at Congregation Shirat Hayam, where people can push a button a call up the person's name, date of death and any photos or videos that a relative has chosen to add to the person's profile.

After Yizkor — the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead — is recited on Saturday, members of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott will have a new option. The conservative temple has just completed a memorial alcove adjacent to its sanctuary that contains a plasma computer screen, soft white chairs, and dimmed lighting.

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Once inside, congregants can touch the big screen and type in the name of a relative or friend. Within seconds, the person’s English and Hebrew names will appear, along with their date of death. Over the next year, temple officials plan to create scrapbooks of people’s lives, working with congregants to add videos, music, photos, and just about anything else a member wants to include about a loved one.

On a recent afternoon, Lizzy Finer, 16, of Swampscott, visited the synagogue with her brother Alex, 13, and planned to meet with the cantor. But she was drawn to the white room, and soon was looking up the name of an uncle. She found the white colors in the room calming, and said it was comforting that relatives could live on through the touch of a button. A database with detailed family history could help bring the community closer, she said.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Architect Wendy Polins explains the virtual remembrance kiosk in the Remembrance room she helped create at Congregation Shirat Hayam.

“I think it’s really important to know where these families who belong to the congregation come from, and what that means for our Jewish religion,” said Finer, a junior at Milton Academy.

Given today’s technology, a name and a date of death on a screen may sound primitive, but in synagogues — stretching from America to Israel — the standard way to memorialize a relative for the last century has been to etch a name on a bronze plaque and place it on a wall. These walls, known as yahrzeit (Yiddish for anniversary) boards, served as a reminder for a family member to come to synagogue and say a prayer on the anniversary of the death, and also helped the temple raise money.

“I think it’s a matter of time before every synagogue offers it, just like websites,” said Rabbi Baruch HaLevi, spiritual leader of Shirat Hayam.

‘At first people were horrified by the idea of a virtual Yizkor memorial, but when you start to talk it through it makes a lot of sense.’

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Temple leaders are hoping the alcove, with its comfy leather seats and technology, will introduce a new way to celebrate a person’s life.

While marking the anniversary of a death has Talmudic roots, putting up memorial plaques has evolved as a custom and has no ties to Jewish law.

“At first people were horrified by the idea of a virtual Yizkor memorial, but when you start to talk it through it makes a lot of sense, because there is nothing ancient or inherently holy about the bronze plaques,” said HaLevi.

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Congregation Shirat Hayam CEO Robert Krentzman, and Archetecht Wendy Polins stand outside the Rembembrance room.

Shirat Hayam has been tweaking traditional Judaism since it was created after the merger of Temple Israel and Temple Beth El in 2005. It has shifted its weekend Hebrew School classes from Sunday to Saturday, and created a Sabbath experience where as many as 12 events — from a traditional service to a yoga session — are offered. The services are streamed live on the Internet (they call it “shulcasting”) and by early Saturday afternoon, the energy reaches a peak when a full electric band cranks out Hebrew and English songs. In the sanctuary, hundreds of people stand and clap, and sometimes dance.

Following the merger, the new congregation planned to build an extension for the more than 1,000 memorial plaques that had hung in the two temples. But a fund-raising effort came up short, and the plaques are sitting in Shirat Hayam’s basement. Still, HaLevi and others believed the dead could be memorialized in a way that would merge tradition and technology.

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said the move toward a virtual Jewish memorial is consistent with the religion’s rituals surrounding death. “I’m sure that if this is a success and popular, then many will seek to emulate it,” he said.

According to Sarna, synagogue services that honor the dead are among the most well attended of the year. “If it were not for the culture of memorialization, synagogues would be a lot more empty,” he said.

Wendy Polins, a Swampscott architect and a Shirat Hayam member, designed the memorial alcove. Less than 300 square feet, the space has a light, intimate feel. The walls, chairs, and sofa are white, and the halogen lights — which can be dimmed to watch the videos — are attached to a stainless steel grid in the shape of the Star of David.

“A little plaque with a light bulb seems very antiquated at this point,” said Polins. “We’re used to seeing things on a screen, and we live in a world that is very interactive — even if it’s not face to face. To have a complete memory of somebody — where you can listen to their music, see video clips of them, hear their voice — is great.”

Robert Krentzman, Shirat Hayam’s chief executive officer, plans to pitch to congregants over the Jewish holidays the virtues of making a video and creating a file of music, pictures, and stories that future generations can view and hear. The synagogue has yet to contract with a production company but plans to begin making videos in the coming months. He said the revenue from the videos would help sustain the temple.

HaLevi, the rabbi, believes the space will become a destination, especially for those who are coming to services specifically to mark the anniversary of a family member’s death.

“A yahrzeit plaque, in and of itself, would never be enough to get a family to get up and come here,” he said. “I think this has the power to accomplish that.”

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.
com
. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.
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