Tens of thousands of people logged onto Zoom Wednesday for a giant interactive gathering honoring a late American Orthodox rabbi viewed as one of the most influential Jewish teachers, mentors and scholars of the 20th century.
To mark the 26th anniversary of the death of Menachem M. Schneerson, an estimated 100,000 participants logged in from North America, South America, Europe, Israel, South Africa and East Asia -- on 45,000 devices in all, according to Chabad, the branch of Hasidic Judaism Schneerson led. In 20 interconnected Zoom meetings, each representing a different community or region, viewers prayed, told stories, sang and studied passages from the Torah, or Hebrew bible.
The Zoom rooms connected to a central broadcast near the visitor center at "the Ohel," the site in Queens, New York, where Schneerson -- commonly known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe or simply as the Rebbe -- is buried. COVID-19 prevented many of the thousands who would ordinarily visit the site from traveling to pay tribute to the rabbi on or around the anniversary of his death on June 12, 1994, at age 92.
"The staff at Zoom told us they've never had a single event with so many virtual rooms connected with the same broadcast," Ronen Peled, the event's producer, told Chabad.org. "Until now, their platform had a cap of 1,000 people in a single room, or a webinar with 300 cameras but the rest are passive viewers and are not seen."
With the coronavirus pandemic limiting large in-person gatherings, tools like Zoom, Facebook Live and WhatsApp have proven essential to helping communities of faith uphold sacred traditions like Ramadan, Easter and Passover. Wednesday's broadcast, called "Barcheinu Avinu" (Remembering Our Father) required a production company and an extensive technical team on site and around the world. The event lasted about an hour and 45 minutes.
"Our focus is always to strengthen people's connection to the Rebbe's example and teachings, to be inspired to become closer to God and our fellow man," said Rabbi Levi Slonim, a member of the organizing committee. "This year, we needed to dig deeper and be more creative to accomplish our goal, but thank God the event was deeply moving and the sheer magnitude of it was breathtaking."
Large screens behind live speakers and performers near the Rebbe's burial site displayed gallery views of the Zoom rooms. Presenters included rabbis, as well as the children of families impacted by the pandemic. When a group of a capella singers took to the stage, they stood apart from one another in accordance with. A live feed showed worshippers praying for the health of humanity.
Schneerson was born in Russia, got married in Poland and escaped the Holocaust by reaching the US on the last civilian ship to make the trip during World War II. He is known and revered for revolutionizing the application of key Torah principles for the world at large and overseeing the transition of the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Judaism from a small Hasidic group to a global force known for broad outreach efforts. A small segment believed Schneerson to be the Messiah.
Wednesday's virtual function marks Chabad's continuing efforts to tap technology in creative ways. A humanoid robot helped light candles at one of Chabad-Lubavitch's public San Francisco Hanukkah parties, for example. And some 2,000 rabbis gathered in New York for a massive selfie at an annual international Lubavitcher meeting.