Rabbi Yossi: How he convenes the faithful while social distancing

Elizabeth Moore

Oct 21, 2020

We may not think of religious leaders as bleeding-edge technologists, but Rabbi Yossi Lipsker challenges that notion. The executive director and founder of Chabad of the North Shore in the Boston area has spent years honing his virtual presence, from livestreaming on Facebook to cultivating devoted followings on Twitter and Instagram. And while he humbly refers to himself as “somewhat of a neophyte,” he has embraced new technology to help relate with his community while social distancing.

Since Covid was declared a global pandemic in March, Rabbi Yossi Lipsker has turned to virtual meetings to host all sorts of traditional interactions within his community. Lipsker has facilitated memorial services, overseen preschool graduations, and even bestowed names during two circumcisions via Zoom.

It’s no surprise the self-described “spiritual disruptor” became an eager early adopter of mmhmm after a close friend introduced it to him—he’s even enlisted the help of a younger friend (whom he calls a “Hasidic millennial”) to help him run the app using the Copilot feature while he speaks. “Technology isn’t inherently negative or positive; it is a vehicle for influence,” says Lipsker. “So let’s use it for positive influence,” he says. 

Technology is a vehicle for influence.
Rabbi Yossi with his guitar

To that end, Lipsker has been hard at work getting ready to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays this fall. With strict rules against using digital media during the holidays, he’s preparing before-and-after celebrations using mmhmm as an added tool. He sees it as a “nice stage with good background props” that help him “turn a basic seminar … into something extraordinary.”

He even used mmhmm to place himself in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem during a recent Zoom lecture that’s part of a series he’s calling On Ramp to the High Holidays. “It was excellent,” he says. “People messaged me and said they loved the ambiance of the class. It was not your average Zoom encounter.”

It was not your average Zoom encounter.
Rabbi Yossi wearing a mask

Lipsker is now using these virtual gatherings as a means to tackle what he sees as one of his most important challenges as a rabbi—“pushing the edges of whatever environment I’m in to see what it can deliver beyond what it’s meant to deliver.”

Sometimes, that means seeing a lot of people eat pizza on a screen while you’re trying to deliver a powerful message. (“Digital decorum” can be a steep learning curve for some, Lipsker laughs.) But it’s opened doors for him, too—like being able to lead a memorial service that, by being totally virtual, had mourners connecting from around the world in a way that he felt was uniquely powerful.

“The important part of what I do ... when it’s done, it’s done,” he says. “But with that service, I found myself wanting to stay a little longer together. I don’t remember ever having had that feeling before.”

Rabbi Yossi at the helm

Since Covid has severed many physical communications, he views the pandemic as an opportunity to look inward with surgical clarity—and to use tools like mmhmm to create good in the world. He plans to continue with hosting virtual meetings even after we can reconvene in person.

”Theologically, I believe that there’s something there that is powerful and that was, on some level, waiting and needing to be utilized to bring people together in a different way.”

You can follow Rabbi Yossi on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.