Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Mobile App to Scapegoat Your Sins

As Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Mark Miller has settled into his new job at the Bloomfield Township, Michigan Reform congregation, he has been looking for innovative ways to cause both excitement and a renaissance in Jewish learning for his congregants. Back at Beth Israel, Miller’s previous congregation in Houston, Texas, the rabbi became a fan of

Temple Beth El member, Cindy Bolokofsky using eScapegoat

G-dcast is an online nonprofit new media studio and Internet organization based in San Francisco that provides Jewish children and adults with the chance to learn the basics of Jewish education with no barriers to entry. Over the years, G-dcast has produced more than a hundred animated shorts and mobile apps that make Jewish stories come to life. In its effort to build Jewish literacy, G-dcast works with educators and rabbis to create innovative curriculum, interactive workshops and inspiring leadership in new media

Last year, G-dcast launched a mobile app called eScapegoat, which encouraged users to engage in deeper Jewish learning and to prepare for Yom Kippur by offloading their sins to a virtual goat. The idea was to create a very modern (mobile app) way to copy the ancient repentance ritual (scapegoat). In anticipation of this year’s Yom Kippur holiday, G-dcast brought the app back along with Mini Goats. These are local mini-apps that let smaller communities virtually re-enact this ritual for a new, high-tech learning and community connection.

“Since I’ve has been involved with G-dcast from nearly the beginning, I always get their notices about new stories, videos and apps, but this one stood out immediately, given the reality of translating Yom Kippur for a modern audience,” Miller explained. “I love taking ancient, anachronistic, out-of-date texts or rituals and finding new meaning in them. The scapegoat is a perfect example, and if nothing else, I hope people will see that this ancient ritual can still add something to their High Holy Day experience or even be, dare I say it, fun!”

Miller has a number of holiday-related apps on his phone and he says he will use some of them in a variety of settings, but especially in Temple Beth El’s religious school and its flourishing youth group. The rabbi uses technology every day – from checking Hebrew calendar dates to quick searches on a particular text or idea, to sharing and learning with colleagues across the country, to very specific educational tools that were not available even a few years ago.

With the Mini Goats feature of the eScapegoat app, Miller believes that when we spend the time to explain repentance and the very practical benefits it can have in strengthening families and building communities, people want to take part in it. “But it is intentionally a difficult process. I think this app will lower the barrier to this particular Jewish observance, and encourage some people to try it out.”

“Despite high synagogue attendance on Yom Kippur, literacy of the scapegoat story in Leviticus is very low,” said G-dcast founder and executive director Sarah Lefton. “This program is an easily accessible, fun way to engage people in thinking through the importance of personal and communal atonement rituals.”

Last year, G-dcast’s eScapegoat mobile app had 50,000 users who learned the fascinating, rarely discussed story of the scapegoat, submitted anonymous sins, and then read the sins of others in an interactive interface that integrates social media and real-world discussion. What’s impressive about the number of users in its inaugural year is that it is a mobile app with a very seasonal lifespan as most users only used it for two months out of the year.

Last year, G-dcast received reports of rabbis using eScapegoat in their synagogue programming in advance of the High Holy Days to encourage congregants to confess their sins. At Temple Sinai in Oakland, the rabbi even read some of the submissions from the pulpit on Yom Kippur. The G-dcast team realized that private, “walled-off” Mini Goats could be a powerful tool for communities because the interface encourages more sharing, which becomes more interesting within a smaller community. ” Lefton said. “It lets people see what’s bubbling in their own backyards – all the regrets are so much more powerful when you know they belong to your neighbors and friends. It also creates a safe and private place for younger users in school settings.”

Synagogues can purchase the Mini Goat package for $99, which includes a custom, private goat website that synagogues (or organizations) can moderate with a login, a virtual goat with the community logo, space on the mini-site to include community event info (promote classes, Yom Kippur service times, etc., and inventive curricular support materials including activities for different age cohorts. A “Goat-in-a-Box” option is even available for an additional $49, which includes an assortment of marketing materials such as eScapegoat posters, tote bags, stickers, and temporary tattoos.

Over 30 day schools, synagogues, and other organizations across the country have signed up for Mini Goats. From the responses G-dcast has received so far, teachers and educators are using the mobile app as an entry point into the idea of repentance. Like Temple Beth El, many other congregations (including Reform, Conservative and Orthodox) are using it as an interactive way to engage teens and adults. G-dcast is careful to offer the caveat that one cannot really fulfill the requirement to perform repentance through a mobile app.

G-dcast is using a Twitter feed (@SinfulGoat) to share examples of actual atonements from users of the app and some of the examples are a bit risqué. A representative of G-dcast said, “We decided if we left it G-rated, it would be less meaningful. There's a big difference between tweeting ‘I put gum in my sister's hair’ and ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t put my family back together (and didn’t really try).’ It's been powerful reading through all of the entries, and sharing those on Twitter.”

G-dcast’s has many other apps besides the eScapegoat. Their Rosh Hashanah app, “Wake Up World” turns your smartphone into a shofar. All of their apps are available at To download the eScapegoat app, visit

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