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Atoning in the digital age, there's an app for that

by Julie Bien

September 3, 2013 | 9:56 am

eScapegoat

eScapegoat

The digital age is changing the way we approach all aspects of life — including repentance. 

There is a catharsis in release, especially public release, and that’s what the founders of a slew of new digital programs and apps have tapped into during the High Holy Days. From scandalous sins to high hopes, the Internet is teeming with people looking for a platform to atone and reflect this coming New Year.

One program, 10Q (doyou10q.com), is a free online service from Reboot that allows users to answer 10 questions for the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They can choose to post their answers online, anonymously or not, or keep their responses private. After the 10 days are over, the answers are kept in an online “vault” and e-mailed back to the participants — more than 18,000 so far — exactly one year later as a way to help them reflect on the past 12 months. 

According to Nicola Behrman, a Los Angeles resident and one of the creators of 10Q, “The program allows people to be completely free and honest and vulnerable and share thoughts and emotions uncensored with the world. And unlike Internet chat rooms and comment boxes below articles, there is never any vitriol or inappropriate behavior. It is a beautiful expression of people being themselves and telling truths that they might not have ever said to anyone in the world before.”

Another High Holy Days program was created by Sarah Lefton, the woman behind G-dcast, an online media production company intended to increase Jewish literacy for adults and children. Lefton of San Francisco most recently launched eScapegoat (escgoat.com), based on the biblical story of the scapegoat.

The basic concept revolves around a cartoon goat that acts as a digital archive of sins. The user, in 120 characters or less, can confess anything, publicly or anonymously, and then can choose to pass the goat to family and friends via e-mail. This option allows the sender and the viewer to see each other’s sins — a semi-public confession that can be a catalyst for more people to use the eScapegoat.

“If you asked most Jews on the street if they knew the story behind the phrase ‘scapegoat,’ most wouldn’t know, even if they had a vague idea. But it’s one of the most colorful stories from the Bible,” Lefton said.

The episode can be found in Leviticus 16. According to the story, all of the sins of the Israelites were placed upon a goat for the Day of Atonement. The goat was then sent into the wilderness, taking the sins of the Israelites with it. 

“The idea of creating a project based on this story was happening in the back of my brain for a while. Last year, I was a speaker at TribeFest and they had a program called ‘NextGen in the Shark Tank,’ based on the TV show [about aspiring entrepreneurs], except the ideas we pitched were supposed to engage young Jewish adults. This goat thing came to mind, so I pitched it,” Lefton said. 

“I thought, what if there was a virtual scapegoat that wandered around the Internet gathering sins from person to person? Well, people loved the idea and I won this contest, so I’ve spent the last year putting it together with G-dcast.”

Lefton said she thinks the most appealing aspect of eScapegoat for young adults is that it’s a “natural extension of the social media zeitgeist of sharing everything.”

“So you pass the goat to your friends, and then they pass it along. It really taps into that voyeurism and then trying to outdo them. And knowing it’s rooted in a real Jewish story only adds to it.”

If all this is too voyeuristic, the Send a Prayer iPhone app (available at apple.com) offers a well-balanced marriage between the digital and analog worlds. It allows any prayer you write on your iPhone or iPad to be shared via Twitter, stored in your device and sent to Jerusalem, where it will be printed out and placed in the Kotel. There’s also the option of sharing your prayer with any contacts on your Twitter or e-mail contact list.

In the end, this trend of digital atonement, prayer and reflection is simply another way of connecting with faith during the most important time of the year in an ever-evolving world. 

“I’m a great believer in going to the heart of what a [Jewish] festival is about,” Behrman said. “In this case, self-reflection and harnessing modern tools to bring it to a wide audience. I believe this is what people are yearning for today, and it’s our duty to explore how we can create these kinds of experiences that truly marry the ancient with the modern.” 

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