You don your virtual reality goggles and stroll into a simulated, animated world of bright colors. In the person of your self-designed avatar, you range past fantastical castles and blocky mountains all rendered in brightly colored cartoon style. But after a while, maybe the sights begin to pale and you start to wonder — is there a place where you can learn about Torah here in the world of pixels?
As in the physical world, Chabad is ready to serve.
Chabad rabbis from Boulder, Colorado, and Ontario, Canada, together have announced plans for the first Chabad center in the “metaverse,” the VR version of the internet that is the latest word in futurism.
“If people are there, then we should be, too,” Rabbi Shmuli Nachlas of Ontario said in a story up on Chabad’s own news site.
Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad House Berkeley, who joked he’s barely able to operate a fax machine, told J. that’s exactly right. While the concept of the metaverse is new, setting up a Chabad center in such a world is a move that’s in line with what Chabad does: reach out to people where they are.
“Any entrance ramp on the freeway!” he said.
But what is the metaverse, exactly? Essentially, it’s a virtual reality equivalent of the internet, where you can (in theory) do things like shop, see what your friends’ dogs are up to, or buy a ticket to Milan, but as an avatar version of yourself moving through a 3D environment.
Currently, though, the metaverse is nowhere near that. Right now, it’s a series of unconnected environments, one of which is Decentraland, where the Chabad rabbis behind the project have acquired a plot of “land,” or, rather, ownership rights to what represents that square of land within the platform.
The new Chabad center is called MANA Chabad Jewish Center. Currently it’s not yet built, but exists as a virtual plot of land, scattered with some construction barriers, and a small structure. But screenshots of the intended design show a building uncannily like any modern Chabad building, complete with the traditional picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the wall. And like many an existing Chabad center, the exterior is planned to copy of Chabad’s headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway. The intention is to provide a place to “teach, guide and uplift” Jews in the metaverse.
Decentraland is an interesting choice, to be sure. It’s a self-contained world accessible through a browser to anyone who sets up an account. There’s a Sotheby’s in Decentraland, but much of the land is user-created fantasy, like the Mushroom Kingdom Castle. It’s a platform beloved by cryptocurrency aficionados, and one known for its libertarian ethos and what one review called a “stringent market fundamentalist bent.” The “land” in Decentraland is limited in scope, so buying that space should ensure Chabad can build there when it chooses. It’s also a community run by the votes of its users. That means users vote, for example, on what avatar names can be banned (so far, a vote to ban “Hitler” as a username didn’t get enough ballots to be binding, but the “yes” votes were leading).
Ferris said Chabad is an early adopter, comparing the metaversical Chabad center to the Chabad website, which was launched in 1993, only two years after the launch of the World Wide Web.
“It was one of the first 500 websites,” he said.
But he also likens the Chabad center in Decentraland to the situation, described in the mishnah, of blowing a shofar into a cistern. If you only hear the echo, that’s not good enough.
“I would like to liken the metaverse to the echo,” he said.
That means it’s important to use the metaverse as a way to find people and guide them to a physical Judaism that can’t be practiced online.
“It’s an enticement,” Ferris said. “It’s a taste. It’s a preview.”
The rabbis behind the project say the same thing.
“The principles of Judaism are unshakable, and mitzvot are physical actions, meant for our physical world,” Nachlas said in the Chabad article. “We plan on being a space of inspiration and support, and to help connect people back to reality when needed, both spiritually and physically.”
But while the metaphysical Chabad center will exist only as code on a server somewhere, its unreality doesn’t mean the rules won’t be observed; It will be “closed” on Shabbat and on holidays. Also, like many a physical Chabad center, MANA Jewish Center has begun fundraising. And yes, cryptocurrencies are accepted.