You put on your virtual reality goggles and step into an animated, simulated world of bright colors. In the person of your self-designed avatar, you pass through fantastic castles and blocky mountains, all rendered in a brightly colored cartoon style. But after a while, maybe the view starts to dim and you start to wonder: is there a place where you can learn about Torah here in the pixel world?
As in the physical world, Chabad is ready to serve.
Chabad rabbis from Boulder, Colorado and Ontario, Canada together announced plans for Chabad’s first center in the “metaverse,” the VR version of the Internet that is the last word in futurism.
“If there are people there, so should we be,” Rabbi Shmuli Nachlas of Ontario said in a story on Chabad’s own news site.
Rabbi Yehuda Ferris of Chabad House Berkeley, who joked that he can barely operate a fax machine, told J. that he is. While the concept of the metaverse is new, establishing a Chabad hub in such a world is a move that is in line with what Chabad does: reach people where they are.
“Any freeway entrance ramp!” he said.
But what exactly is the metaverse? 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, however, the metaverse is nowhere near that. Right now, it’s a series of disconnected environments, one of which is Decentraland, where the Chabad rabbis behind the project have acquired a parcel of “land” or, rather, the property rights to what that square of land represents. ground inside the platform.
The new Chabad center is called MANA Chabad Jewish Center. It’s not currently built yet, but it exists as a virtual piece of land, dotted with a few construction barriers and a small structure. But screenshots of the intended design show a building eerily resembling any modern Chabad building, complete with the traditional image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the wall. And like many existing Chabad centers, the exterior is planned to copy Chabad’s headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway. The intent is to provide a place to “teach, guide, and uplift” Jews in the metaverse.
Decentraland is an interesting option, no doubt. It’s a self-contained world accessible through a browser to anyone who sets up an account. There is a Sotheby’s in Decentraland, but much of the land is user-created fantasy, such as the Mushroom Kingdom Castle. It is a platform loved by cryptocurrency aficionados, and known for its libertarian spirit and what one review called a “strict market fundamentalist bent.” The “land” in Decentraland is limited in scope, so buying that space should ensure that Chabad can build there whenever they want. It is also a community driven by the votes of its users. That means users vote on, for example, which avatar names can be banned (so far, a vote to ban “Hitler” as a username didn’t get enough votes to be binding, but “yes” votes were winning).
Ferris said that Chabad is an early adopter, comparing Chabad’s metaversical hub to the Chabad website, which launched in 1993, just two years after the launch of the World Wide Web.
“It was one of the first 500 websites,” he said.
But he also compares the Chabad center in Decentraland to the situation, described in the mishnah, of blowing a shofar in a cistern. If you only hear the echo, that’s not good enough.
“I would like to compare 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 toward a physical Judaism that can’t be practiced online.
“It’s a temptation,” Ferris said. “It is a pleasure. It’s an advance.”
The rabbis behind the project say the same thing.
“The principles of Judaism are unshakable, and mitzvot are physical actions, intended for our physical world,” Nachlas said in the Chabad article. “We plan to be a space of inspiration and support, and to help connect people to reality when needed, both spiritually and physically.”
But while Chabad’s metaphysical core will exist only as code on a server somewhere, its unreality doesn’t mean the rules won’t be followed; It will be “closed” on Shabbat and holidays. Also, like many physical centers in Chabad, the MANA Jewish Center has started fundraising. And yes, cryptocurrencies are accepted.