A Robot Rabbi, The Annual and Genuine Human Connection

Giulio Fregni and his creation for The Annual 2023: "Rabb-AI" interactive robot rabbi.
Giulio Fregni and his creation for The Annual 2023: "Rabb-AI" interactive robot rabbi.

When you channel the moment through human connection, the world opens up to incredible possibilities.

One day last fall, we invited two almost-strangers, our community members Giulio Fregni and David Porush, to the OFJCC for coffee. They had met once previously at the OFJCC’s Annual event back in March 2023. Lo and behold, even before our cups of coffee were in hand, they excitedly started recalling their prior encounter and all of our lives were made a little bit richer for it.

Back in spring 2023, OFJCC Chief Development Officer Seth Leslie invited Giulio, former Director of A/V at the OFJCC and now Senior Broadcast Engineer at Google for ASG, to channel his creative energies into a meaningful experience at The Annual. The Annual, the Oshman Family JCC’s Benefit of Belonging, is a community gathering that reverberates with a sense of homecoming, warmth and welcome. The event is filled with participatory experiences lovingly and generously co-created by community members.  The evening unfurls in a whimsical way as everyone chooses their own adventure, dressed as they please, often in costumes. Its dress code is “Wear what brings you joy!”

Giulio leveraged everyone’s burgeoning curiosity about artificial intelligence by coding on top of ChatGPT to create a “rabbi” avatar. Calling his creation Rabb-AI, Giulio said to himself, “Why don’t I try to create a [robot] assistant because it would be relevant to Jewish values. Let’s see if I can do it in a way that is both playful because it is kind of a joke, and respectful. There is this joy at unleashing rabbinic information and also something of a prank.”

Avatar Tanya and RabbAI

RabbAI meets a real-life Avatar (Tanya P.)

Little did Giulio know when he was dreaming up Rabb-AI that a self-styled expert would attempt to go head to, ahem, “head” in a lively encounter with Rabb-AI. David received his B.S. in molecular biology from MIT followed by a Ph.D. in literature. He created the Society for Literature and Science and, in addition, has spent a great deal of time studying Jewish texts.

With an ever-present twinkle in his eye, David mused about his academic career, “In 1991, we had the first live performance of human actors directed by a computer. It spit out instructions for a play, for a drama, which actors would spontaneously perform.”

David had his doubts about Rabb-AI. “Like anyone else who is immersed in Judaism and takes it seriously, I’m a skeptic. I’m skeptical that AI could possibly achieve the depth that an ordained rabbi could. I assumed that a rabbi has a depth of textual learning and a sensitivity to the moment that couldn’t be replicated.”

David approached Rabb-AI and said “Shalom, Rabbi” into a microphone. Rabb-AI awoke, the conversation commenced, and his impression was “wow.” “I was testing its knowledge about a very specific discussion in Berakhot [a Talmud tractate]. It was a technicality. Rabb-AI nailed it.”

Notes Giulio, “For me, it was amazing because Seth gave me full freedom to produce the idea and my small social experiment. It was a lot of fun. And it was fun seeing so many familiar faces that I had known in other capacities.”

Rabbi and RabbAI

RabbAI encounters real-life Rabbi Amitai F.

In an age of real rabbis and robot rabbis, of near-perfect duplications, what is the difference between something like the Mona Lisa and perfect copies of the Mona Lisa? Explains David, “The cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote about the authenticity of the original: Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its original presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it was created. Benjamin referred this unique cultural context as its ‘aura.’

“The original has the aura of the artist’s hand,” says David. What is the aura?

The magic of The Annual is being in the aura of the artist’s hand. The aura is an evening enjoying real-life presence, creativity, humanity and belonging. As a community of co-creators, we are guided by values such as immediacy and participation, and we express ourselves authentically.

We basked in each other’s auras until the last sips of coffee, and it was beautiful.

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Oshman Family JCC

Written by Oshman Family JCC

The OFJCC is a Jewish Community Center and a vibrant neighborhood in the heart of Silicon Valley where all are welcome. The OFJCC provides a common ground for Jewish institutions, other local groups, organizations and individuals to work, learn and play together for the betterment of the whole community. For more information, visit www.paloaltojcc.org.

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