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Why Unplug?

Posted on 03/07/2014 @ 11:17 AM

As a modern Orthodox rabbi, I am sometimes the ‘first contact’ many of our teens have with an observant Jew. Some part of the following conversation happens about three-quarters of the time when a teen asks me about being shomer Shabbos:

Teen: So what does that mean? You don’t use your phone for 24 hours?

Me: That’s right.

Teen: But what about your computer?

Me: No, not my computer either. I also don’t use money.

Teen: Then how do you pay for things???

I completely identify with their shocked reaction to living one’s life according to Jewish law, as I did not grow up religious either. For my teenaged self, learning about and taking on halakhic observance—especially keeping Shabbat—felt like watching ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, and ‘The Matrix’, all at the same time. Yet, I don’t think their unfamiliarity with Jewish observance is the hardest thing for them to understand. More likely, they wonder why someone would voluntarily disconnect themselves from their devices (thus from all of their friends, if not all of Western civilization) for an entire day.

With regard to technology, Millennials are sometimes referred to ‘digital natives’, having been born and grown up in a world where there was no Internet revolution, no time where you “just got the Internet in your house” and where you waited until the next day if you wanted to talk to your friends from school. We ‘digital immigrants’ are like any other immigrant generation: describing what life was like in the old country is rarely as romantic or sentimental to younger people as it is to us.

How much more so for something like Shabbat? When everything in our teens’ lives is telling them to stay connected by staying online, how can an eternal message of a day, an evening, even an hour of rest be considered a live option? For more than a decade, the folks at Reboot have held their ‘National Day of Unplugging’ (this year, March 7th-8th) promoting commitment to momentarily disconnecting from electronic devices and reconnecting with our immediate families, our communities, and ourselves.

But why ask digital natives to take a break from who they are and how they connect in the first place? Because it gives an experience we simply cannot have otherwise. We have knowledge about prolonged exposure to technology and its effects on the human body and psyche. Respecting teenagers and their autonomy does not mean letting their choices going unchallenged, it means showing them different ways to live and enabling them to experience just a little bit of what life was life pre-digitization. If only for a few hours.

The 2014 National Day of Unplugging will begin this Friday night. I’ll be unplugging – will you?

This Shabbat message was prepared by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE for the Western Hub

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