Walking a Mile With Their Cell Phones - Jewish Press 5.7.2014

I think I’m finally beginning to understand.

For a few years now we have been hearing about “Half Shabbos,” a phenomenon in which our youth engage in forbidden technology-related activities on Shabbos (Sabbath), such as texting and Internet surfing. Various reasons have been offered by educators and other pundits to explain the phenomenon and a number of suggestions have been made about how best to address it. (I, too, wrote on this topic, including an op-ed in these pages in June 2011 titled “From Half to Full.”)

I wrote about the subject with a certain uneasiness; something kept gnawing at me, telling me I did not really understand the dilemma about which I claimed expertise. While I felt confident that my logic was sound and my strategies were useful, I still could not really place myself in young people’s shoes and comprehend what drove them to engage in such activity.

I was no digital native (when I was young we still had corner phone booths) and never had experienced technology from that vantage point. I may have stayed in bed up late at night listening to the radio, but I never had the regular experience of communicating with classmates or others at 2 a.m.

But all of that changed for me during my recent professional transition to executive and educational coaching and consulting. Sure, as head of school (my previous post) I had to be an active user of e-mail, SMS and other communication portals. My phone was positioned reliably on my hip and would be taken out countless times daily as I engaged with various constituents. Still, I was largely content to put my smartphone away for Shabbos, if only because it gave me a day of respite from the 24/6 nature of school leadership. (Technically, it was 24/7 if you count meeting parents at synagogue and other communal functions, but at least there I could respond in real time to a real person, not an avatar.)

As I moved into my new line of work I began to use social media in a way I never had previously. I had a largely unused Facebook account and was not “on” LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+. Nor had I ever uploaded a video to YouTube. Now, I have accounts with each of the aforementioned and use them often as a means of sharing content, developing my brand and engaging with present and potential clients.

Part of the reason for this is, as noted above, to get my name “out there” and develop credibility. However, I feel that much of this urge to post regularly emerges from the “when in Rome” mentality that affects so many of us. If every “thought leader” out there is posting to his or her Twitter account umpteen times daily, what would it say about me if mine was largely inactive? How would it look if I did not continually have relevant, fresh content to share?

Following this recent experience, I feel I now better understand our children’s struggles. For many of them, technology is not just another activity that is forbidden on Shabbos, such as writing, cooking and the like. It is a way of life, a part of their existence so deep and entrenched that it is extremely difficult to abstain from for even one day a week.

The dependency is so strong that if there aren’t strict rules in place as there are in many schools (where phones are banned entirely or must be checked in to the office at the beginning of the day and kept there until dismissal), our children will invariably succumb to the pull of their technology, especially if their friends are “on.” After all, nobody wants to come across as less socially adept or relevant, even for a brief period. This is particularly true for teenagers.

Of course, that is not to say that we must capitulate. Shabbos is Shabbos and must be preserved with all of the sanctity and holiness it demands and deserves. Our children should better understand the special gift we have and the opportunity that shutting down offers in terms of time for Torah study, deepened familial relationships, and the chance to hone our intrapersonal awareness. Still, by seeing things from our children’s perspective, we can let them know we “get it” and begin to appreciate their abstinence even more.

I am reminded of a powerful story of empathy, one that speaks directly to the issue at hand. Rabbi Aryeh Levin of Jerusalem, zt”l, was immortalized by Simcha Raz’s book, A Tzaddik (Righteous Man) in Our Time, Feldheim, 1976). In the book, Raz relates that Rav Levin once attempted to sway a storekeeper to close his doors for Shabbos. The owner was obstinate; couldn’t the rabbi see how much business would be lost if he closed?

Rabbi Levin was undeterred. Late in the afternoon one Friday, the elderly Jew entered the store already dressed in his regal Shabbos attire. He took a chair and sat down in the back. The owner was intrigued by the rabbi’s presence but was unable to attend to him due to the bustle of customers. When he finally approached Rav Levin and asked if he could be of assistance, the latter politely declined.

An hour later Rabbi Levin got up to leave. He said to the storekeeper, “I sat here so that I could see what your challenges are. I see that your store is very busy and that many customers enter even after sunset. But what can we do? It’s still Shabbos!” And with that he walked out. The owner committed at that very moment to never keep his store open on Shabbos again.

We may never understand our children’s pull to their devices. So much of their activity seems juvenile and at the same time too hopelessly complex for us to properly engage and comprehend. But we need to know the problem is not going away any time soon, and that we need to find real answers with which to address it.