The smartphone, the tablet and Shabbat

Technology entrepreneurs share their thoughts about powering down each week

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Tiffany Shlain turns off all technology for her Technology Shabbat (Courtesy Tiffany Shlain)
Tiffany Shlain turns off all technology for her Technology Shabbat (Courtesy Tiffany Shlain)

Nearly four years ago, Tiffany Shlain proposed a seemingly preposterous idea to her husband.

She called it Technology Shabbat. She wasn’t, despite the name, suggesting a weekend full of technology. In fact, it was just the opposite. Shlain, a filmmaker known for creating the Webby Awards and for her documentaries about issues such as identity, technology and science, wanted her family to have a weekly 24 hours that was technology-free. No computers, smartphones, electronic tablets or televisions. Nada. Nothing.

“I said, ‘Let’s be present with each other,’” said Shlain. “I wanted to let our minds wander. We’re always filling our brains, and it’s a beautiful thing to want to know something and just ponder it, instead of going to Google to look for the answers.”

That Technology Shabbat was so profound an experience, she said, that they’ve been doing it ever since.

In many ways, it wasn’t a huge stretch for Shlain, and her husband, Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at UC Berkeley. Both are Jewish, and Jewishly inclined — they first met in Israel and had regular Friday night dinners and candlelighting. Now, Shlain said, the family loves their tech-free weekends, relishing time together talking, reading, biking, gardening. In other words, experiencing Shabbat, sans screens.

It was a Tuesday night and Shlain was perched on a couch at Jerusalem’s American Cultural Center having just completed her fourth talk in three days. She was in Israel as a cultural ambassador of sorts for the US Embassy, brought in as part of the American Film Showcase, an NGO that promotes diversity and pluralism and sends envoys like Shlain around the world to discuss their work.

Shlain, 44, petite and nearly always hatted — not for religious reasons — was wired and energetic, pumped by her few days in Israel, where she hadn’t been for some 15 years since her first trip when she met her husband. This time she was sent to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Maalot, where she spoke with Jews and Arabs, adults and teens about technology and connectedness, social media and the cloud.

“It’s been awesome,” said Shlain. “Just the energy — wow. Being here makes me grapple with myself.”

Technology Shabbat, ironically, hadn’t come up much during her time in Israel, despite it being a country that largely powers down on Shabbat. But when you type those words into Google, Shlain’s name is one of the first to appear, along with the Sabbath Manifesto (which has an app) and The National Day of Unplugging, created by the people at Reboot, a nonprofit Jewish community that wants people to take a day to reboot themselves.

Shlain herself credits Reboot with pointing her toward her first Technology Shabbat and says she feels the concept has become part of the zeitgeist.

Shlain knows as well as anyone what’s involved when one disconnects with technology. Her last movie, “Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology” premiered at Sundance, and she’s now working on a kind of collaborative filmmaking she and her studio call cloud filmmaking, as well as a series of short films for AOL.

But not surprisingly, this doyenne of technology and its place in today’s world has tapped into a very real phenomenon. It’s a subject that’s causing some wrinkles for longtime Sabbath observers, those who follow the Sabbath rules but run to their electronic tablets, smartphones and computers as soon as three stars appear in the night sky, and who may be pondering whether or how to meld their technology and Shabbat worlds.

They sit around Friday night dinners, discussing whether it’s okay to read e-books if their tablet is turned to airplane mode, rendering email, Facebook, messaging and other social media outlets reminiscent of the workday week null and void.

Many rabbinic authorities say there’s no way that it’s allowed from a halachic perspective.

“There are always going to be those who try to justify certain actions,” said Rabbi Diana Villa, a lecturer in Jewish law at Machon Schechter, which is part of the Masorti Movement. “According to Jewish law, you can’t justify things like a computer and other electronic objects. And then there’s the matter of weekday items; when you start using them on Shabbat, your Shabbat becomes something else.”

Everyone needs downtime from the screens, say experts (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
Everyone needs downtime from the screens, say experts (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

Villa likened the pattern of finding justification for new technologies to the Conservative Movement’s 1950s decision to allow driving a car on Shabbat to the synagogue, put in effect because of the massive move to the suburbs.

“The minute you get in your car, you won’t just go to shul,” she said. “When you start opening your computer to read a book or to send text messages, you won’t have that limitation and your Shabbat will become like any other day.”

Shlain, who isn’t religiously observant, agrees.

“Every Friday, we all unplug from all of our technologies and don’t turn them on again until Saturday evening,” wrote Shlain on her website. “Unplugging for a day makes time slow down and makes me feel more present with my family. I not only appreciate this quality time with them, but it has also made me appreciate technology in a whole new way. By Saturday night we can’t wait to plug back in.”

One of the reasons Shlain decided to bring unplugging into her life was because her father had been ill, and she wanted the time she had left with him to be sacred, without interruptions.

She likes to call time without technology “Brain Down” time.

Shlain’s got the right idea, said serial technology entrepreneur Jon Medved.

The Jerusalem resident, currently the founder and CEO of OurCrowd, the world’s largest platform for equity crowdfunding, is a former Californian who has lived in Israel for more than two decades and has been observing Shabbat for the last 30 years. Technology and its gadgets have helped provide inspiration and income for Medved, but he powers down when sunset arrives each Friday.

Jon Meved loves his smart phones and tablets, but can't wait to power down when Shabbat arrives (Courtesy Jon Medved Facebook)
Jon Meved loves his smart phones and tablets, but can’t wait to power down when Shabbat arrives (Courtesy Jon Medved Facebook)

“I’m a huge traditionalist, and somehow in the age of technology, our traditional approach seems to be validated in huge ways,” said Medved. “Good for Tiffany Shlain, that she’s found Shabbat profoundly moving, but I find that the ability to shut down on Friday afternoons is what’s kept me alive. No ifs, ands or buts.”

Medved said he thinks of Shabbat as the time to be with his family and friends — “the one day to slow down, smell the roses, hug someone important, play with your kids, listen to them,  have a long conversation or argument” — and texting or any other kind of social media is completely “antithetical.”

“We live in this world where we think somehow that texting or posting or email is somehow the real social connection, but it’s not,” said Medved, who also founded Vringo, a start-up that developed technologies for the mobile phone. “It’s important, it’s useful, it’s good, but you need to look at people without your frickin’ iPhone.”

But for others, it’s not as simple, pointed out Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood who founded Sulam Yaakov, a leadership training initiative, and is also a council member in the city’s Yerushalmim political party.

“I’m very tech connected,” said Rabbi Leibowitz, who said he uses social media extensively, primarily Facebook, to connect to his community. “The iPhone is in my hand at least 10-20 times an hour, one way or another, and I learn Torah with my laptop during the week.”

He finds that he interacts with paperbound books less and less often, and the only day in the week that he does so frequently is Shabbat.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz said he can understand the pull of tech gadgets, even on Shabbat (Courtesy Aaron Leibowitz)
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz said he can understand the pull of tech gadgets, even on Shabbat (Courtesy Aaron Leibowitz)

“I’m very much aware that there’s an addictive element to the way we interact with electronics — in that respect, I’m very grateful that there’s a day that carries a prohibition which gives me perspective,” said Leibowitz. “But at the same time, I do feel it’s notable that there wasn’t 100% consensus whether electronics should be prohibited or not. You wonder whether the naysayers saw what was coming and appreciated that this would be a critical struggle.”

And while Leibowitz thinks it’s vital to disconnect from screens — his five kids, ages 8-18, have electronic quotas throughout the week — he also thinks it’s difficult in this age of “halachic autonomy,” as he calls it.

“It’s very prevalent in the twentysomething singles scene, where a lot of people are dealing with a certain loneliness and alienation,” he said. “There they are, alone in their apartment and Facebook becomes where they connect with people most easily, and texting too.”

It’s somewhat ironic that Shlain, the technology pioneer, advocates for technology-free periods, while the rabbi sympathizes with observant Jews struggling to manage their Facebook and texting addictions.

“I do have a judgement on it, but it comes with a lot of compassion,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a positive trend, but am I throwing up my arms in despair and saying oy gevalt? There’s something very telling and it touches upon a crucial conversation. How do we create more face-to-face connections, how do we restore community, real community and not social media community. More face, less book.”

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