Thursday, September 20, 2012

Texting Teshuva in Shul: Tech Savvy or Tacky?

There was undoubtedly more texting in shul this Rosh Hashanah than in past years. In most liberal congregations texting was likely done as discreetly as possible; often with a cellphone hidden low in one's lap. In some congregations the texting may have been done more overtly outside in the synagogue lobby or perhaps outside the synagogue building. The younger generation is much more cavalier about using cellphones in the service on one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar.

But as NY Times Miami bureau chief Lizette Alvarez wrote in a recent article (For Young Jews, a Service Says, ‘Please, Do Text’), in some congregations texting was a rabbinically sanctioned activity on Rosh Hashanah. Some rabbis, as Alvarez reports, integrated texting into the service. In many congregations this new form of interaction during services was a first.

Alvarez explains that in a Miami Beach Reform congregation, congregants looked up at a big white screen and read the directions: “Pray. Write. Text.” For 90 minutes the participants in the pews used their texting thumbs to send out regrets, goals, musings and blissful thoughts for the rest of the congregation to see.

The rabbi, Amy Morrison, encouraged her parishioners rather than scolding them for texting. She said, "Take those phones out" and asked them what they needed to let go of to be "fully present?"

"For young Jews in America, we are a demographic different from our parents and our grandparents," said Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman, the director of congregational engagement for Synagogue 3000, an organization that seeks to re-energize synagogue life and re-engage young professionals. "We're more educated, we move many more times and live further away from our family of origin, and we are single much longer, for years after college, which was never the case before."

Rabbi Morrison explained the idea to encourage texting during the High Holy Day services at her shul: "For my generation, the generation that the service is for, prayer is not something you can find in your own life until someone helps you wrestle with it... So, I recommended texting."

The young rabbi grew up in a Conservative synagogue, where the rabbi would have scoffed at the notion of a texting during Rosh Hashanah service. "Services there aren't as thought-provoking or honest or sharing, which is what I liked here," she explained about the synagogue of her childhood.

While progressive congregations like Morrison’s will continue to experiment with pushing the envelope and using new technology like texting and tweeting during the services, many other congregation will continue to lean toward formal decorum arguing that sending text messages on one's phone for the congregation to see detracts from the respect the synagogue, Torah and services demand.

One congregant at Morrison’s Reform temple enjoyed the texting aspect of the services. She recalled, "I paid attention the whole time; that's a problem with me, tuning it out."

We shall see if the communal texting culture catches on in more synagogues or if rabbis will continue to ask congregants to remember to turn off their cellphones. As text messaging becomes even more popular and and a reflexive act for the younger generation, it is possible that a texting congregation during High Holy Day services will become less of an oddity.

Tech savvy or tacky? Which will win out?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.


Benji Lovitt said...

Not a fan. I think we have gotten carried away with the need to be "cool and forward-thinking" when it comes to technology. Can we not do anything without our phones? Is nothing sacred? I think this only reinforces peoples' inability to carry on conversations in public without picking up their phones and staring at them or texting and also sends a message that services or religion are good enough on their own. (I'm not the biggest fan of synagogue myself but I don't think this is the best answer.)

Kol Ra'ash Gadol said...

ASide from the various halachic issues, which I won't address, I wonder how good say, an apology is by text? Does one who texts I'm sorry to a big white board really get to claim tshuvah? How does this help people interact as a community, how does it help build relationships? I'm firmly on the side of tacky with this one.

Shoshi said...

The halachic issues are moot in this case, because the Reform congregation does not accept the ritual halachic to be binding, and participants will almost certainly be texting on yom tov, anyway.

In a world where people are very accustomed to connecting through electronic media, and texting is second-nature, this sounds like a way to focus the minds and hearts of the congregation on the service and the meaning of the day.

Neil Tow said...

I believe that in a well put together High Holiday service, we are all 'texting' albeit in an invisible way. We are reflecting on the past year, thinking about the prayers and their meaning, and projecting into the next year. I would much prefer to give people time in the service to walk up to others and ask forgiveness, see a face, shake a hand. I am all too happy to leave my smartphone at home and to be free of the inevitable 1,000 other distractions that every smart-device brings with it.

Rebecca Einstein Schorr said...

I don't think that the Halakhic issues are moot at all. Reform Jews have a different relationship with Halakha and many of us do, in fact, go off grid completely on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

I think Rabbi Morrison has an interesting idea here and I think that it would make for a fantastic Selichot program. I, for one, would be extremely uncomfortable if texting, Tweeting, etc. was a part of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

Unknown said...

How is this different from the many stories of reading the thoughts in people's minds as they gather on Yom Kippur? I read the article and was quite fascinated by the texts that were sent. There is nothing unhalachic about having a time to text prior to Kol Nidre, which has to be done before Yom Kippur begins. It might have a place in Selichot. I think people need to see what others are thinking so they can be in the right frame of mind for this season. It could even be a special service during the ten days of repentance.