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Life, Unplugged

Barbara Bensoussan

None of us consider ourselves addicts — and yet when it comes to our cell phones and laptops, our Blackberries and iPads, we often can’t keep out eyes away from the screen. Recently, thousands of people disconnected from their gadgets, and discovered the joy of being in control.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Some years ago, I read an article about a fellow named “Seymour,” who moved in with distant relatives and became so disruptive the family was eventually obliged to kick him out. Seymour was always around, disrupting conversations, pushing his opinions, spreading his non-religious ideas to both parents and kids. But as bad an influence as he was, there was something compelling about the entertaining, vivid way he took over family conversations. It took a long time for the family to get wise to the damage he was inflicting, and make the difficult decision to put him out on the sidewalk.

Seymour, of course, was a clever pun on “See More,” and the author was talking about television. But television is yesterday’s medium. Today we are flooded with technologies potentially even more insidious: computers, cell phones and smart phones, iPods and iPads.

Technologies are created to serve us. The problem is that for many of us, the slave has become the master. “It used to be,” says Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein, founder and director of Ohr Naava Women’s Torah Center, “that when a family took a trip, they’d get in the car and say, ‘Is everybody here? Did everybody put on their seat belt?’ Today the first question they ask is, ‘Do I have my cell?’ ”

A typical addict is so wrapped up in getting his “fix” that family and other responsibilities dissolve into tangential concerns, and technology addicts are no different. “I took my family to an amusement park last Chol HaMoed,” Rabbi Wallerstein says, “and everywhere I looked, parents were on their cell phones. None of them were working — this was supposed to be a family vacation day — but the parents were busy on their cell phones!

“These things are destroying our community,” he declares. “They keep families from talking to each other, they allow for inappropriate exchanges, they prevent people from davening with proper kavanah.”

So how do we return to our rightful place as masters of our gadgets? Ohr Naava, which defines itself as a place for women to connect, decided to spearhead an awakening to re-teach people to connect to each other by disconnecting from their phones and computers. They called it the “Day to Disconnect,” and encouraged people to commit to disconnecting for a self-determined number of hours this past Tzom Gedalyah. The goal was a million hours of disconnection.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the campaign was that it didn’t simply rail about the evils of technology; it tried to show the benefits of being able to detach, to enjoy a deeper level of human and spiritual connection. “We’re not telling people to live in caves,” says Elisheva Perlman, Ohr Naava’s director of communications, and the executive director for the Disconnect campaign. “We’re encouraging them to be in control.”


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