I have a hard time staying away from my iPhone. Too often my phone is on the table during lunch with a friend. I’m drawn to it while standing in line or whenever there’s two minutes to spare. Trust me, I’m not proud of my attachment to the thing. In my defense, I at least draw the line at using my phone inside the walls of a synagogue.
It seems that not using cell phones in shul was once standard practice among all synagogue goers from the most frequent to the occasional bar mitzvah attendees. I’m afraid those days are long gone. At a family “Tot Shabbat” service I recently attended at our Conservative synagogue (where the laws of Shabbat are technically observed) I noticed several parents and kids playing around with phones. During the dinner that followed, I saw some of the younger tots distracted with iPads.
It was disheartening.
I have to imagine that rabbis at all types of synagogues are unhappy with the phenomenon of smartphone use during Shabbat and holidays. It is not feasible for the synagogue’s staff and clergy to walk up to every person and request that the phone get put away. Not when they also have the difficult task of making the synagogue a welcoming place. This is where my make-believe memo from the make-believe “Department of Rude” would come in handy.
Perhaps with my imaginary committee, rabbis could wash their hands of the smartphone problem once and for all:
Dear Congregants and Guests,
We at the newly formed Department of Rude are banning phones at the synagogue.
It’s not enough to turn off the notifications and sounds. You have to put that dreadful device away while you’re here.
We know it’s hard as we’re also addicted to our phones. Like you, we’re busy with apps, emails, and texts. While writing this memo, we checked Facebook 24 times. Nevertheless, when any of us is at a synagogue, any kind of synagogue, higher standards must prevail.
We’re not sure when it became socially acceptable to whip out a smartphone in the middle of Cousin David’s bar mitzvah service or to surf the web in the lobby. A synagogue is not the waiting room at your doctor’s office. It is not the security line at the airport. Look up. You’re in a room full of souls. You’re in a sacred space.
After numerous committee meetings and task force initiatives, we came up with answers to some presumed frequently asked questions on the ban.
1. Our family is not shomer Shabbos (observant of traditional Shabbat laws), nor are most of the families at this synagogue. What’s the big deal?
Putting the laws of Shabbat aside, putzing around on your phone during services is rude. A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t do it while visiting your friend’s church or while in the audience of a Broadway show, you probably shouldn’t do it at a synagogue either. It’s disrespectful and sends a message that what’s happening has no value or meaning.
Also, it’s rude.
2. Whenever I’m here there’s so much talking among the congregants. What’s the difference if I answer some texts? At least I’m not making noise.
You’re right, talking throughout services is also obnoxious. We’d like to argue that texting and emailing is worse, or at the very least, equally distracting. Talking to the person next to you, while disrespectful, keeps you connected to your surroundings. Emailing and texting, on the other hand, wraps you completely in that spell of “elsewhere,” keeping your focus on anything but what’s happening in the sanctuary.
Also remember, there may be people who are shomer Shabbos or who try to disengage from their phones while in shul. Seeing you on your phone undermines their efforts. There is value to unplugging on Shabbat, but we will leave that memo to an entirely different department.
3. If you want people to put down their phones during services, then make services shorter and more interesting.
We agree that services are too long. As for making them more interesting, please take that up with the Department of Be Part of the Solution for Once.
Thank you for your time and attention to this pressing matter,
The Department of Rude
For more from the synagogue files, read how to take your kids to services, how finding a synagogue is as hard as finding a nanny, and the rabbi-to-be’s job interview.