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jewish identity

How God Got Me to Turn Off My Phone

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I am free-floating in a sea of mindless data. I just finished watching a four-minute video of supposedly the Top 10 Funniest Dog Moments, a few more of my brain cells shamefully murdered by clickbait. My phone dings. A second later, I receive a pop-up notification on my laptop, and my smartwatch taps my wrist, letting me know I’ve got a new group text message. This is the one that always devolves into a competition for best use of a gif.  

I need to focus. I have a deadline in an hour. 

Ten new emails…wait, 11 now. I scan the previews of each to quickly rank which messages require an urgent response. 

Ooh! I’ve been invited to an event! 

No, focus

I bury my phone at the bottom of my purse and open an Excel spreadsheet, ready to start my work. I hear a faint buzzing sound from my bag, but I ignore it. Suddenly, my dad’s face pops up in the center of my laptop screen. He is FaceTiming me to show me that he finally shaved his mustache. 

I’ve been at work for all of 15 minutes, and I am already overstimulated and underproductive.

Sherry Turkle, a professor of sociology at MIT, gave a Ted Talk in 2012, in which she states that millennials are the most connected generation in history, and ironically, they’re also the loneliest. As she spoke, it was like she was staring through the television and directly into my soul. I realized she was right. At some point in my adult life, I started replacing eye contact with text messaging. I traded friends for followers. I groaned at the thought of answering an unannounced phone call.

I am part of the first generation to grow up behind screens, and despite its myriad of conveniences, these were the unwanted side effects. 

Turkle’s Ted Talk inspired me; I was determined to bring more of the real world back into my life. First, I left Facebook, which lasted all of 15 days. Then I told my friends to call me because I was no longer texting; I didn’t receive a single phone call. It became clear that this was a problem that was much bigger than me, and if I was going to make permanent changes, I’d need some help. It wasn’t until I started bringing Judaism into my life that I finally found my balance.

When I was very little, I yearned to go to synagogue and Hebrew school. I wanted so desperately to learn a new language, to celebrate new holidays, and to be part of a larger community of people like me. My parents, on the other hand, weren’t into it. There was always an excuse as to why we couldn’t go to temple, such as work pressures, the unaffordability of synagogue dues, and, my personal favorite, “We’re not like the other Jews.”

Eventually, I realized my interest in Judaism was a losing battle, so I took the opposite approach and adopted atheism with vigor. It was easy to understand, easy to control, and best of all, didn’t require my parents’ permission. I surrounded myself with non-religious people. I focused my studies and career on science and technology. It was a path that worked well for me, despite that nagging piece inside, stifled below layers and layers of pragmatism, that still wondered about God.

Then one day, my whole world turned upside down: I had a child. And as a parent, I take it upon myself to build a life for my family that is full of happy memories, meaningful traditions, and a profound appreciation for those who came before us. Judaism, which I had buried along with other childhood dreams — like becoming an astronaut and buying a pony — was suddenly at the forefront of my mind. 

Unsure of how to re-open this door, I decided I’d start by trying out a Friday night Shabbat service at a local synagogue. Stepping inside this once forbidden place was nothing short of surreal for me. I took a seat near the back in an empty pew, looked around the sanctuary and was suddenly flooded with emotion.

First came vulnerability, which hit me like a tidal wave, my curiosity quickly transforming into embarrassment at not knowing any of the prayers or songs. Then came terror. What if I had been wrong about spirituality for the last 20 years? Can I make up for that? Where do I even begin? Yet despite this anxiety, the foundational feeling that kept me from leaving was determination. I had an unwavering sense that this was where I needed to be, as if, after a lifetime of wandering, I had finally come home.

Developing a mature faith after abandoning religion for decades is no casual undertaking, but the investment has been more valuable than I ever could have imagined. First, I signed up for Intro to Judaism lessons, where I learned Jewish history, rituals, and the meaning behind the holidays. I also started attending Torah study, which introduced me to a breadth of brilliant rabbis and Jewish thinkers with inspiring ideas about what it means to be Jewish. 

So far on my journey, Shabbat has been the greatest gift of all: In a time when our cell phones are extensions of our own hands, this 4,000-year-old tradition is arguably more important than ever. My husband and I have recently started using the day to completely disconnect from technology, and it has been life-changing. 

When I’m unplugged, I am present. I find myself admiring the way the sun peeks through the clouds, the way blades of grass feel between my fingers. I find comfort in the birds singing and the smell of a nearby cookout. I smile more at my husband’s corny jokes. I stare at my son for just a little too long, adoring his large, curious eyes and his chubby toddler cheeks. And in these moments, I feel grateful to be alive and for all that I have. I feel God’s presence not in secret or in hiding, but in plain sight.

Through this journey, I can actually start to see how Judaism is filling the holes in my life. Unlike my day-to-day world, learning about Judaism doesn’t have deadlines. It’s not a competition about being the most knowledgeable or most resourceful, and it’s certainly not about Googling instant answers to life’s greatest mysteries. 

For me, Judaism is about finding comfort and humility in how little I actually know. It puts my sense of self into perspective, forcing me to check my ego at the door. And the only way to connect with it is to disconnect from the noisy, relentless, and superficial pings of my daily life that for so long have controlled me and defined my self-worth. 

In a society that is upgrading itself so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to keep the pace, God is my pause button. God is the silencer on my phone, the “power off” function on my laptop. God is my permission to slow down, take deep breaths, and genuinely connect with people, not online, but in person with my full and undivided attention.

In today’s digital world, God takes us by the hand, guides us out of our hiding spots, and gives us the courage to show up for a life that’s truly worth living. 

Header image via GeorgePeters/Getty Images

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