Facebook Post by Rabbi Perlin in the Time of Coronavirus (5/22/2020)

Friday Post 5.22.20:  Technology-Free Shabbat?

by Rabbi Amy R. Perlin, D.D.

I have always gone off email Friday afternoon and returned Sunday morning, unless there was something compelling that might need my attention Saturday night, when Shabbat was over.  Long before there were calls to go “tech-free” for Shabbat, I had made the decision to do so.  And I have always had a real problem with Jewish organizations that send any kind of email on Shabbat and people who send rabbis emails on Shabbat.  As my Bubby used to say, “Hut nisht kayn tam. – It is just not in good taste.”

Turning off my computer on Friday afternoon, as a congregational rabbi, was a sacred ritual for me.  It said to my soul that Shabbat would have no competition from the outside world, and I would receive respite from the immediate demands that often came with the emails of others.  That is why I don’t post one of these messages on Facebook on Shabbat.  The command to make this day different from all other days matters to me as a Jew.  My soul needs a rest from all the technology that makes demands on my week that are out of my control.  Shabbat is a day to take control of my time, so I can devote that time to God, prayer, my family, and personal rest and renewal.

And then comes Covid-19, and some things have had to change.  I am so very grateful that we have our technology in this pandemic age.  It has become ‘blessing worthy,’ as it offers connections to those in isolation.  I am never on email every day in retirement, but I have been during this pandemic.  It has become a lifeline to the outside world.  Before Covid-19, I went on Facebook once or twice a month, or if I had a cute picture of my grandchildren, and now I am on every day.  And last, but certainly not least, I live my life on Zoom all week in meetings, classes, conversations, and even for religious gatherings.  Who could have ever imagined before this crisis that we would attend a funeral or a bris via Zoom?  I will tell you,, in all honesty, that by Friday I am “all Zoomed out” emotionally, visually, physically, and spiritually.

Now, in order to have Shabbat with my grandchildren every week, I need my phone for Facetime.  It warms my heart when our almost five-year old, Miriam, says during ‘thankful fors” that she is thankful that even though we can’t be together, in person, that we have a way to have Shabbat together.  We haven’t missed a week since the stay at home orders have begun. Technology to make Shabbat with family, or have a Zoom seder, has made this pandemic isolation bearable in a way it would not have been otherwise.  One more time, I am thankful to be a Reform Jew, where I can realize that Shabbat in these instances is made more holy with technology.

Once synagogues closed, services immediately went live stream, due to the amazing adaptability of clergy worldwide.   Belonging to about a dozen congregations in the US and Israel, we can attend services in Jerusalem midday on Friday to Los Angeles at 10 pm, and a host of congregations in-between.  My D.C. grandchildren attend Zoom Tot Shabbat with the 92nd Street Y in NYC every Saturday morning and sing the songs they learn there to us during the week.  We have been invited to join them this week.

The fact that services have gone from live stream, where I am “in the congregation,” anonymous and unseen, to Zoom has been very difficult for me.  By Friday, I am all “Zoomed out” and the very last thing I want to do is see and be seen in a little box as I pray.  For some, it is a Godsend to be able to gather in community, hear familiar songs, say Kaddish in a virtual minyan, and have access to a beloved rabbi, cantor, or congregation.  But, watching people clear emails and multi-task during Zoom meetings and classes is bad enough.  Watching them do that during a service drives me crazy!

I love to pray.   I pray multiple times a day.  And I pray and read Torah every Shabbat, at home or at synagogue.  But, I have to confess that sometimes I need Shabbat peace and a break from Zoom more than I need communal Zoom services.  I am grateful for this incredible option for our community and for those in other faith communities, and we do take advantage of it when we choose.  I also hope and pray that people realize how much goes into creating these services and that they financially support the religious institutions that are providing spiritual sustenance in this time of great need.

Our technology is our lifeline right now.  And I realize that it is impossible to have a Shabbat, for me, without some technology.  Last week, we had a wonderful Shabbat afternoon chat with dear friends.  And I imagine that we will be celebrating Shabbat with our kids via technology for many Fridays to come.  When the stay at home order is lifted, most houses of worship will still be closed or offer technology options for those who won’t feel safe gathering in a crowd.  And most synagogues are already planning for online services this fall.  We have learned that we can be spiritual and communally connected thanks to computers and phones in our lives.  All of that is a wonderful advantage for a pandemic in 2020.

But, I will never let technology control my life or commandeer my Sabbath rest.  So,  my computer will go “off” this afternoon, when I close down all the programs.  I can’t turn it off completely anymore, as I used to, because we do have Shabbat service plans with the kids via Zoom.  But, you can expect that there will be my weekly Shabbat away message on my email account, and I won’t reappear on email or Facebook until Sunday.   I do have my Shabbat standards.

Shabbat is still Shabbat.  And for me, that means stopping engagement with technology, and giving my mind and heart the rest and renewal God intended for me from the moment of Creation.  From my home to yours, Shabbat Shalom.