Technology and the Synagogue

by Rabbi Charles Simon

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North Americans in general, and Jews in particular, should consider the fact that millions of people purchase every new iPhone model as soon as it is released. How does that impact us?

Every month, as we are besieged by the newest technological advances, the standard issue notebook, pen and backpack are being replaced by the smart phone, e-book reader and laptop. The increasing prevalence of
(and dependence on) these technologies poses a number of questions for synagogue professionals. At a time when we are striving to preserve and teach the sanctity of Shabbat and our holidays, of sacred times and places, how do we stop and more fully enjoy our friends, families and Shabbat while our business and social worlds aggressively stress the contrary?

Rabbis and congregants wince when cell phones ring during services and often mimic movie theaters by making an announcement, or several, requesting people turn off their cell phones before entering the sanctuary. While synagogues seek to create a place of intimacy coupled with a certain decorum, it is increasingly more difficult for those raised with smart phones to turn them off, leave their professional worlds, even for just a few hours, and relax and hopefully smell the roses.

Synagogue decision makers need to distinguish between technologies that are disruptive and those that can be conducive to the values we are striving to preserve and teach. Synagogues could advertise that on the Sabbath even one’s phones deserve to rest! They could create special Shabbat phone depositories where people would leave their phones outside of the sanctuaries and still have access to them in a way that would not be disruptive to the congregation and would provide a brief respite for the owner.

At the same time, it is important to realize the benefits that new technology provides. This past High Holiday season I heard several men and women in their 80s and 90s complain that the large print machzorim (holiday prayer books) were too heavy for them to use and they wished that tablets or e-book readers were available.

Technology is impacting every religious stream. My father recently purchased an oven only to learn that it had a Shabbat cooking option. Imagine, a shomer Shabbat appliance! An Israeli company developed a smart phone for the religious community that limited which types of material could be accessed on the Internet. Technological advances aren’t going away. It behooves us to develop guidelines proactively integrating technological advances into our religious lives in a manner that maintains our traditional values and fosters comfort to an ever adapting community.

We can distinguish between phone usage in the synagogue on Shabbat and the use of e-book readers that offer clearer, cleaner, lighter reading and are, at the same time, environmentally sensitive.

An ever widening chasm exists between people and institutions who identify their prayer needs in a traditional manner and the growing number of men and women who lack the desire or the competence to be part of that culture. As a result, to attract others, synagogues have been forced to broaden their tents and introduce learners’ meditation and yoga services. Rather than viewing technological advancements as something that infringes and threatens our Shabbat and holiday culture we would be better served if we understood them as opportunities to enhance the values we hold so dear.

Communities can more effectively reach out to their constituencies and potential constituencies in a manner that integrates the accoutrements of modern living in an appropriate manner into our sanctuaries.

The halakhic questions surrounding these issues still need to be addressed.