On September 4th, the Jewish Community of Chicago, from all sides of the spectrum, will be gathering together behind the city’s Rabbanim to talk about technology. It is widely recognized that our lives have changed drastically and the time has come to act. But let’s first understand why such a massive event is necessary.
Before I moved to Chicago, I coached one of the teams in the Yeshiva High School Hockey League for seven years. Towards the end of one season, with perhaps the best all-around and most cohesive group I coached, a couple of the leaders requested that one of the players be removed from the team. They explained that this player was constantly taking shortcuts during drills and joking around during games. Although I had noticed this player’s lackluster performances, I did not realize it was having such an impact on the rest of the team. I always hesitated to be a disciplinarian and I didn’t see this player’s actions as being that detrimental. When I posed this dilemma to the leaders, they responded that this player is disturbing the overall environment of the team, and as long as he continues to joke around during practice, the rest of the team cannot help but be affected. Once a culture starts, it spreads very quickly.
Every generation has its own defining challenge. Throughout the centuries, these challenges were faced by individuals, families and entire communities. But rarely, if ever, has a challenge swept through the world so swiftly and efficiently that the entire culture in which we live has been completely altered.
Technology has accomplished just that. Our perspective on what is acceptable behavior has been changed. Our thoughts on what is appropriate and what is not have been transformed. Our strategies for raising our children and what we subject them to have been reshaped. This is not limited to any particular community or sect of Judaism. It is affecting everyone, everywhere.
One of the great Roshei Yeshiva of the late 20th century in America once said “Shalom Aleichem” to one of the students walking past him in the hallway. The student failed to respond, instead choosing to continue the conversation he was having with his friend. Immediately the Rosh Yeshiva called all the bachurim into the Beis Medresh for an emergency mussar shmooze. When asked why he felt this was necessary if it was just one bachur who acted in this manor, the Rosh Yeshiva explained that if this is how one person was able to act, he was nervous that there is a culture growing in the yeshiva in which it is acceptable to act like this. That is certainly something that needs to be addressed.
Throughout the world, there is a culture in which many things have become fully acceptable that previously would have been unimaginable. Behaviors that we wouldn’t have dreamed of doing just a decade ago have become commonplace. Ignoring someone standing right in front us to check our phone. Handing a teenager an unfiltered device that has full access to everything on the internet. Driving a car while looking down, putting ourselves and the families in the cars around us at risk. Ignoring our children when they come home from school or our spouses when they are sharing their day with us.
In my role working with TAG, I have the privilege of speaking throughout the community about how technology has impacted our lives. One of the most common dilemmas I have heard over the past three years from parents is how to manage when their child is begging them for a smartphone because all their friends have one and they feel they are being left out. If left up to the parents, there would be no discussion. But seeing an adolescent being left out is a very tricky situation, one that pulls the parents into entertaining options they never thought they would have to. In fact, a large percentage of parents only give their children smartphones because they feel they have no other option.
But there is a solution. One that will be very simple to say but so much harder to do. And it all starts with accepting one simple truth- we are all in this together. Together we must each accept responsibility to help affect a culture change throughout our city. We must unite together, become unified even if not uniform. If no one takes out their phone in shul, then everyone else who comes in, regardless of how they are dressed, will know and understand that they should not as well. If parents put their phones away when at the pizza store with their children, then other families will follow suit. If husbands and wives can give each other their undivided attention, then our children will grow up to do the same. If it becomes automatic that every phone in the city has a filter, then all who don’t have one will feel the positive peer pressure to get one. If parents of a group of friends can unite and decide that they will all refrain from getting their children smart devices, then there would be no need for any of the other children to get one.
The gemara in Maseches Shabbos relates Abayei’s proclamation that whenever he saw someone making a siyum, he would make a yuntif for all of those in the Beis Medresh. A friend of mine once told me a beautiful explanation as to why Abayei felt it was necessary to include all of those around in the celebrations. There are some aspects of life in which we cannot presume to think we are isolated. Whether it is in how we are affecting those around us or how we ourselves are affected, we are a part of the environment in which we live. When one person fails, we all fail. And when one succeeds, we all succeed. Abayei recognized this reality. And so even though it was one individual who had completed a mesechta, he understood that all contributed in some way in creating the environment in which it was possible for that one person to accomplish such a feat.
B’H, we live in a city that is, in many ways, more united and connected than any other. Although we may look different and send our children to different schools, we all create the spiritual environment of our city. What happens in one shul very much affects the others and what one family does will impact all of those on the block. The only way to affect the culture change we seek is to do so together, united.
To give the first push, the Rabbanim of the Chicagoland area are uniting together to organize a citywide event to address the challenges of technology and have a discussion as to how we can create a healthier and more kedusha filled environment in our city. If you have not yet seen more details, look around this Shabbos. We are hoping that by the time you read this, you will not be able to go a block without seeing the message. Come join us. Because after all, we are in this together, and only together can we change the culture and ensure the type of environment we all envision for our families and our future.
Looking forward to seeing you on September 4th!