Religion & Jewish Life

Disconnect to reconnect: New initiative urges the Google generation to unplug and slow down

SAN FRANCISCO (j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California) — You have 73 new e-mails. Someone just posted on your wall. You have been tagged in a photo.

You turn on your cell phone: “4 missed calls” … “2 new voice mails” … and a long string of unread text messages.

Buzz. Ring. Tweet.

Tweet. IM. Tweet.


The avalanche of connectivity is constant in today’s world. Our eyes and ears are constantly stimulated with smartphones and computer notebooks that make it nearly impossible to feel unplugged from the outside world. This nonstop exchange of information creates the expectation that we are available 24/7 to reply to a text message, take a call or write an e-mail.

One Jewish initiative is seeking to change this behavior — at least for one day per week.

Known as the Sabbath Manifesto, the new initiative challenges both Jews and non-Jews to reconnect to a slower life by using the weekly day of rest to disconnect from the phones and computers — even television screens — that drown us in data and stimuli.

It’s a tech timeout, if you will.

“There’s clearly a social problem when we’re interacting more with digital interfaces than with our fellow human beings,” said former San Francisco resident Dan Rollman, creator of the Sabbath Manifesto. “Rich, engaging conversations are harder to come by than they were a few years ago. As we voyage deeper into the digital world, our attention spans are silently evaporating.”

Rollman, who now lives in New York, came up with the Sabbath Manifesto concept in 2008 at a retreat for Reboot, a national nonprofit that brings together creative Jews twice a year. The gatherings give the Rebooters the time and space to brainstorm ways to reinvent Jewish rituals and ideas, and to plan large-scale endeavors or programs for their local communities.

A brainstorming session led to 10 simple directives that compose the core principles of the manifesto:

• Avoid technology.

• Connect with loved ones.

• Nurture your health.

• Get outside.

• Avoid commerce.

• Light candles.

• Drink wine.

• Eat bread.

• Find silence.

• Give back.

“Though the manifesto incorporates certain Jewish traditions, we made a conscious effort to make this project secular,” Rollman said. “We believe that everyone can benefit from a respite from the relentless technology.”

Reboot, based in New York but with additional staff on the West Coast, formally launched the Sabbath Manifesto with the National Day of Unplugging, which began at sundown March 19 (a Friday) and concluded at sundown March 20. It encouraged people to take on the first principle of the manifesto: Avoid technology.

“It was an odd feeling, like you’re missing a limb, to reach for the BlackBerry and not have it there,” said Josh Becker, a Rebooter and a first-time political candidate with his eye on the California state Assembly.

Becker, of Menlo Park, unplugged even though it was the day Democratic Party delegates were deciding, among other things, whether to endorse him or another candidate for the 21st Assembly District primary on June 8.

Becker owns a BlackBerry (his seventh) and an iPhone. He has 110,000 messages in his e-mail inbox, and while he does regularly check his gmail on Shabbat, he also attends Congregation Beth Am’s weekly Shabbaton in Los Altos Hills.

Still, he has often yearned to take his Sabbath observance to the next level.

“For years I’ve thought about keeping a full Shabbat but never did it,” Becker said. “So [the National Day of Unplugging] really captured my imagination and served as a rallying cry for me.”

He lit candles, drank wine, went outside with his family and enjoyed the quality, uninterrupted time with his wife and two children.

The 10 principles that comprise the Sabbath Manifesto have been debated, discussed and dissected online. For example, does unplugging from technology conflict with the decree to connect to loved ones? How can people find silence if they live in the heart of a city? What’s so special about drinking wine and eating bread when we can do that any other day of the week?

Reboot hopes that other people feel the same. To continue the momentum from its National Day of Unplugging, Reboot has devised the ongoing Unplug Challenge.

The challenge recommends that people unplug once a week, or even just once a month — whatever feels reasonable for them — and experience a 24-hour period without the hum of technology, be it sundown to sundown or even on a Sunday.

A few “celebrity” Rebooters have taken the Unplug Challenge: Humor columnist Joel Stein wrote about his experience in Time magazine, and actor Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother” will soon write about his experience on the Huffington Post.

The Sabbath Manifesto is one of several tech-free initiatives popping up these days.

The owner of Actual Cafe in Oakland turns off the Wi-Fi every weekend, an experiment intended to revive the kind of social atmosphere that existed before wireless connections and laptops.

Intel in Santa Clara established “Zero Email Fridays” in 2007. The policy doesn’t entirely ban e-mail on Fridays, but does encourage employees to meet face to face that day of the week.

AdBusters Magazine recently sponsored Digital Detox Week as a way to encourage its tech-savvy readers (and others) to cut back on digital stimulation and take time to reflect.

There also has been some renewed focus on slowing down in the wake of the recently published “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.” Author Judith Shulevitz not only looks at the Christian and Jewish

Sabbath historically, but also reflects on her own struggles with Shabbat.

“In this tech-drenched society, the notion of the Sabbath, or even of a day of rest, has been lost,” said Tanya Schevitz, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and now Reboot’s San Francisco program coordinator.

At the same time, technology is playing a key role in helping the Sabbath Manifesto’s Unplug Challenge gain traction as more people find out about the initiative online.

“We recognize irony,” Schevitz said, “that we’ve used technology to shut down technology because it was the best way to get the word out.”