Friday, March 4, 2011

"Finding God in my Phone"

This was written by friend and colleague Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin. She is Congregational Educator and Director of the Religious School at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, CA. It was written for the members of the congregation on their Synablog, and it draws some wonderful lessons form the recent NATE conference.

Every Friday, Jonah Bryfman lights Shabbat candles with his grandparents.  They always make it a point to be together as they say the blessings and welcome Shabbat. His father David explained that due in part to this weekly ritual, Jonah's grandparents played a significant role in fostering Jonah's powerful connection to his Jewish identity. 

Here's the catch: Jonah's grandparents live in Melbourne, Australia.  David and Jonah live in New York.  Their Shabbat tradition takes place over videochat on the computer.  Despite the distance, grandparents and grandchild are able to share this simple moment together from thousands of miles away.  Does the fact that they have only met in the flesh a few times lessen the power of their connection?  Does it make their bond any less real?

I spent the last week at a conference for the National Association of Temple Educators, and the theme was technology.  While I was a fairly young digital immigrant, I am not nearly as tech savvy as most of our students at Temple Emanuel.  The topic posed a fair challenge, and I went in skeptical about the degree to which recent advances to the digital landscape will really impact Jewish education.

But I came out of the conference changed.  I was reminded of the ways that I myself have been part of virtual communities that have been different from the norm, but still meaningful. For example, so many of us were deeply impacted by the music, memories, and sense of togetherness shared at Debbie Friedman's funeral, even though we were only able to attend via the streaming internet broadcast.  May we learn from this that there are times when we can extend the power of our prayer at Temple Emanuel to include those who are limited by the boundaries of physical space? 

Recently at Temple Emanuel we have seen our prayer and our learning enhanced by Rabbi Aaron's beautiful and thoughtful visual components of Shabbat B'Yachad.   In the future, perhaps our students will also learn to interpret ancient prayers through this kind of contemporary visual artistic expression.  The ways that technology can enhance our Jewish experiences are limited only by our own imagination.

As Jews, we are the people of the book.  It's true that we resonate with scrolls and pages, pens and ink.  But as our lives expand to encompass the mobile realm, so too can our sanctuaries.  Not only does God dwell among people who study together from across a table, but God can also dwell among people who light candles together from across an ocean.  The screen does not have to devalue our ancient words and texts.  Rather, there are times where it may have the power to make holiness even more accessible to those who are as adept with the flick of a finger across the surface of a smartphone as they are with the flip of a page in a book.

ShareThis