Lesson from a Jewish Millennial – Get Rid of Your Smartphone

By David Treatman

Photo credit: Japanexperterna

If you’re reading this on your smartphone, you are breaking the eighth commandment.

Perhaps right now you are reading this as you ride the subway; maybe you are at the dinner table; or quite possibly you are at a party or a get-together. By choosing to give your phone some or all of your attention, you are stealing from those around you. I don’t simply mean that phones steal from us by wasting our time going down the rabbit hole of social media. I mean that they cause us to rob each other of our real presence and of our attention. The amount of conversations that I have been in with my peers, in which they are texting or scrolling through social media as I am talking to them, is uncanny. When they eventually look up, they expect me to repeat what I was just telling them, stretching conversations out indefinitely to make space for simultaneous others. The lack of reciprocity and attention that are products of dividing our consciousness between real and on-line existences detracts from authentic shared moments. [Read more…]

Spreading the Message of Tolerance — One Sign at a Time

An example of one of the signs created by North Park Neighbors, Chicago, Illinois.

An example of one of the signs created by North Park Neighbors, Chicago, Illinois.

“Hate has no home here” — powerful words written by two elementary school students in North Park, a neighborhood in Chicago characterized by its diversity. The students’ message — in English and five other languages — is now plastered on posters throughout their school, and, thanks to a small group of community members, on yard signs throughout the North Park neighborhood. The signs are red on one side and blue on the other, denoting that the message crosses party lines. [Read more…]

Twitter and the Evil Tongue

For those of us immersed in social media, there is an endless assault on our senses by happenings large and small.

The president-elect sends a Twitter message criticizing the leader of a local union of the United Steelworkers for doing a “terrible job” and sending American jobs abroad. The tweet goes viral, and the union leader receives random threats from people on the basis of no known facts whatsoever.

A baseless charge linking Hillary Clinton to sex crimes is tweeted by a retired army officer, now in line to be the national security adviser in the new administration. The tweet is part of a deluge of fake news that reaches a particularly susceptible reader in North Carolina, who goes out and shoots up a pizza parlor to “investigate” the charge.

Comet Ping Pong is the pizza place in Washington where the shooting took place. Photo by Elizabeth Murphy from Alexandria, VA.

Comet Ping Pong is the pizza place in Washington where the shooting took place. Photo by Elizabeth Murphy from Alexandria, VA.

Being lampooned on social media is particularly harmful because there is no effective redress. Even if you find the source, there is no way to reverse the damage. The hundreds or thousands of viewers are beyond reach. Social media also offers an enticing immediacy and anonymity. Retweeting takes just a few keystrokes. One need not know the original author nor have any independent opinion of the worth of the message.

However, it would be wrong to single out Twitter in this regard. Moving at a slightly slower pace, but still beating out all news media, is Facebook. And not far behind is talk radio, a continuing stream of facts, fiction and innuendo.

We can’t help but respect movie stars, politicians and even friends and neighbors who achieve high numbers of “followers.” But we know that the path to achieving those inordinately large numbers is often just flavored or off-flavor gossip.

In Jewish law, gossip is a serious sin. Lashon ha-ra, the evil tongue, is a temptation we must resist. Yet in an age of social media, gossip is always too easy, too nearby and seemingly too impersonal.

Devout Jews perceive the injunction of lashon ha-ra to include two obligations: First, not to speak evil or gossip about others. And second, not to listen to gossip, because it is understood that the listener is an enabler and hence an inextricable part of the sin. So upon hearing gossip, a Jew should cover his ears, at one time a familiar motion.

Is there a similar defense while tapping on a cell phone, clicking at a computer or listening to your car radio? If not, we need to invent one. Perhaps there should be a special button on our electronics to mute evil gossip. Until that button is invented, however, we need to observe the mitzvah of “lashon ha-ra” and strike an electronic pose comparable to covering our ears.

Canaries in the Coal Mine: French Jews Face Anti-Semitism

Simone Rodan Benzaquen - Resized and Compressed“The French Jews are the canary in the coal mine,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen told me. Ms. Benzaquen, the director of the American Jewish Committee in Europe, related that anti-Semitism in Western Europe is a very serious problem. Europe is the laboratory for how to contend with it in 2016. If the fight against anti-Semitism fails in Europe, it will fail in the United States as well.

Anti-Semitism is a crisis for liberal democracies. The members of the extreme left (anti-Zionists), the members of the extreme right, and some parts of the Muslim community have found common cause. They all hate Jews. This crisis starts with the Jews, but it doesn’t end there.

The Centrist parties are not discussing the problems within the Muslim community due to political correctness. The Populist parties are filling the void by asking the right questions. They are addressing the issues of integration, Islamism, and how to make Islam compatible with democratic values.

What can the Centrist parties do? Ms. Benzaquen suggested several solutions. First, they must speak out clearly. They need to call Islamist extremism what it is and identify the sources of the problems.

The educational system offers an opportunity to impact young pupils and shape the future adults of France. During the past several years, students have refused to learn about the Holocaust in certain neighborhoods. Their teachers retreated because they were afraid of being attacked. France needs to invest the resources to train teachers in new methodologies so they can deal with these issues. Holocaust education is important for them because it illustrates how a society can behave and how individuals can choose to behave. It is an opportunity to teach tolerance, and to accept diversity.

France does not recognize individual communities; everyone is French. In order to counter Islamic radicalization, the authorities must reach out to the Muslim community to spot signs of radicalization. It is only then that they can begin to contend with it.

One of the most effective ways that the Islamic radicals influence and recruit young people is with social media. In France, speech is free, within limits. The French government can shut down social media sites due to incitement. The platforms used by these Islamists are based in the United States. Initially, the US-based companies did not feel that they were obligated to comply with French laws. The European Commission passed a law that requires social media companies to follow European laws in order to be available there. This has made it easier for the French authorities to shut down sites dedicated to Islamic radicalization.

The signs in Europe point to a worrisome future in the United States. The Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS) movement on university campuses and the expression of anti-Semitism online are creating a hostile environment for Jews. We live in a globalized world. There is no escaping anti-Semitism by moving from country to country. What kind of world do we want?

Counting the Omer: A Modern Revival of an Ancient Jewish Practice

Omer calendars for Israel and Diaspora courtesy of Judaica artist Jonathan Kremer.

— by Carol Towarnicky

As Passover approaches, an increasing number of modern Jews are preparing not only for their annual seders but also for “Counting the Omer,” an ancient practice of blessing each of the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.

An Omer is a measure of barley. In Biblical times, the Counting of the Omer marked the time between the barley and wheat harvests. Every night during that period, farmers would wave an Omer to plead for an abundant crop. Over time, the agricultural ritual was replaced by liturgy, and the counting became a way to mark the Israelites’ journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai. For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counting of the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing, a way to prepare the soul for revelation. The mystics divided the time into seven weeks, with each week containing a specific spiritual quality. On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other, making each day is unique.  

After the jump: Rabbi Yael Levy’s book on the subject
Rabbi Yael Levy, founder of A Way In, a Jewish Mindfulness Center based in Philadelphia and author of Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer (Volume 1), has re-imagined the counting as a Mindfulness practice: paying attention not only to each day as it passes but also to the individual spiritual qualities that were assigned to it by the 16th century Jewish mystics.

“The counting helps us to pay attention to the movement of our lives,” says Rabbi Levy. “Counting the Omer helps us notice the subtle shifts in our lives, the big changes, all the yearnings, strivings, disappointments, hopes and fears.”

Journey Through the Wilderness is available in paperback through Amazon, and as an e-book via Smashwords and other e-booksellers. The publication includes daily blessings in both Hebrew and English and teachings and intentions for each day.

A Way In is also offering a range of online and social media support for individuals who wish to count the Omer, including free daily emails, blog entries and Facebook posts and insightful Twitter messages and reminders.

Rabbi Levy has been exploring the Mindfulness potential of Counting the Omer for more than a decade, in particular during time she spends each year backpacking alone in the red rock desert of southern Utah. She also leads an annual five-day retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, that takes place at the end of the Omer 49-day period.  

Rabbi Levy points out that the Hebrew word for “desert wilderness” — midbar — is written the same as the word for “speaks” — medaber. “The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations and allow ourselves to go into the unknown, to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit, we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance.”  

A relatively new development in Judaism, Jewish Mindfulness combines meditation, movement and spiritual practice that draws on Jewish text and tradition. As part of A Way In, Rabbi Levy leads twice-monthly contemplative Shabbat services, weekly meditation “sits,” retreats, classes and individual and group spiritual direction, plus an online community.  

A Way In Jewish Mindfulness program grew out of Rabbi Levy's work at Mishkan Shalom congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia where Rabbi Levy has been associated for 19 years. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Levy has co-led retreats in Alaska for Jewish professionals through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She is also a spiritual director to rabbinical students in both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements and in private practice.