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Disconnect to connect

Sabbath Manifesto urges the Google generation to unplug and slow down

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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.

Tweet.

The avalanche of connectivity is never-ending 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 organization, Reboot, is seeking to change this behavior – at least for one day per week.

In a new initiative known as the Sabbath Manifesto, Reboot challenges Jews and non-Jews alike to reconnect to a slower life by using the weekly “day of rest” to disconnect from the phones and computers and even television screens that drown us in data and stimuli. 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 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.”

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San Francisco artist Jessica Tully designed a cell phone “sleeping bag” for Reboot to help people resist the temptation of the glow from phones and other technology. It’s available at www.sabbathmanifesto.org.

Rollman 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.

The Menlo Park man unplugged even though it was the day Democratic Party delegates were deciding, among other things, whether to endorse Becker or another candidate for the 21st Assembly District Democratic 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 Cong. 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 uninterrupted time with his wife and two children.

“I probably won’t unplug again until the end of the [Assembly] campaign, but I would like to try again after that,” said Becker, who will run in the Nov. 2 general election to fill the seat of termed-out Ira Ruskin if he wins the June 8 primary. “Ideally, I would love to get in the habit of doing it once a month.”

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.

“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.

A “tech-drenched” way of life also has repercussions for human development and health. A growing number of doctors, psychologists, and scientists are looking at the ways our dependence on cell phones and computers affects how we learn (increasingly unfocused), sleep (with more restlessness), and interact (with less depth).

“The great challenge today is to understand the value of unplugging and truly act on it and be completely present with people you love,” said Tiffany Shlain, Marin artist and member of Reboot.

Shlain loves the Internet. She loves how it connects the world, empowers people, and serves as a force for change. But even she – an independent filmmaker and the creator of the international Webby Awards for excellence on the Internet – feels the need to get away from it.

“I think technology has become so immersive that we need to create boundaries and we need to push back,” she said.

Shlain and her husband, Ken Goldberg, director of the Center for New Media at U.C. Berkeley, have long celebrated Shabbat by unplugging on Friday nights. But until the Sabbath Manifesto, they treated Saturdays like any other day. Now they’re trying to continue to unplug from media and technology through sundown Saturday.

“We haven’t quite succeeded yet, but we’re not giving up,” Goldberg said. “It’s something we’d love to achieve: a day when we’re not available [to everyone else], but we are more available to each other.”

The Sabbath Manifesto was developed in the same spirit of the slow food movement. Both seek to bring balance to an exceedingly fast-paced texting-while-gulping-coffee-while-driving way of life.

Tiffany Woolf, also a member of Reboot, shut down her computer and put away her iPhone for the National Day of Unplugging.

It was not easy. She’s a freelance publicist and mother of a 1-year-old boy, needing always to be reachable.

But since unplugging for 24 hours in the Unplug Challenge, she’s been trying to spend every Saturday with her phone, computer, and television turned off.

“I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone,” Woolf said. “Before, at the park with my son Max, I might have checked my e-mail on my phone, or sent a text message. But now, I’m really in it with him. I’m in the sandbox, totally immersed in that moment, as opposed to wondering what else is going on out there.”

Anyone who tries the Unplug Challenge or adopts some or all of the principles of the Sabbath Manifesto is invited to write about the experience on http://www.sabbathmanifesto.org.

Testimonials include perspectives from Jews, Christians, and Muslims; from those who observe Shabbat traditionally, and those who have never before observed Shabbat; from those who reported it was excruciating to be disconnected for 24 hours, and those who felt totally liberated from the experience.

So far, a few “celebrity” Rebooters have taken the Unplug Challenge. Humor columnist Joel Stein wrote about his experience in Time magazine; actor Josh Radnor of “How I Met Your Mother” wrote about his experience on the Huffington Post.

In addition, the 10 principles that make up 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?

Woolf understands the Sabbath Manifesto may raise questions for many Jews – but not for her. She said practicing and reflecting on the 10 principles overwhelmingly make her feel more connected to Judaism.

“My grandparents were very stringent about Shabbat,” Woolf said. “Even though I don’t go to temple, just knowing that I’m continuing a tradition that was so integral to my family history feels good.”

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

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 she also reflects on her own struggles with Shabbat.

Meanwhile, the Sabbath Manifesto’s Unplug Challenge is gaining traction as more people find out about the initiative – online.

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

j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California

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