Social Media Sites Get Political About Israel

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

Spending a week in Israel earlier this month I kept my eyes open to the way Israelis use technology. Even on my first time in Israel over 18 years ago I noticed that Israelis thirsted for the latest tech gadgets. Being a country that struggled with telecommunications early on in its existence primed Israel for a telecom revolution. In the first decades of statehood, stories persisted about families who waited years just to get a telephone in their own home. So when mobile communications took off in the middle of the 1990s, Israelis were eager to adopt the new technology.

One thing I noticed during my recent visit was that the Apple iPhone is much less common in Israel than it is in North America. I also got the sense that Israelis prefer the GPS app Waze over other GPS services. That could be in part due to Apple’s decision not to link Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in its Maps application or World Clock on its new operating system. Back in September when Apple CEO Tim Cook admitted that Apple’s mobile Maps application was inaccurate and had many flaws (including the Jerusalem situation), he advised users of OS5 to download alternative navigation apps including Waze which was designed by Waze Ltd., an Israeli company.

Other questionable situations in social media have led many to question whether these are really honest mistakes or politically motivated actions. A recent Huffington Post article titled Did Flickr Delete Israel From Its Map? raises questions about the maps plugin of the photo social networking site Flickr. When the user zoomed in on Jerusalem there were no streets or landmarks as there would be for every other city in the world. The article triggered two responses from Yahoo which now owns Flickr. The first email from a company representative stated that Yahoo was aware of the issue and was working to quickly improve what is a third party map provider problem. There was no mention of why Israel was the only city in the world affected. The full email message from Yahoo read:

The geographical data that appears on Flickr and Yahoo! Maps comes from a third party map provider and we are working with them to understand and improve the gap in geographic coverage that has been reported. Yahoo! always wants to ensure the best possible product experience for our users, and this falls short of those expectations. We are continually working to source and roll out coverage where there is room to provide greater mapping details. In particular, we hope and expect that you will see improved maps coverage of Israel shortly.

The next day Flickr debuted a map that rendered Jerusalem as a normal city with its streets and landmarks returned to the way it was. There was no explanation for the error.

Of all the social networking sites, Facebook seemed to be the least problematic with Israel labeling. It is a very popular site in Israel. However, one Facebook user found that according to the site she no longer lived in Israel proper. Laura Ben-David, writing in the Times of Israel, explains how she suddenly was listed as living in Palestine rather than in Israel on her Facebook status updates:

Sorry, I didn’t share the news that I recently moved. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone. It was so sudden and so fast. We’re not just talking about moving from one street to another, or to a different neighborhood. Not even to another city or region. We’re talking about moving out of the country; out of Israel. Yes, I know it’s a shock to you. It was a shock to me as well. In fact, I found out about the move the same way most people find out things these days: on Facebook. I found out when friends saw a photo I’d taken from home and posted on Facebook, and they told me it was tagged with this new, previously unheard of location, ‘Neve Daniel, Palestine.’

Apparently Facebook no longer lists my town of ‘Neve Daniel’ as ‘Israel’, but rather as a city in ‘Palestine.’ Truthfully, this type of geographical blundering isn’t a particularly new development. In fact, I remember a time when I could ‘choose’ to tag my location either ‘Neve Daniel, Israel’ or ‘Neve Daniel, West Bank.’ Since 2010, Bing Maps have powered Facebook’s Places and locations. Frankly I don’t hold much stock in Bing Maps. A simple search in Bing could not even find Neve Daniel at all, in any country. I don’t know the back end of these programs, or how they work or fail to work. I can say that I successfully tagged the location on a photo, as I’ve done many times, as ‘Neve Daniel, Israel.’ Though what I saw, depending on where I was viewing it, was either only ‘Neve Daniel’ or ‘Neve Daniel, West Bank.’ What other people saw, and what they rushed to tell me and send me screen shots of, was ‘Neve Daniel, Palestine.’

While the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis is indeed a complicated one, full of nuance, I think most would agree that these social networking sites are not the proper forums to play out the political situation. As far back as March 2008 Israeli settlers were fighting with Facebook to list their home city as part of Israel rather than Palestine. Ultimately, users in such settlements as Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel were able to switch their hometowns back to Israel. However it seems like Facebook is once again taking it upon itself to determine which country users live in. Facebook groups have popped up urging Facebook to remain neutral in this political matter and not unilaterally list Israelis as living in Palestine.

As Ben-David explained, “We are living in a new reality where our sense of history is being molded – crafted, even – through social media. News outlets are barely fast enough to keep up with the speed by which social media spreads information. Hence it is social media that people today turn to for their news. And their facts. Today’s information from social media will be tomorrow’s history. In other words, if Facebook says it’s Palestine, it must be true. Even though it isn’t.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Israel’s Gaza Situation Becomes Cyber War

Social media changes the zeitgeist in ways we couldn’t have imagined. As we saw with the recent presidential election, opinions and attacks now travel at the speed of light. And so it should be no surprise that the ongoing Middle East conflict in Gaza between the Palestinians and Israelis has escalated into a Cyber war.

While the conflict may seem like history repeating itself, social media is actually changing the way the public sees the violence. As several news agencies have reported,Israel is now using social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube to its advantage in its war with Hamas in Gaza. In the past Israel has had to rely upon mainstream news agencies to report on the back-and-forth actions in Gaza, but now the Israeli military and government can take its message straight to the people using its social networks.

As the LA Times reported today:

While Israel launched its surprise attack Wednesday on Gaza, it declared it to the world on Twitter, arguing its case for the new campaign against Hamas in less than 140 characters.

Minute by minute, the Israel Defense Forces fed followers information and arguments on the strike. At their computers, Internet users could click through aerial photos, check updates on the offensive and watch a YouTube video of the strike killing the Hamas military chief.

At one point, the Israeli military traded Twitter barbs with Hamas. “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead,” the @IDFSpokesperson account tweeted Wednesday.

The Hamas military wing tweeted back, “Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

Israel Defense Forces Twitter Account

Social media isn’t new to the IDF, but the way it’s now using such sites as Twitter is new and will likely become the way nation-states will operate in military conflicts. It is clear that the chief spokesman of the IDF, Yoav Mordechai, believes that tweeting the operation in Gaza is a good weapon in its hasbara (public relations) struggle. Israel has always been challenged by negative PR in the mainstream media. Mordechai’s office even used Twitter to send a warning to its Hamas enemies, tweeting, “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.” The IDF’s Twitter feed has been continually updated with news, pictures and videos from the front lines using the Twitter “hashtag” #PillarOfDefense. Perhaps the Cyber war really became a reality when Hamas’ military wing responded with return fire on Twitter, tweeting back, “You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves.”

In addition to the IDF’s new found use of Twitter, sites like YouTube (operated by Google) have had to navigate their way through the new murky waters of whether the postings by the IDF of their military operations are deemed “kosher” according to its own terms of service agreement. Originally Google yanked a video posted by the Israeli military Wednesday, which showed the “pinpoint strike” that killed Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari in his car. YouTube originally had a message on the removed video stating, “This clip has been removed because its content violated YouTube’s Terms of Service. Sorry about that.”

However, YouTube apparently changed its corporate mind and allowed the video to be shown. A company spokesperson explained, “With the massive volume of videos on our site, sometimes we make the wrong call. When it’s brought to our attention that a video has been removed mistakenly, we act quickly to reinstate it.” Most likely enough anti-Israel YouTube users had flagged the video triggering a review process until someone at YouTube could view the video in question and make the decision. By reinstating the video, YouTube opened up a whole new front in this war.

Israel Defense Forces Facebook Page

In taking the Middle East conflict to the Web, the opportunity for hacking has also been escalated. So it was no surprise early yesterday morning when a hacker group called “Anonymous” announced a mission to crash and deface websites belonging to the IDF, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli websites belonging to security and financial corporations. Using Twitter, the hacking group urged its followers to bring down more than 40 websites belonging to the Israeli government and military.

In a statement, the hackers stated, “We will do everything in our power to hinder the evil forces of the IDF arrayed against you. We will use all our resources to make certain you stay connected to the Internet and remain able to transmit your experiences to the world.” Already the hacker group has claimed to have taken down Israeli’s “top security and surveillance website.” They also released a “care package” with tools for staying online if the Israeli government cuts off Internet access in Gaza. Another hacker group called Telecomix posted a message online with instructions on how to use dial-up Internet to stay connect if the Web is shut down. According to Forbes.com, most of the Anonymous’ target websites were still online.

Another new front of the Middle East war in Gaza has been the public discourse on social networking sites. As soon as the conflict escalated advocates on both sides of the conflict began using Facebook to show their support. Pro-Israel supporters began simply updating their Facebook status with the Hebrew words עם ישראל חי (Am Yisra’el Chai) meaning “The nation of Israel lives.” Other Facebook and Twitter users reposted news reports of the direct hit on the Gaza leader and reminded their followers that the news coverage of the conflict has not accurate covered the escalation as thousands of missiles had already been fired into Israel from Gaza. Yesterday, in a show of support many users on Facebook began posting photos of IDF soldiers from visits to the Jewish homeland.

On Twitter, #Gaza and #Jerusalem have been trending off and on over the past few days and many heated back-and-forth conversations have taken place on the site. The IDF’s Flickr site has also seen a huge uptick in traffic with many users reposting photos from that stream to their own Pinterest boards. Additionally, the IDF’s Facebook page has noticed a sharp increase in fans approaching a quarter million. The IDF page’s recent status was “Shabbat Shalom from the IDF. We won’t be able to rest until we bring quiet to Israel.”

The long-simmering conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will be the first test of the social media zeitgeist. Newspapers and television news outlets are still relevant, but this will go down as the first war that was also played out in real time on the Web. In the social media era, anyone and everyone can become a reporter. And the millions of vehement opinions will likely only raise the heat of this escalating conflict.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at the Jewish Week

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Facebook Revolutionizes the Birthday Greeting

Hallmark Cards, Inc. estimates that greeting card sales have plummeted from 6 billion to 5 billion annually over the past decade. Earlier this month, the nation’s top greeting card maker announced it will close a plant that made one-third of its greeting cards and terminate over 300 jobs.

This news should come as no surprise for Facebook users who use the social networking site to wish friends “Happy Birthday” or leave a comment of condolence after the death of a loved one. Facebook now boasts 1 billion users world-wide, and for many of those users the custom of offering birthday greetings has changed.

Humans have been wishing each other birthday greetings for millennia. Even in the Torah there is mention of a birthday celebration (Pharaoh), but over the years, the way in which we mark each other’s birthday milestones has changed. Never has this change been as drastic as in recent years as Facebook usage has increased exponentially. While individuals still send paper birthday cards to close friends and relatives on their birthday, many transitioned to online greeting cards as the Web developed. (Hallmark’s main rival company, American Greetings, is adding jobs now because of its move to online birthday cards.) Picking up the phone to call our best friends and relatives on their birthday is still practiced, but it is also now acceptable to send an email or text message of birthday greetings as well.

Where Facebook has become the “killer app” and disruptor in the culture of sending birthday greetings is in its birthday feature on the sidebar. Each day beginning at midnight Facebook updates the birthday events box on each user’s sidebar alerting the user to birthdays being celebrated on that day. Prior to this feature individuals had to rely on their own information in an address book or birthdays manually inputted into a calendar. These daily reminders are appreciated by active Facebook users as forgetting birthdays is now mostly a thing of the past.

At first Facebook simply listed the friends celebrating birthdays on that day in the sidebar box, but within the past couple years the company realized how prevalent the custom of posting birthday greetings on friends’ Facebook Walls had become and instituted a simpler way of posting. Now users are given a text box next to each birthday celebrant’s name to easily leave a birthday greeting or wish. Past and future birthdays are also listed on the Facebook user’s calendar. Earlier this month, Facebook began showing friends’ birthdays at the top of its mobile site with a gift icon next to the birthday celebrant’s name. Clicking through this icon allows the user to send a birthday gift with Facebook taking a cut of the profit.

With Facebook’s assistance people are now wishing “Happy Birthday” to people whose birthdays they historically wouldn’t have acknowledged (long lost elementary school classmates and former colleagues), but some say it hasn’t changed the way they still mark the milestones of close friends. “Facebook doesn’t change the way I handle birthdays I always acknowledged in the past, but I still like to send paper birthday cards to my close family and a few friends. But I do offer birthday greetings to many of my Facebook friends — it takes but a moment, and I think they enjoy it,” said Bobbie Lewis of Oak Park.

Jacob Zuppke of Bloomfield Hills also uses Facebook to wish his large cohort of Facebook connections a birthday wishes. “Facebook reminds me every day someone is getting older. There are very few birthdays I store in my calendar, but with Facebook, I never miss a birthday.” Zuppke acknowledges that the standard Facebook birthday greeting can be impersonal. “I use Facebook as a calendar for birthdays. If I see it is someone close to me, I will call them or find a way to visit them. I don’t use Facebook to actually communicate with anyone close to me for a special day.”

Joey Niskar, an attorney who lives in West Bloomfield, has made the offering of birthday wishes via Facebook part of his daily regimen. “Every day, I check the automatic birthday notifications provided by Facebook and send a nice happy birthday wish to each Facebook friend celebrating a birthday on that particular day. For the other Facebook friends who may be old friends, a happy birthday wish via Facebook is very meaningful.”

RESPONDING TO BIRTHDAYS

What is the protocol in responding to the barrage of birthday wishes Facebook users now receive annually? Lewis explained, “For those who send Facebook birthday greetings to me, I usually offer a generic response to all unless the birthday message is something more interesting and personal than “Happy Birthday.’ I know some people dislike this aspect of Facebook, but I don’t mind it.” For Zuppke, with over 3,000 Facebook connections including many he doesn’t know or speak with on a regular basis, responding with one mass message at the end of the day thanking the group as a whole is sufficient.

When it is Sherry Kanter’s birthday she simply acknowledges friends’ greetings with the ‘Like’ button. “I try to respond personally to as many as I can. It is a great way to keep in touch with people,” the Huntington Woods resident said.

“I think most people have come to realize that a group thank you at the end of the day or the next morning is quite appropriate,” reasoned Dave Henig of Sylvan Lake. “With the volume of wishes that I assume most people get, it becomes impractical to respond individually.”

OTHER GREETINGS ON FACEBOOK

Birthday wishes may be the most common form of greeting on Facebook, but the site is used to offer other forms of milestone greetings as well. From engagements and weddings to new babies and wedding anniversaries, millions of Facebook users share their news with their networks on the site and receive comments in response. “If someone mentions on Facebook they’re celebrating something important I don’t hesitate to offer a ‘mazel tov’ comment. Condolences following a death are a little trickier,” Lewis says. “For people with whom I communicate mostly by Facebook, it seems appropriate, but I always write a personal message too. And if they don’t want to receive condolences via Facebook, they shouldn’t be announcing their loss on Facebook. For close friends and acquaintances, I still send paper cards or make a tribute gift in their loved one’s memory.”

With Facebook, birthday celebrants who once received only a handful of phone calls on their birthday now get hundreds of wishes annually. That can be a nice gift. As Niskar observed, “By notifying me of birthdays and allowing me to wish each person a ‘Happy Birthday,’ Facebook has enabled me to nourish my connection to old friends at least once per year. It makes the other person feel good, which in turn makes me happy.”

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Texting Teshuva in Shul: Tech Savvy or Tacky?

There was undoubtedly more texting in shul this Rosh Hashanah than in past years. In most liberal congregations texting was likely done as discreetly as possible; often with a cellphone hidden low in one’s lap. In some congregations the texting may have been done more overtly outside in the synagogue lobby or perhaps outside the synagogue building. The younger generation is much more cavalier about using cellphones in the service on one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar.

But as NY Times Miami bureau chief Lizette Alvarez wrote in a recent article (For Young Jews, a Service Says, ‘Please, Do Text’), in some congregations texting was a rabbinically sanctioned activity on Rosh Hashanah. Some rabbis, as Alvarez reports, integrated texting into the service. In many congregations this new form of interaction during services was a first.

Alvarez explains that in a Miami Beach Reform congregation, congregants looked up at a big white screen and read the directions: “Pray. Write. Text.” For 90 minutes the participants in the pews used their texting thumbs to send out regrets, goals, musings and blissful thoughts for the rest of the congregation to see.

The rabbi, Amy Morrison, encouraged her parishioners rather than scolding them for texting. She said, “Take those phones out” and asked them what they needed to let go of to be “fully present?”

“For young Jews in America, we are a demographic different from our parents and our grandparents,” said Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman, the director of congregational engagement for Synagogue 3000, an organization that seeks to re-energize synagogue life and re-engage young professionals. “We’re more educated, we move many more times and live further away from our family of origin, and we are single much longer, for years after college, which was never the case before.”

Rabbi Morrison explained the idea to encourage texting during the High Holy Day services at her shul: “For my generation, the generation that the service is for, prayer is not something you can find in your own life until someone helps you wrestle with it… So, I recommended texting.”

The young rabbi grew up in a Conservative synagogue, where the rabbi would have scoffed at the notion of a texting during Rosh Hashanah service. “Services there aren’t as thought-provoking or honest or sharing, which is what I liked here,” she explained about the synagogue of her childhood.

While progressive congregations like Morrison’s will continue to experiment with pushing the envelope and using new technology like texting and tweeting during the services, many other congregation will continue to lean toward formal decorum arguing that sending text messages on one’s phone for the congregation to see detracts from the respect the synagogue, Torah and services demand.

One congregant at Morrison’s Reform temple enjoyed the texting aspect of the services. She recalled, “I paid attention the whole time; that’s a problem with me, tuning it out.”

We shall see if the communal texting culture catches on in more synagogues or if rabbis will continue to ask congregants to remember to turn off their cellphones. As text messaging becomes even more popular and and a reflexive act for the younger generation, it is possible that a texting congregation during High Holy Day services will become less of an oddity.

Tech savvy or tacky? Which will win out?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Summer Camp Online Photos: The Good, the Bad and the Oy Vey

Like many parents I was concerned that my son wasn’t getting enough sleep while he was away at sleep-away camp. As it turns out, it was my wife’s lack of sleep that posed a bigger concern. Each night beginning around 11:30 she would sit anxiously in front of the computer screen scanning each new photograph as it was uploaded from the camp. It was a slow process that lasted well into the wee hours.

On the slim chance that she caught a glimpse of our son in one of the photos, the analysis would begin. Was he wearing the same t-shirt that he was wearing in the photo two days ago? Did he misplace his glasses since he wasn’t wearing them? Did he look sunburned? Did he make new friends since he was posing in the photo with the same friend from last time? Was he showering? Was he brushing his teeth? Was he having fun?

This new parental anxiety is thanks to the advanced technology now available to sleep-away summer camps. In the “olden days” (more than five years ago), parents had to wait until junior returned home to see photos from his camp experience. Now, summer camps have invested in a few digital cameras and an Internet connection so there’s simply no excuse not to post the daily collection of photos. But is it healthy? After all, just because the technology is available doesn’t mean it has to be used.

Evidence that this has become a national trend among sleep-away camp parents (many day camps post daily photos too) came in the form of a popular animation video this summer. The video, which was created on xtranormal.com and posted to YouTube, mocked the “helicopter parent” who is addicted to scanning the camp website for photos of her child. Many parents with children at Jewish sleep-away camp found it funny and relatable.

In the video (below), two cartoon animals portraying mothers are discussing summer camp. It is obvious that the character whose son is away at sleep away camp is Jewish and the character unfamiliar with the culture is not. The Jewish character keeps saying “refresh” until the other character finally asks why she repeats that word uncontrollably. She explains that it is because she spends many hours late at night refreshing the summer camp’s website to see if a photo of her son has been uploaded. The other character finds it odd that she has just spent a large amount of money to send her son away for a few weeks during the summer only to neurotically check the camp’s website each night to catch a glimpse of her son.

It’s no accident that the online posting of summer camp photos each day has become de rigueur for Jewish sleep-away camps across the nation. A man named Ari Ackerman made sure of it. When Ackerman was in graduate school, he wrote the business plan for Bunk1. He thought of it as a “one-way window into the camp world” so parents would be able to get a taste of what their children were experiencing while away from home for a few weeks each summer. From fewer than 100 camps a decade ago, Ackerman’s Bunk1 now boasts over 1,000 camps that utilize his web application to showcase a couple hundred random photos each night.

Camp directors who thought the daily online photo gallery wasn’t a good idea were pressured by zealous parents who demanded such transparency. Many parents do note the odd culture that has been created with the obsessive scanning of photos just to see that their child is still alive and well. One parent wrote on the Bunk1 blog, “Anybody else here see the irony of confiscating your kids electronics and sending them off into a Wi-Fi free zone, only to spend the summer obsessed with electronics yourself?”

The problem with this new phenomenon is that the photo doesn’t tell the whole story of the child’s day at camp. Analyzing a photograph which only documents one second of a very busy day at camp can lead to unnecessary anxiety. The camper could have spent the day happily engaged in her favorite activities and only at the end of the day when she was exhausted was a candid photo taken of her and posted to the camp’s website. The parents immediately repost it to their Facebook account with the message, “Uh oh… Our daughter looks exhausted and unhappy at camp! Concerned.”

One sleep-away camp staff member who fielded calls from parents this summer recounted that most of the urgent inquiries from parents were prompted by the online photos. Neurotic parents wanted to know why their children were never in the photos (“my child’s friend is in every photo”), why they were never in photos at the beach, why they were wearing someone else’s clothes, and why they weren’t wearing a hat when it was very sunny out. It seems these online photos, while posted with the best intentions, have caused more concern for parents.

A recent column in Time Magazine focused on this online camp photo gallery phenomenon theorizing that it is a “nod to helicopter parents’ inability to cut the cord.” One parent quoted in the column exclaimed, “I totally am stalking my kids.”

Camp was once a safe place where kids didn’t have to worry about their parents watching them. They were free to just grow and enjoy themselves. The new technology, however, changes that.

Demonstrating that camp directors aren’t thrilled about this new culture, the article in Time quotes Sam Perlin, the director of Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia, Washington. He explained, “In the beginning, it was like, Wow, how cool. Now I spend much of my day answering phone calls from parents who say, I don’t see a picture of my kid, or, They’re not smiling — are they having a good time?”

For some parents, just recognizing the back of their child’s head in a photo is reassuring that at least he’s not in the clinic. However, parents survived for many generations not seeing current photos of their children at summer camp. Just because the technology is now available for camps to post these photos doesn’t mean they should feel compelled to do so. After all, there are many other technologies that camps can utilize but have decided that it’s not healthy. The online camp photo phenomenon is a wonderful example of what happens when new technology changes the equilibrium.

Camps should wait until the end of a session to post the photos. Parents will get a lot more sleep that way.

A version of this appeared in the Detroit Jewish News. Cross-posted to The Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Is Your Donkey Equipped with Wi-Fi?

Back in December 2004, I wrote about my technology experience at the Mamshit Camel Ranch, a Bedouin village in Israel. I explained how funny it was to be at a Bedouin village that appeared to be authentically rustic to the Birthright Israel participants I was chaperoning, but behind-the-scenes the place was equipped with the latest technology.

It was odd to be sitting in a Bedouin tent and checking my email and posting to my blog as camels and donkeys walked around outside. I was reminded of that experience today after I read that Kfar Kedem in Israel will be equipping their donkeys with Wi-Fi.

In an article humorously titled “Internet for those who won’t get off their asses,” The Times of Israel reports that “the northern town of Hoshaya [Israel] is planning on installing WiFi Internet access on the donkeys it uses as part of its Talmudic-era amusement village, Kfar Kedem.” The amusement park, which is sort of like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Greenfield Village outside of Detroit, offers visitors a reenactment of Judean life in the Galilee from the 1st and 2nd centuries. Apparently, Kfar Kedem’s director, Menachem Goldberg, felt it was time to offer wireless Internet access on the donkeys so his visitors could post photos while they’re still riding the donkeys.

I’m not certain if Facebook and Foursquare will be able to identify precisely which donkey one is sitting on with GPS tracking technology, but that capability probably isn’t far behind. At least no tourist to Israel will have trouble checking their email while they’re donkey riding anymore. Maybe it should be advertised as E-Mule Access.

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Monday Morning Caption Contest

Leave your funniest caption in the comments section below:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Technology vs. Shabbat: Can We Accommodate Our Electronics Dependency On the Day of Rest?

E-books became the dominant format for adult fiction in 2011 surpassing hardcover books and paperbacks according to the BookStats annual survey. We are increasingly choosing to read our novels, magazine, newspapers and even children’s books on e-readers and tablets. But is it permissible to do this on the one day of the week that Judaism commands us to unplug?

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, a Conservative rabbi who is the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the former rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, recently published a *teshuva (religious response) regarding the use of electrical and electronic devices on the Shabbat.

In the teshuva, which was passed overwhelmingly by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), Nevins ultimately ruled that while the operation of electrical circuits is not inherently forbidden according to the laws of Shabbat, the use of electricity to power an appliance which performs melacha (the category of forbidden activity on Shabbat) with the same mechanism and intent as the original manual labor is forbidden in the Torah. Nevins answered some questions about his research and how he arrived at his legal decision:


What made you decide to take up this issue now?

I’ve been thinking about electricity and Shabbat for decades actually; since I really began observing Shabbat. I started researching the halachic [Jewish legal] issues involved and I found that there may have been a consensus in the Orthodox world that no electricity was allowed and yet there was no sense about why. It was worth clarifying what the considerations were. In recent years, I’ve come to feel that technology has become integrated in a rapidly accelerating fashion in our personal lives and the lack of clarity about the halachic issues were creating a bit of chaos in people’s understanding of what the laws of Shabbat have to say about electronics, and moreover, what the culture of Shabbat should be.

How do the issues of electronics use on Shabbat affect you personally?

I’m a parent of three teenagers and creating policies for our family that protect the special atmosphere of Shabbat so that we’d have one day to look at each other in the eyes and not constantly be looking down at glowing screens. That was part of the motivation, which I think is shared by many families that are trying to preserve some element of intentional family time which is not distracted by all the other devices that constantly call our thoughts away.

When you started writing this teshuva, which electronic devices did you have in mind?

Certainly computers and cell phones were significant; those are probably the most important ones I was thinking about. The iPad wasn’t out yet. I did begin thinking about the Amazon Kindle fairly early in the process, but I had not yet focused on one specific brand. I tried to focus less on the brand names than on the technology.

What was your intended outcome in writing this? Were you trying to make Shabbat easier for people?

I will say that I’m not looking for stringencies in life. But I do look for integrities and interpretations of practice. So, if my study had led me to the conclusion that there is no issue with use of an e-reader, then I would have been comfortable coming to that conclusion. But, as I say in the paper, I was actually in a way almost looking for such a thing because I’m concerned that, increasingly, digital media may be the only way to access written content. As I said in a CJLS meeting, reading is a significant part of the culture of Shabbat, so if we got to the point where the only way to read new content was by some sort of electronic or digital medium then we would really lose something with Shabbat. So I’m concerned about that and I described these issues a few years ago in an article in The Atlantic titled “People of the E-book.”

So, what happens in the future if the only way to read a book really is electronically?

If the only way to read a book on Shabbat is on the Kindle, then I would say we need to come up with ways for the Kindle to be operated without downloading new content or creating permanent records. If there’s a will there’s a way technologically, not just halachically.

Where there’s a halachic will there’s a halachic way?

I’m not so comfortable with that statement. Where there’s a halachic will, then there’s also a halachic way. If you’re committed to the integrity of religious practice then at some point the answer’s going to be “no.”

Would your teshuva be categorized as meta-halachic since you’re not halachically opposed to electricity on Shabbat? You’re prescribing a break from the workweek, so how is this teshuva different from the various ‘un-plugged’ campaigns and Sabbath Manifesto?

Well, I’ve spent dozens of pages working on halachic sources and making conclusions for halachic reasons. Meta-halacha implies there’s something outside of the halacha; an external body, but that’s the opposite of my belief.

Describe the difference between an electric sink or automatic door and using an Amazon Kindle or an iPad on Shabbat.

Electronic devices are embedded everywhere, making it almost impossible to avoid electronic interaction. That’s the core of my paper. The difference that I see between those two is that motion detectors that open doors and turn off taps and lights do not leave any permanent record. I understand melacha to be about transforming material. A Kindle, which downloads information from the Internet and also tracks usage so that it knows where a reader is and where they left off, seems to be to be more akin to writing and therefore involves a transformation of material of reality. For that reason, I think use of a Kindle and other electronics as being prohibited under the category of kotev, of writing.

Radio, television, and computers have been around for a while. Why now, with the proliferation of Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers are you bringing this up?

Well, already 60 years ago Rabbi Arthur Neulander began talking about the use of electronics and I quote him in the paper and basically agree with him. He discussed TV and radio, not computers at that time in the 1950s. I basically think that turning on a television and turning on a radio do not involve writing and therefore are not prohibited as forms of melacha. However, I question whether they are appropriate to the atmosphere of Shabbat, which we call sh’vut, in terms of resting. Computers I believe do involve downloading content, even without the user being aware of it. Every time you browse to a new web page you’re downloading information, you’re sending cookies, and you’re doing all sorts of processes which you’re not thinking about. Part of Shabbat is getting people to think more about the impact of their behavior. On Shabbat, as I say in the paper, we try to emphasize personal interaction. Our digital technology isolates us from the people around us. And therefore it defeats part of the purpose of Shabbat.

What about some exceptions to the rule?

Let’s say someone is disabled and the only way of reading is through a Kindle that enlarges type, then you might say that their human dignity would supersede the general level to use electronics.

Any thoughts on what’s become known as the “Half-Shabbos” in the Orthodox community, when observant teenagers will text their friends on Shabbat, but otherwise observe the laws?

I address this in the footnotes. The “Half-Shabbos” phenomenon is testimony to the great allure of digital media, but I feel that this makes us realize that it’s distracting. And I would say to teens, davka [precisely] don’t text on Shabbat. Talk to people. Make eye contact.


What about for Jews who are living in isolation who are lonely on Shabbat?

Okay, you’re in Alaska, you’re on an army base, and you’re the only Jew on the base… I can understand the desire to interact with others. But still, texting involves writing so therefore I think it’s forbidden.

What about competing values? For example, a Jewish person in an area with no community wants to watch a live stream of Shabbat services or wants to study Torah with a friend on Skype during Shabbat afternoon.

I also talk about these issues in the paper. Certainly the motivation to participate in a community is very strong, and should be respected. If there’s a way to participate without violating the prohibition on writing, then I would be sympathetic to it. But, it’s a bit of a slippery slope. Once you’re using your computer and using your TV, then you might use it for other things as well.

Aren’t these gadgets just a way of life and Jewish law has to adapt?

Yes, that’s true, but we need vacations from routines now and then and Shabbat is about challenging us to change our routine one day a week and experience life a bit differently.

How does one define “Shomer Shabbat” [Sabbath observant] today?

A person trying to be “Shomer Shabbat” is committed to differentiating Shabbat from the workweek by abstaining from certain activities and engaging in other activities that are specific to Shabbat. As I say in the paper, we desist from melacha and some other activities which detract from the tranquility of the day. We engage in activities like eating, sleeping, praying and studying. That makes the day sort of an image of an ideal world; the experience of an ideal world.

Jewish law evolves and the halachic system progresses, so doesn’t this teshuva keep the system from adapting to technological innovation?

I think it’s the opposite. I think it engages with the reality of digital culture – its attraction, its usefulness, and its negative consequences. This paper tries to take the feel of Shabbat and apply it to the digital age that we’re living in. For good and for bad.

How will you help young people access your teshuva and apply your prescriptions to their technology-dominated lives?

I’m working on a curriculum for Ramah camps, Schechter day schools and USY [Conservative movement’s youth agency]. You don’t do something like this without the intention of teaching it to people who aren’t going to read a 60-page paper.

Finally, would it be ironic if someone read your teshuva on their iPad on Shabbat afternoon?

Yes (laughs). I’ve told people not to read my paper on the Kindle because that would be ironic. I don’t believe that we’ve come to the final chapter in this. In the paper I explained that as technology continues to evolve, we’ll gain new insights. It may be that in the future there may be a way to use e-readers on Shabbat without violating the concerns I raise in this paper, and I would like that.

*The complete teshuva can be accessed at http://jewi.sh/nevins

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ultra-Orthodox Correct About Internet Dangers

When I first heard that a rally was planned for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews to protest the Internet, I didn’t think it would attract much attention. After all, the Internet has long been under attack in Haredi communities and their rabbinic leaders have forbidden it in the past.

The event on May 20 at Citi Field in New York (home of the Mets) drew a massive audience of more than 40,000 men, with an overflow crowd tuning in to a live video feed at the neighboring Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. Women were not allowed entry to the event, but many viewed it, ironically enough, on the Internet through a live stream broadcast.

The speeches, mostly made in Yiddish with English subtitles on the stadium’s large video screen, condemned the Internet and warned that its impure content poses a serious threat to the Haredi lifestyle and the modesty that the Torah demands.

The day after the rally I was contacted by Ben Sales, a reporter for JTA. He wanted my opinion of the event and a quote about how I understand the role of the Internet in Jewish life. My sense is that he presumed I would criticize the rally’s organizing group for not realizing the gift of the Internet or how it has improved our lives.

Rather than disapproving of the rally or criticizing the speakers for a shortsighted understanding of technology, I explained that these Haredi leaders are correct. And they are. The Internet most certainly jeopardizes their way of life. The Internet will cause Haredi Jews to sin and will tear away at the fabric of their modest lives.

The way the Haredi communities have maintained such strict adherence to their understanding of religious life is by erecting borders to protect themselves from outside influences. Within a controlled, ghettoized environment self-control is not required as much as it is in a free and open society. The Internet virtually removes the ghetto walls and nullifies the borders of the Haredi neighborhoods void. Thus, the perils of the Internet are real to this community.

Many assume that when Haredi leaders speak of the threat of the Internet to their adherents they are referring to pornographic content. I don’t believe this is the case. The Haredi community is well versed on the availability of content filters that will sift out such immodest material. In fact, most of the speakers at the rally forbid their followers from browsing the Web without a filter for inappropriate sites.

Filters take care of removing indecent photos of a sexual nature and images of immodestly dressed women. What an Internet filter will not remove for the Haredi Web surfers however is other material their leaders consider to be explicit. Content that challenges their core beliefs and structured way of life are of most concern to the rally’s organizers. If Haredi Jews cannot exert the self-control needed to avoid content of an immodest nature, they can rely on the filters. However, they will still be subjected to “intellectual porn” – the thoughts and opinions of Jewish scholars that will challenge their thinking.

Scantily clad women can be seen by Haredi Jewish men on their way to Queens when they look at billboards on the side of the highway or magazine covers on sidewalk newsstands. However, Torah commentary written by modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis is only accessible to them through an unfiltered and unmonitored Internet. Blog posts, op-eds and doctoral theses are the pernicious enemies that scare Haredi leaders most about the Internet. Viewing pornographic imagery may lead Haredi disciples to sin, but unfiltered use of the Internet leads them to virtually leave their isolated community and could cause them to go off the path, venturing outside of their real life community as well.

Most of the Haredi critics of the Internet recognize that the Internet is necessary in today’s world and cannot be banned entirely. The speakers at the Citi Field rally readily admitted that both men and women in their communities rely on the Internet and other forms of modern technology for business as well as for personal use (banking, shopping and as a medical resource).

The real threat of the Internet to the insular Haredi communities is that the Internet quashes the walls to the outside world that they have so steadfastly erected over the generations. The free flow of information that could undermine the Haredi way of life is the real concern. In that sense, the Internet certainly poses an ever present danger. It will be interesting to see the effects of the Internet on this community in the coming years.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Counting the Omer in the Digital Age

Today is the 13th day of the Omer, the period of forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot.

The Jewish people are commanded to count these forty-nine days which commemorate the day on which an omer (unit of measurement) of barley was offered in the Temple until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on the festival Shavuot. We begin this counting on the second day of Passover and each night announce what day of the Omer it is.

Omer counting devices and special Omer calendars have long been relied upon to help individuals remember the correct count, but in the Digital Age there are websites and apps and text message reminders to help keep the counting correct.

There are also some fun tools to help us count the Omer. For the past 13 years the Homer Calendar has been a fun destination on the Web for Jewish Omer counters who are also fans of The Simpsons. The website, which has had about 225,000 visits, cites Howard Cooper with the idea of an Omer calendar that pays homage to The Simpsons and Homer Simpson, the patriarchal head of the cartoon family. In addition to providing an easy-to-use omer calendar, the site is also a resource for Simpsons fans who want to learn more about the many Jewish references on the show. Brian Rosman, the Homer Calendar’s administrator, also tweets the daily Omer count @CountTheHomer on Twitter.

An introduction to the website explains that it is now in its 13th year, which it calls its “Bart Mitzvah”. The site also mentions that, “When we started, we got a ‘cease and desist’ order from Fox, claiming a copyright violation. Interestingly, the letter was dated on Shavuot. We wrote back, claiming a ‘fair use,’ and haven’t heard anything since.”

Seth and Isaac Galena over at Bangitout.com have come up with two fun ways to count the Omer. With a nod to pop culture, the brothers have created the Movie Lover’s Omer Counter and the Sports Lover’s Omer Counter. The movie counter uses movies with numbers in their titles to remind users which day of the count it is, while the sports counter relies on athlete’s uniform numbers. Perhaps next year they’ll create an omer counter for NASCAR fans with car digits.

There are several mobile apps that help remind users to count the Omer and provide the correct day of the counting. Rusty Brick first released its Counting the Omer app (Free) back in 2009 and it is still an industry leader. The app provides an Omer calendar and includes the blessings and spiritual information pertaining to each day of the period. The free version of the app does not provide a daily reminder to count, but the 99-cent version does. Moshe Berman’s Ultimate Omer 2 ($2.99) not only reminds you to count the Omer, but it also lets you keep track of the days you remembered to count. The app also plays the phone’s default alarm sound to remind you to count.

Mosaica Press released a new app ($4.99) that is based on Rabbi Yaakov Haber’s Spiritual Grow book. The app, which is available in iPhone and iPad formats, helps count the Omer and also provides daily insights with a Kabbalistic flavor. An example of the Jewish spiritual wisdom the app provides is: “Day 10: Make sure that today you not only give people the benefit of the doubt, but even when it seems that they are definitely in the wrong, try to find some way of justifying their actions. Try to see their point of view…Find two things in your life that conflict and make them harmonize.” Some of the app’s features include the proper blessing to recite before counting each night, automatic adjustment for time zone and location, and social network integration to share on Facebook and Twitter.

In addition to the mobile apps, there are other ways that technology is playing a part in the Counting of the Omer. Josh Fleet, one of the editors of the Huffington Post’s religion vertical, came up with the idea of offering a liveblog on the HuffPost Religion site during the Omer period this year. The Omer Liveblog features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection during the Omer.

Rabbi Heather Altman turned to Google Docs to help assemble other rabbis who would contribute their wisdom to a Counting the Omer project she conceived of to raise money for the Global Seva Challenge. Rabbi Altman launched the seven week email subscription series called Countdown to Freedom which offers a different spiritual insight each day via a subscription-based Constant Contact newsletter. Subscription costs of the daily Omer reflection newsletter raises funds in the fight against human trafficking. Her 49-day project also raises awareness of the global problem of human trafficking, which is now a $32 billion business.

A generation ago, Jewish people simply counted up the days of the Omer until Shavuot arrived. The more spiritually inclined might have delved into the mystical traditions of the counting period. However, no one could have imagined that technology would create so many new aspects to this seven week observance. New technology has certainly opened the door to new ritual.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller