Perhaps it’s the eleventh plague: people have been zombified by their cell phones.  This is the stuff of horror movies, pod people who can’t tear themselves away from a piece of technology, whose thumbs are drawn to tap out tiny letters with messages that just can’t wait!

Younger kids sit “together” staring at their phones.  People at restaurants sit across from each other, heads lowered so they don’t miss the latest email.  I’ve seen people reading what must be messages of vital importance at weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs (including, in one case, the Bar Mitzvah girl’s grandfather).  This includes Jews of all denominations.  The younger set walk into Hebrew school waving their phones, and teens waiting (with friends) for the bus to take them to a USY event have their heads bowed in what now looks a ritualistic pose.  There are those who take a break from Shabbat or holiday services, going outside or just into the lobby, to check on that mesmerizing screen.  These are not doctors checking their pagers.  So help me, I’ve seen people participating in shiva minyans with eyes glued to their phones.

Are these communications of such vital importance (perhaps related to national security) that they must be reviewed and answered faster than a police car responding to a 911 call?

On some Friday nights when we have guests I have requested, “No phones please,” even though I’m uncomfortable making this announcement.  I feel like a wet blanket, overseer and party pooper.  (I am ignored anyway). Then there’s the awkwardness of telling someone else’s kid to put down the phone.  We’ve had Shabbat and holiday dinners with members of the younger crowd trying (unsuccessfully) to hide their texting under the tablecloth or blithely texting away as though no one should care.  Often one of their parents is sitting in the next chair.  At our house we have worked hard to make our seders interactive, enjoyable and engaging.  A few years ago I found out that one of my young guests had texted through the whole thing.  That stung.  Why come?  Just stay home with your phone.

By not saying something, however, we enable an anti-social behavior that has, unfortunately, become the norm.

And let’s not forget the texters-on-the-move who walk down the street fully owned by their phones, heads down, uninterested in the fact that they might bop into someone or hurt themselves tripping over something on the sidewalk.  Toddlers in shopping carts amuse themselves with pretty pictures and games on Mom or Dad’s phone.  Texters in training.

We have raised a generation of loners in crowds, people who do not care that you have prepared a festive meal for them or that you are celebrating a family simcha which you invited them to share.  Some older folks, too, seemingly cannot relate to their tablemates or make the effort to start a conversation or get to know someone new.  Even “How about those Red Sox?” or, in our tradition, answering a question with a question, beats gazing at an iPhone.

It also occurs to me that people who are socially awkward are often made fun of.  Yet it’s perfectly ok, in fact it’s expected now, that people will attach themselves to a device (let’s not forget laptops and iPads) that removes them from those in the next seat.

There’s a very clever cartoon I saw recently, with a family, circa the mid-60s, sitting at the dinner table.  The kids are holding 60s era phones – big and clunky, with dials no less — and staring at them.  The father yells, “Stop looking at those phones!”   I thought it was very funny but it also reminded me how far we’ve come from basic courtesy and being in the moment with family and friends.

We Jews talk a lot about community.  In his book Relational Judaism, Dr. Ron Wolfson writes, “What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.”  Not if we’re texting!  We need nine other people to make a minyan.  I think if one of them so much as glances at a phone, he shouldn’t be counted.

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