Shavuot Is Tough Sell in Age of 140 Characters

Social Media-Happy Youth Shun Learning of Torah

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By Mendel Horowitz

Published May 13, 2013, issue of May 10, 2013.
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The festival of Shavuot marks God’s announcement of his commandments on Mount Sinai. Occurring seven weeks after Passover, the holiday involves no prescribed rituals and can pass virtuously with little ceremony.

Those who observe Shavuot often honor the occasion with all-night Torah classes. Because of its boundless significance, the Sinaitic revelation is commemorated by engaging wisdom and not by executing behaviors. Wisdom is vast and knows no bounds.

In the Jerusalem seminary where I mentor Modern Orthodox students studying abroad, Shavuot is a hard sell. To paraphrase Mark Twain, some of my students want to have read a Torah but few of them want to actually read one.

My FBing, IMing, Instagramming students are challenging to persuade. These young adults dialogue like they Tweet, and 140 characters does not a conversation make. Suggesting that such youth embrace a holiday of ideas would be like asking them to hug a thesaurus.

When I began teaching in 1998, dormitory floors were littered with magazines and books. Back when notebooks came with pens, students could be encouraged to read and write, could be challenged to communicate. Those students, like students always, were hardly mindful of their studies. But unlike the case of today’s 4Gers, it was possible to engage with the minds of those digital neophytes.

That was then. Today’s dormitory is cluttered with wires and suffused with wireless, its occupants sharing files more than ideas. My current students communicate, relate — think — in bizarre combinations of lethargy and haste, clicking from friend to virtual friend and from page to virtual page without pausing to consider the people or books in sight of them. A text-based curriculum that relies heavily on commitment hardly stands a chance.

According to Wired magazine, today’s freshmen are “the first generation born into a world that has never not known digital life.” These digital-from-births are controlled by technology in ways that shape how they relate to others.

Texting, their No. 1 form of communication, is both intimate and distant, “replacing a commitment to a conversation with a series of one-sided communiqués.” No wonder they have a hard time with the Talmud — my students cannot devote themselves to email.


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