It happens every year, around this time. Jews start to wage war against hametz, or leavened food, by scouring cupboards and countertops, turning pockets inside out, dusting off books one page at a time — anything to rid the house of the offending particles before Passover.
Now, a New York synagogue has taken this cleansing process one step further. The leaders of Romemu, a progressive congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, announced in a March 31 bulletin that over the upcoming Passover holiday, they will be doing away with what they consider the “ultimate” hametz: email.
Interpreting hametz expansively to include everything overcomplicated and unessential in life, Rabbi David Ingber and Executive Director Ilene Sameth came to the conclusion that email is a kind of “life-hametz,” exerting constant pressure to read and respond at a pace that few can sustain. “If we were going to spend hours cleaning out our homes of hametz,” they wrote, ironically, via email, “how could we not clean our inner homes out of email hametz as well?”
They decided that during the eight days of Passover, Romemu staff members will not send or respond to a single email, though they will be reachable by phone voicemail in case of a death or other emergency. In keeping with the tradition that any hametz owned during Passover should not be eaten after the holiday, the staff will not read any email sent to them during the blackout period.
The Romemu leaders signed off with an invitation to “De-email… and taste freedom.”
The congregants’ response was jubilant. In the hours following the announcement, many said that they felt inspired to extend the practice to their own lives throughout the holiday.
“I think it’s an awesome idea,” said Angie Atkins, a new Romemu board member and the director of the Wexner Heritage Program, part of the Wexner Foundation. “It takes an ancient practice and makes it relevant and spiritual.” As a result, she has decided to swear off not only email, but also social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “I’m a communications director, so that’s a big deal for me,” she said.
For Rabbi Jessica Minnen, associate director of the Jewish Journey Project, defining hametz broadly is not new: Last year, she linked it to shopping and swore off using her credit card on Passover. Although she can’t ignore her work email, she is planning to modify her virtual behavior “in solidarity” with Romemu. “When I’m alone, waiting for the subway, I often take out my phone to text or look things up; I can’t just be alone,” she said. “So my practice this year will be to just be with Jess, not with my iPhone.”
Rabbi Rachel Cowan, a consultant at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, believes that Romemu’s decision will have a “positive spiritual effect” on the congregation. She herself has a similar though less extreme practice. Last year, she decided that her “real hametz” was all her backlogged email, and she set about deleting and unsubscribing from all junk mail. “Instead of cleaning my house, I cleaned my inbox,” Cowan said. “And I found it much more liberating than scrubbing and scrubbing.” She will repeat that practice this Passover.
That the congregation has responded with such sweeping positivity — on Romemu’s Facebook page, people called the idea “great” and “brilliant” and “awesome” — did not come as a surprise to board member Larry Schwartz, who is also considering giving up email during the holiday. “That’s what’s so special about Romemu,” he said. “People are really into exploring Judaism and trying new things.”