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Stepping away from the online world for a set time period is not exactly a “new thing.” As a growing tide of research confirms that our culture of constant connectivity has negative psychological effects, and actually makes us less efficient, people are becoming increasingly interested in the “unplugging” movement. On March 7 and 8, many observed the fifth annual National Day of Unplugging, a 24-hour period without electronics. Last December, Arianna Huffington — who spends her life running an online news site — announced that she would disconnect from all her devices for seven days ahead of the Christmas holidays. Whether such digital sabbaths actually have a lasting, positive impact after the circumscribed time period is over remains a matter of debate.
But for Romemu, a practice of partial unplugging fits snugly into the congregation’s overall ethos, which is rooted in mindfulness year-round. “Unabashedly eclectic, we engage in body practices like yoga, infuse traditional liturgy with the energy of ecstatic chant, and ground our practice with meditation and contemplation,” the synagogue’s website says. Ingber is known for incorporating his own experience with Eastern spiritual practices into Romemu’s services.
Still, not all staff members were expected to be equally enthused about abandoning their inboxes for an entire week. Sameth acknowledged this in a March 18 email to Romemu staff. “I also know that for some of you, the very idea of not checking email gives you the hives,” she wrote. Later, she told the Forward that the plan “does give them a little sense of nervousness,” and described her colleagues as “both excited and challenged” by it.
Perhaps Huffington’s lessons from her experience would be instructive. She allowed herself to “plug into” her work for an hour each day that her office was open. She scheduled “inspirational quotes” in advance on Facebook and Twitter. And, in a blog post published afterward, she said that “unplugging is easier when you change locations.” She was on vacation in Hawaii.
For Sameth, who first conceived of the idea for Romemu, the desire to “de-email” came out of a reflection on what would happen if she were to relive the Passover story today. She realized that she would never make it to the Red Sea to experience the miracle of liberation, because she would be too busy checking her inbox.
“I would never have known that everybody was leaving Egypt,” Sameth told the Forward. “I would have missed the most important thing!”
The congregants’ willingness to embrace — even extend — her concept as a way to make their holiday more meaningful could itself be considered a mark of success. But for Sameth, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Her ideal outcome would be for the “de-emailing” practice to spread far and wide in the Jewish world.
“If people can give themselves this gift, it would be a remarkable statement that the Jewish community is willing to recognize the real hametz in our lives,” she said, “not just the leavened bread.”