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Yom Kippur: a day to reflect, atone and put down the phone

Published September 17. 2010 05:00PM

Imagine a day without food, drink, electricity or cell phones.

It would mean candles lit rather than lights switched on, walks taken rather than cars driven, a real conversation or laugh instead of a text message or emoticon.

The most observant Jews acknowledge Yom Kippur, the last of the Jewish High Holy Days which began a week ago with Rosh Hashana by making these sacrifices.

But as people become increasingly tied to the Internet, social media and their cell phones, keeping that tradition has, for many, become more challenging.

This year for Yom Kippur, a national advertising campaign created by two New York-based executives is urging Jews and non-Jews alike to forgo their cell phones in the spirit of the holiday. Called the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur begins at sundown Friday and ends Saturday.

"It's a time of year when Jews around the world set aside the day to atone for their sins from the year before," said Amy Wasser-Simpson, vice president for planning and community services for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.

Wasser-Simpson said she thinks turning off cell phones that day and staying away from the Internet could help people have a more significant religious experience.

She said she typically doesn't use any kind of technology besides her car on Jewish holy days and plans to do the same on Yom Kippur.

Eddie Westerman, 49, said she recently committed to not using her cell phone or checking her e-mail on Yom Kippur because it's meant to be a day for "looking inward instead of communicating outward."

She's become so reliant on technology, she said, that it's blurred the line between home and work; she often gets home and goes straight to the computer to check her work e-mail.

"We don't ever have downtime anymore," she said.

On Yom Kippur, Westerman and her family, including her 17-year-old son, Max, will also go without food. But Max intends to hang on to his cell phone.

"My cell phone is a part of my life for friends, school and emergencies," he said. "If I don't eat for a day, it's not going to affect other people. But what if my friend called and needed help?"

The Westermans attend Kol HaNeshamah synagogue in Seattle.

The national campaign for a device-free Yom Kippur was started up by two men who founded a company called Offlining for the sole purpose of encouraging people to take breaks from the Internet and their cell phones.

Eric Yaverbaum and Mark DiMassimo are hoping as many people as possible will choose to give up their gadgets for this weekend's holiday.

Their ads, published online, in magazines and on posters around New York City, feature photos of celebrities such as Tiger Woods and Lindsay Lohan with messages like: You don't have to be Jewish to atone for your texts on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Anson Laytner, former executive director of the Seattle chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said he loves the idea of giving up technology for a day.

Laytner doesn't use his phone on Jewish holidays or on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, and will turn it off again for Yom Kippur. But doing so may be harder for less-observant or younger Jews, he said.

He remembers that a few years ago during breaks between services on Yom Kippur many people were immediately on their phones.

"Electronic connections are kind of addictive," he said. "It does become hard to turn it off and step away."

Rabbi Mark Glickman, who leads Congregation Kol Shalom and Congregation Kol Ami, both in the Seattle area, said he disconnects each week on the Jewish Sabbath.

For him, getting offline is about deepening relationships. Electronic communication just can't replace face-to-face interactions with people, he said.

"You can't see the look on their face. You can't tell if they look tired or healthy. You can't hug them or shake their hand."

His kids, however, have a harder time powering off.

"It's an ongoing struggle," said Glickman, who writes a column about faith for The Seattle Times. "They do still use electronics but hopefully we've gotten them to feel guilty about it," he adds with a laugh.

Mary Sobel, an Orthodox Jew who attends Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle, said pushing the off-button is worth it.

Sobel, 52, has been going without electricity every Saturday for the last 18 years.

"It's very liberating."

Sobel has learned to enjoy walks where she sees the trees and feels the rain. And she looks forward to not worrying about what's going on in the world for a day.

Putting down the phone is another step in the holiday's spirit of bettering oneself, she said. It's easier to be mean when you're sending someone a text message instead of looking at him, for example.

"I think it would be good for everybody to try," she said. "Not just Jews."

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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