Addressing the Distractions of Our Phones in Our Shuls and Prayers

“All of life is a challenge of not being distracted from the greatness that we are” – Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner zt”l

Last week, we discussed some of the issues regarding mobile phone usage in Shuls. In this post we’ll look at some obstacles and strategies.

I think the obstacles can be broken down as:
1) Davening is hard, so we accept minimal personal performance levels
2) Mobile phones are distracting us at new levels
3) Lack of focus on the activity of prayer, leads to desensitization to the place of prayer
Let’s look at them one by one.

In a prior post titled, Judaism’s Little Secret – It’s Hard to Pray, we discussed some of the reasons davening is hard. As a result of this difficulty, many people set minimal kavanna levels as their personal norm. In some cases it’s the level they reached in high school. To address this, we need our leaders, teachers and lay people to discuss moving towards a growth mindset regard prayer. Briefly this means that we can all improve our concentration levels over time, if we work on it. As we gradually grow, we can improve the effect our prayers have on ourselves and the world around us.

Distractions were not invented in the 20th or 21st centuries, but our technological progress from television to the Internet to mobile phones has elevated them to a new level. When I recently mention to a friend, that a study found that the average person looks at their phone 150 times a day, he replied that 300-500 seems like a more accurate range to him. In addition to its functionality and mobility form factor, the phone is so distracting because it really does talk to us. All these incoming calls, texts and emails are from people and organizations with whom we have some connection and this “personal” attention is addicting and extremely distracting.

At its extremes, these distraction have led to the sad phenomena of half-Shabbos, where teens desecrate the Shabbos to respond to their texting addictions. Luckily, most observant Jews have not crossed that line and the Shabbos does give us a respite from our phone distractions. But we would probably greatly benefit if we put the phone down more often, to pay more attention to the task or person with whom we’re currently connecting. Shutting the phone off during Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv gives us an opportunity to reduce the distractions and it’s a step towards the healthy goal of setting aside the phone for other extended periods during our day.

If our prayer is on half-throttle, then it’s no surprise that the place of prayer is taking a hit. Our communities have made great strides over the years in reducing talking in Shul, but our increasing phone usage shows that perhaps those improvements were more for the benefit of our neighbors than for Hashem and His House. I think the goal here is gradual growth and sensitization to what an awesome place the Shul really is. We understand Shabbos as holiness in time and we most focus on the Shul as our primary remnant of holiness in place.

I think we need education, awareness, commitment and continual growth to address these problems. I don’t think “No phone” signs address the real issues which are improving our prayer, reducing our distracting levels and sensitizing ourselves to the awesomeness of our Shuls. The process starts inside each of us, with a personal commitment and a small step improvement, and then we can start moving collectively to building a Mikdash, where Hashem can dwell.

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