Ari Ganji is about as plugged in to technology as any millennial. The 28-year-old shows up texting on his iPhone, his Apple AirPods drowning out the outside world. Sometimes he forgets he is wearing them.
But when Shabbat comes, Ganji unplugs and unwinds.
“It feels good sometimes,” Ganji said of his Shabbat rest from tech. “For someone like me who’s constantly on his phone, to be able to walk down the street and not have my phone in my hand … you have more time to think about what’s important, you know?”
Ganji, who lives in the Kemp Mill area of Silver Spring, was one of seven Washington-area millennials interviewed for this story. Most said they enjoy Shabbat as a tech-free zone at the end of the week, and as a time to reconnect with God.
“I think it’s the idea of being able to connect with yourself and not necessarily with mundane concerns that we might have during the week,” Ganji said.
University of Maryland rising junior Yakira Cohen, 21, said Shabbat is relaxing and gives her time to pursue activities that she doesn’t during the week.
“It’s kind of just like a chill day off, you don’t really have any responsibilities or pressing obligations,” she said. “I love, love playing games. I can’t remember the last time I played a board game not on Shabbat.”
Ganji lived in Belgium until he was 18. He said he wasn’t nearly the technophile he is now.
In Belgium, he only had a flip phone with prepaid calls and texts — social media also was not popular at the time.
“Here, I think we have more freedom with our phone and the internet, I can do whatever I want. I have no restrictions,” said Ganji, who is modern Orthodox.
Moving from Belgium to the United States also presented different religious opportunities for Ganji, who said he did not observe Shabbat when he lived there.
“In Belgium, to find a kosher market or go to synagogue, you also have to go out of town,” he said. “Here [in Kemp Mill], you walk down the street and you have four or five synagogues. It’s a luxury, I guess, that we have.”
Those who have grown up observing Shabbat, and have friends who observe Shabbat, say it isn’t hard to follow the day’s prohibitions against productive work, including putting the pause on tech consumption.
“I think part of why it’s so normal and not weird on Shabbat is that the whole day is kind of structured differently,” Cohen said. “If I had to go for a day at school or work without using my phone, that would be a totally different experience.”
Cohen is in Israel for the summer on a Tamid fellowship, which places Diaspora college students with Israeli startups. Speaking by phone, she said it has been an adjustment to observe Shabbat around Jews who don’t and with non-Jews who are unfamiliar with Shabbat traditions.
“I kind of had to go out of my way to do it,” she said, “as opposed to it kind of naturally happening.”
On Shabbat, as he looks around Kesher Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, Rabbi Hyim Shafner doesn’t see many congregants who have trouble staying away from their phones.
“Orthodox Shabbat is a pretty encompassing thing,” he said. “People can really appreciate what it means to be away from social media. I think it can be especially hard for individuals who feel a little bit isolated.”
Not everyone interviewed for this story who observed Shabbat for years still does today. They use their phones and make social plans. One person said he goes back and forth between observing and not, calling it his personal choice because the purpose of Shabbat is to be relaxed.
As tech use has grown, so has the data that the usage can be addictive. The Nielson Company found that the average adult in the United States spends more than 11 hours a day in the digital world. And last year, the World Health Organization recognized internet gaming as a diagnosable addiction.
Josh Bloch, 22, said if he doesn’t have plans with friends on Shabbat, he gets extremely bored. But that feeling of boredom has intensified as he’s increased his reliance on technology.
“When I didn’t have a phone or computer, I was less comparatively bored on Shabbos,” he said.
Cohen and Ganji said they don’t think about their phones much during Shabbat. But as soon as Havdalah is over, the first thing they do is check their phones. Cohen said after that initial look, the rush is over.
Not so for Ganji. “Just like there’s a clear separation between the week and Shabbat, there is a clear separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week. Shabbat is over, AirPods are in, and you know, just scrolling down, just watching what’s going on in the world.”
Below, Ganji talks about his Apple AirPods, which he had been wearing for the duration of the interview:
Letting go of the outside world allows Jews to be more personally connected, Cohen and Ganji said. Ganji pointed out that on Shabbat, you have to talk face-to-face, knock on people’s doors, and plan meet-ups ahead of time because you can’t call each other.
Shafner said there can be negative effects to using social media, though he said it’s useful for advertising synagogue services and making initial contact.
“It doesn’t create a forum in which [people] can be open and personal,” he said. “Maybe that’s part of the downside of social media.”
Many said the hardest thing is not being able to read the news, or know what’s going on in the world. Picking up the morning paper isn’t a routine for the 82 percent of millennials who get most of their news from online sources, the American Press Institute found in 2016.
“I feel like I missed everything,” said Bloch, a Silver Spring resident. “I have joked multiple times that if nuclear war broke out on a Saturday afternoon I wouldn’t find out until after Shabbos.”
Cohen and Bloch said that being in college, Shabbat takes away time from studying or working on assignments because everything is electronic. Professors communicate through email, assignments are posted and due online, and research is done through the internet.
Recently, Ganji’s phone stopped working for five days. Not having it during Shabbat felt normal, he said, but the other days were “horrible.” He said his friends asked him if he was surviving without his phone.
“Sadly, and I feel ashamed, I went on my computer to check my Instagram,” Ganji said. “It’s almost pathetic that I had to do that, but I did.”