When I was eight years old, my mom brought home a computer, complete with AOL version 3.0. I got hooked immediately. I was completely mesmerized by the internet.
For the next nine years, I’d spend up to 12 hours a day online, scrolling through my favorite websites, downloading music, making friends, and building my own sites on Angelfire and DeadJournal. The internet was where I could be social, find people like myself, blog about my life, and create my own little universe.
Years later, in my early 20s, I got my first smartphone, and quickly became as addicted to it as I had become to the dial-up internet. I’d be on it in class, whenever I was walking, when I was in bed, and when I was watching TV.
These days, I check my iPhone as soon as I wake up in the morning. It’s the last thing I check before I go to sleep at night. When I’m feeling bored, sitting at a red light, standing on the train, waiting in line, lying in bed, or waiting on important emails and messages, I check my phone. It’s constantly by my side.
My phone is more than my social life. It is also where I do my business, like running my website, Jewess, and managing my husband Daniel Lobell’s comedy career. It represents opportunity, since I’m always checking my email, hoping for messages that will come in and change our lives. An email from The New York Times or a big comedy agent is always possible in our lines of work.
I realize that I’m a smartphone addict. I have and may always be obsessed with the internet. These days, most people are also hooked to their phones. We take them everywhere we go – even the bathroom. When we are without them, we get anxious. We don’t know how to navigate maps, figure out our way around traffic, or get in touch with friends without them. I am just like many others.
One thing that sets me apart, however, is that I have a 25-hour break from my phone every week. I’m an observant Jew, and once a week, from Friday night at sundown to Saturday night one hour after sundown, I do not check my phone. It is off and hidden, and I don’t have to think about it. When there are Jewish holidays that restrict work, I don’t check my phone either. Sometimes I go three days without being on it. Using it would violate the commandment to not light a fire on Shabbat, since you are sparking electricity.
Transitioning to a phone-free lifestyle once a week, or even more frequently if there are holidays, was not easy. I converted to Judaism, and it took me several years throughout my conversion process to learn how to go without my phone on Shabbat and the holidays. At first, I stopped answering work emails and texts on my phone, and then I would simply check my work emails without replying and go on social media without posting.
Eventually, it got to a point where I realized I didn’t want to be bothered on my day off. Why wasn’t I allowing myself a break from the outside world? When I read work emails or looked on social media, I’d be upset if I didn’t have any new messages or notifications. Or sometimes I did have new messages, and they would be negative.
The breaking point came about three years ago for me. I had written about my conversion for a popular women’s website that is now defunct. I thought I’d receive a good response to my personal essay.
The article was posted on a Saturday. I heard my phone going off right after it was posted, so I checked it. A friend had messaged me: “I’m so sorry about your article. Forget all those stupid commenters.”
Of course, I had to know what she was talking about. I looked on my piece, and there were hundreds of comments bashing me. I spent the next two hours reading through them, that sinking feeling in my stomach growing bigger and bigger. “Get off your phone,” said Daniel. “It’s only making you feel worse.”
I read all the comments and put my phone down, and I tried to enjoy the rest of Shabbat. But I couldn’t. It had been ruined by the outside world.
I didn’t want something like that to happen again. I needed my peace. I wanted to focus on spending time with family and friends and using one day a week to connect with Hashem. I was checking my phone because I didn’t have faith that everything would be OK while I was tuning out the world. I was trying to have control over an uncontrollable situation: life.
I also realized, over the next few months following the commenting incident, that I didn’t miss anything special by not looking at my phone. There was never an email that said, “You need to answer this email today or else we’ll take away this opportunity away from you” and thank G-d, there haven’t been any family emergencies. Plus, we have a code if there is – just ring me multiple times, and I’ll know it’s an emergency, and I will answer. Emergencies are exceptions to the rules of Shabbat.
I’ve been cell phone-free on Shabbat and the holidays for about three years now. Learning to disconnect was one of the toughest things I’ve had to do, but it’s also turned out to be the most rewarding. Facebook, email, and Instagram will survive without me. They can wait.
No matter how crazy life gets, how frantic my schedule is, or how full my inbox becomes, I know that at the end of the week, I can shut it all down, focus on what matters the most, and reconnect with myself, my loved ones, and G-d.
Kylie Ora Lobell is Jewess in Chief of Jewess, an online magazine for Jewish women. She has also written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Aish, Chabad, The Forward, Tablet, and the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.