Considering Technology, Shabbat and Families, in a 24/7 World

By Tiffany Shlain

[This is the fifth and final article in a series about revitalizing the field of family engagement for the Jewish community, written by Covenant Foundation award recipients and grantees.]

The reality for Jewish families today is that screens are our newest members. They sit at the dinner table. They go to sleep with us. We worry if we can’t find them, we feel anxious when they aren’t in sight. Do we really want these objects to be so integrated into absolutely everything all the time?

As a filmmaker, my career is rooted in experimenting with how technology can bring us together. But these days, I’m also spending a lot of time looking at how it’s keeping us apart.

I am a member of Generation X; growing up, watching too much TV was the great concern for my parents and their cohort. But TVs had limits; you can’t drag a big TV with you into the bed, on a walk, or into the classroom.

By contrast, today’s screens can go anywhere, anytime. And as a parent, this keeps me up at night. We are responsible for teaching our children how to be alone with themselves – how to conjure up creativity on their own, and strengthen their ability to do so. Helping to raise resilient kids is so much about modeling behavior. But what example are we providing by having our own screens on us, in our hands, in front of our (and our children’s) faces, far too much?

We know that everything we do (reading this article, picking up that phone, going for a walk), is reshaping connections in our brains. So if we know that, how can we not be concerned that we – and our children – spend so much time in front of screens that rewire the brain to crave more entertainment, notifications, games, social media, endless episodes of shows, and constant stimulation?

These screens aren’t going away, and we shouldn’t want them to. So the question becomes, how can we co-exist in a better way?

I have personal reasons to be optimistic that we can do this. For nearly a decade, my family has turned off all screens from Friday to Saturday night for what we call our Technology Shabbats. We have embedded this no-screen aspect into our Shabbat rituals and it has been the most profound shift in our family’s life, giving us more balance, presence and connection as a family and individually. Because it’s been so meaningful, and it seems to get better the longer we do it, I felt I had to write a book about it to share its benefits far and wide in our screen-filled world. For the book, I asked families of all different backgrounds, shapes and sizes (some Jewish, some not) to practice Tech Shabbat for three weeks in a row. Every family, in beautifully unique ways, said it helped them so much, describing how they felt so much more connected on those days and the way it rippled into the other six days, too.

From the very beginning, Shabbat has been a communal practice: everyone comes together to do the same thing at the same time. That’s part of what makes it magical. And Tech Shabbat is no different. It’s best when it’s communal, when family and friends and communities come together in turning off the screens, and focus on the values that Shabbat is all about.

In our house, our Tech Shabbat starts with Friday night Shabbat dinner with family and friends to connect, face to face, and in a very festive way. We eat a delicious meal, do the blessings, and join in one conversation, not a screen in sight. We discuss big matters (ethics) and little ones (what we learned that week or something we want to let go of from the week). We also make a point of focusing on gratitude – acknowledging all we have to be thankful for.

Saturday is our family day – it’s about presence, connection, learning, and exploring. We make a big lunch, go for walks, play board games, read, make art, and write in our journals. This is our version of Shabbat. Being present. We spend the whole day connecting with each other, with nature, and with our inner selves.

People often ask me, how are we able to keep Tech Shabbat going when kids have sports or activities? The answer is that we just print out or write out where we need to go on Friday afternoon and let people know we are off screens. This way, we don’t have to turn to the phone on Saturday. It’s old-school and wonderful to remind children how to be resourceful and do things without screens.

A Shabbat without screens also reminds us how to connect as a family in a more direct and lasting way. Just as Abraham Joshua Heschel described in his seminal work The Sabbath, “The seventh day is a palace in time in which we rebuild.”

How we can reclaim Heschel’s notion of time in this screen-filled world?

By turning off our screens once a week, entering the palace, and giving ourselves a chance to reset. It’s a start.

Tiffany Shlain is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards. Honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” her films (Connected, The Tribe, The Making of a Mensch) have premiered at top festivals including Sundance and are used by the US State Department to foster dialogue at embassies globally. The Forward wrote that “Shlain has quietly become one of the most influential Jewish filmmakers in the country.” Her films and work have received over 80 awards and distinctions including being selected for The Albert Einstein Foundation’s Genius: 100 Visions for the Future, NPR’s inclusion of Shlain’s UC Berkeley address on their list of best commencement speeches. She and her husband and two children live in Northern California. Twitter @tiffanyshlain

Tiffany’s upcoming book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week will be published by Simon & Schuster on Sept 24th. You can pre-order it here.

Tiffany’s film studio Let it Ripple will be hosting a global conversation about technology and humanity as the focus for their Character Day event set for September 27/28. You can find out more and sign up at