Friday, March 31, 2023

There are many reasons to be proud of the Jewish community in Bergen County. There are extraordinary chesed organizations, beautiful shuls overflowing with congregants, and outstanding schools filled with Torah learning.

There is another, sometimes overlooked, reason why we should be proud. Baruch Hashem, there is a deep sense of unity that permeates throughout the community. It does not matter what shul you daven in or where your children or grandchildren go to school, there is a strong connection that unites us. This connection is fostered by our shared values such as the primacy of Torah, the importance of secular education and a love for the State of Israel. While an abundance of shuls and schools can cause aggressive competition, by and large, our communal institutions coexist harmoniously and thrive. 

This sense of unity expresses itself beautifully within the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC). I get such nachas at every meeting. Young rabbonim and seasoned rabbonim sit side by side, with mutual respect and admiration. At our meetings, everyone’s opinion is welcomed and valued. 

It is precisely this unity that allowed the RCBC to band together in March 2020 and make the difficult and heroic decision to close all shuls because of the COVID pandemic. There is no question that this decision saved countless lives. Not only was the RCBC’s decision impactful on a local level, it was also a model that communities worldwide sought to emulate.

As a community, we have much to be proud of. It is now time to harness this strength and accomplish even more.

In this spirit, over the summer months, the RCBC and our local yeshivot partnered to launch a new program called, Living Connected: A Bergen County School-Shul Tech Initiative. Members of all RCBC shuls, in conjunction with our local elementary and high schools, will examine and consider the influence that technology has on our lives. Over the coming weeks, rabbonim from the RCBC, heads of school and others will be publishing articles in The Jewish Link on this topic. All participating schools will be running special programming for students to more deeply consider the influence of technology. Lastly, on the Shabbos of September 23-24, all RCBC shuls will dedicate time to focus on the impact that technology is having on building healthy relationships with ourselves, others and with Hashem.   

This is not the first technology initiative in Bergen County. During the 2019-2020 school year, our elementary schools led a meaningful campaign encouraging middle school families to think more deliberately about technology. These excellent efforts came to a sudden halt with the arrival of the COVID pandemic and the need for students to use technology to attend Zoom school.

Baruch Hashem, we have entered a new phase in the ongoing battle against COVID. In most settings, masks are off and Zoom school is a distant memory. Our shuls and schools are open and thriving once again. It is a perfect time to embark once more in cheshbon hanefesh, a self and communal honest accounting. What a wonderful opportunity for our shuls and schools to unite to tackle this difficult subject!

So much of our world is defined and controlled by technology. From smartphones and laptops, to Alexa and Siri, seldom do we encounter a moment during the week (except for the welcome break of Shabbos) when we are not surrounded by our phones and other technological devices.

The impact can be felt by everyone, everywhere. It is hard to daven Shemoneh Esreh in shul without the interruption of someone’s phone ringing. It is challenging to have a face-to-face conversation without someone pausing to check a text or respond to a ding. Our middle school students are facing difficulties developing healthy relationships with their peers and their parents. Many of our high school students are not getting adequate sleep, a key ingredient for physical and mental health. Instead, they spend hours each night texting, streaming videos, and playing games on their devices. Well-meaning and involved parents face an uphill battle adequately controlling what their children are exposed to on the internet.

While conquering these challenges may seem like a losing proposition, our best chance of success is achieved when we try to tackle these issues together. That is why this week we are embarking on a month-long campaign to reevaluate how connected we have become to technology.

A willingness to engage in cheshbon hanefesh, a deep and honest self and communal accounting, is defining to our identity as Jews. In fact, it is an idea alluded to in this week’s Parsha, Shoftim. In Devarim 16:22, Moshe instructs:

וְלֹא תָקִים לְךָ מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ

And you shall not set up for yourself a monument, which the Lord, your God hates.

While there are many sins which the Torah outlines, seldom does the Torah make it a point to highlight G-d’s hatred of that particular sin. 

Rav Moshe Feinstein offers an explanation for why Moshe speaks in such strong language when describing a personal altar for sacrifice.  Rav Moshe writes that the word מצבה (matzevah) is related to the Hebrew word נצב (nitzav), which means to stand. Moshe speaks so harshly about a monument for sacrifice because it represents a stationary religious life. Rich and robust religious commitment requires movement. A Jew always needs to deliberate, analyze, and reanalyze. Every component of one’s life needs to be evaluated – am I doing enough in a particular area? Should I be doing more? Have I become overly influenced by the secular culture around me?

A personal monument represents inactivity and stagnation. It is no surprise that the term for Jewish law is הלכה, meaning, to walk. A life of religious commitment is defined by movement and growth. Rav Moshe also notes that a tombstone in Judaism is called a matzevah for it is only after we pass away that we finally stay still.

What a powerful idea to consider during the month of Elul!

Please keep your eyes open for the articles and programming that we will feature in the coming weeks. Encourage your children and grandchildren to join in the conversation. Bring up the topic at your Shabbos table! Read the thought-provoking articles that will appear in The Link and share them with friends. Ask your children and grandchildren about the programming they are running in school on this topic. Let us think together about how we can harness the power of technology for the good and minimize its negative effects. 

I am hopeful that this initiative will ignite honest albeit difficult conversations. I encourage everyone to write letters to the editor and share your thoughts. On that note, let us keep the conversations positive. Let us spend less time writing about all the ills and more time thinking carefully about how we can improve.

Onwards and upwards!

Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the President of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County and the Rabbi of Young Israel of Fort Lee. He is also a faculty member at Yeshiva University and Naaleh High School for Girls.”

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