Over the coming month, Jerusalem will be flooded with young men and women arriving from the United States, Canada, South Africa, and the United Kingdom to begin a year of study in yeshiva or seminary. These students come to Israel for a year of learning, growth, and personal development, and for many of them, the year will be a turning point in their lives.
The last few years have seen significant change in the yeshiva and seminary experience as a result of the proliferation of smartphone technology and competitive data packages. Rather than the year and place serving as space in which young men and women partially disconnect from the distractions of home life and secular culture to focus on their religious and personal growth, smartphones enable perpetual connection and can be a source of distraction in learning and social settings. Students may have traveled thousands of miles away from home to immerse themselves in a new environment, but there is a sense among yeshiva and seminary teachers that they are fighting for the attention of their students over WhatsApp conversations and social media posts between members of their old social networks. Another concern is that internet-enabled phones can also serve as a conduit for distasteful content, pornographic or otherwise.
Given all this, some more right-wing yeshivas and seminaries have established smartphone bans for their student population. For the majority of yeshiva and seminary students, however, such a ban conflicts with the religious ideology that an observant Jew can successfully live in the modern world. This leaves yeshiva and seminary educators with a quandary: Do they discourage smartphone use by their students in order to help them maximize their opportunities during their year in Israel? Or do they remain silent, knowing that excessive smartphone use by their students may hinder them from truly immersing in their yeshiva and seminary experience?
Having researched these and related questions, I would like to offer four nuanced pieces of advice to program administrators, teachers, and students. It is worth noting that much of this advice is applicable well before the yeshiva or seminary experience, and for educators and families of any stream of Judaism.
How We Talk About Smartphones
The world in general and the Orthodox world in particular tends to speak about what smartphones “do” to society, expressing a technologically deterministic view of the world (i.e., technology is something that changes society). From a Jewish perspective, however, this comes very close to undermining the principle of free will. Rather than thinking in terms of how technology impacts people, I believe we should adopt a “(Religious) Social Shapers of Technology” approach. Asking deeper questions about how technology is used by people would radically change how we speak about smartphone technology. For example, rather than discussing how smartphones are changing the yeshiva and seminary experience, I believe that we should be asking how yeshiva and seminary students negotiate the challenges and opportunities afforded by smartphone technology.
Focus on Usages
It is clear that smartphones are used by students for more than social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Smartphones help people stay in contact and enable meet ups with friends and family. They are used for notetaking, navigation, and securing transportation, and they help users feel safe, especially when they are in a foreign country. They also serve as portals to access Jewish content and Torah shiurim (lectures). And, of course, they take photographs.
It should be very clear that these “kosher” uses do not necessarily justify or counterbalance the “treif” content available through smartphones, nor do they necessarily stop yeshiva and seminary students from being distracted with their smartphones. Nevertheless, it should be clear that any honest attempt to discuss smartphone use by yeshiva and seminary students must involve a conversation about how smartphones are actually used.
Have the Conversation
All too often, those same yeshivas and seminaries that claim to adopt a Modern Orthodox ideology speak about smartphones with a tone of negativity that can be very confusing to their students. I believe that the role of a yeshiva and seminary vis-à-vis technology (and specifically smartphone technology) is to “educate to negotiate,” meaning that they have a responsibility to educate towards a balanced life so their students can understand how to be “kosher” smartphone consumers. For some, this may include discussions about the benefits of internet or smartphone filters; for others, it may involve conversations about kosher smartphones.
Ultimately, each institution has its own moral economy and should determine what is suitable guidance for their respective student bodies. Nonetheless, what is most important is that the administration in each yeshiva and seminary has a clear understanding of their respective moral economies, and makes sure that the guidance they give to their students is aligned with the religious ideology and aspirations of their institutions.
Where Possible, Harness for the Good
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to smartphone use in yeshivas and seminaries, just as there is no one-size-fits-all yeshiva, seminary, day school, etcetera. At the same time, I would urge the administration of those institutions whose students do have smartphones to consider ways of harnessing smartphone technology for the good, rather than simply discussing ways to keep their students away from the bad.
There is no doubt that the yeshiva and seminary experience is not the same as it was before the advent of smartphones, but Judaism doesn’t and mustn’t live in the past. Instead, the time has come to take a more nuanced look at what we do with smartphones, and how we can talk more sensibly — and constructively — about what our children and students do with them.