All over the country this summer, you could hear a plea of GenXer parents to their Millennial children that sounded something like this:
“Get off your screen. Stop playing Angry Birds. Go outside and look at some real birds.”
Screen addiction is as real as that YouTube video of a person walking into a fountain in a shopping mall because they had their head down in their smart phone. Jane Brody, health blogger for the New York Times dedicates many posts to overuse of mobile devices. In July, PBS aired the documentary Web Junkie, which followed Chinese families taking the draconian step of sending their gaming-obsessed teens to a rehabilitation center not unlike a center for drug addiction.
In 2010, a Kaiser Family Foundation study concluded “the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Excessive screen time is bad for a child’s physical health and mental wellbeing. Childhood risks include obesity, a rise in blood sugar, poor posture and the inability to develop proper socialization skills. GenXers, who are the last generation to talk to their friends through a telephone lassoed to the kitchen wall with a corkscrew cord, find a chasm between themselves and their Digital Age native children wider and deeper than any other in history.
Do we let our teens Skype in their bedroom with members of the opposite sex with the door closed? How do we trust our children to independently stay on task and complete their homework on their tablets, now a mainstay school supply, when distractions are only a click away?
WEANING AWAY FROM THE SCREEN
The methods of curbing screen time vary for each family. Some have short-term experiments like kicking the habit for a solid week. Others find that observing Shabbat provides a weekly refuge from every ping and tweet from their mobile devices.
Whether they spent it in day camps or overnight camp, hiking out West or splashing in a neighborhood pool, summertime is the perfect time to rein in a child’s screen habits and think about ways to continue minimizing screen time into the fall.
Brandon Solomon, 15, of West Bloomfield says he uses technology “a lot.” The rising Bloomfield Hills High School sophomore plays video games with his friends up to four hours daily, either hanging out in person or over the Internet. During the school year, he keeps track of homework assignments on his smart phone. Calling Facebook a “bit old school,” he prefers texting and using social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram to stay in touch with friends.
The day before a 35-day Tamarack Camps Western travel program that would take him and more than two dozen area Jewish teens to hike, raft and camp out in national parks like Bryce, Zion and Yellowstone, his phone broke.
“It was just as well because we weren’t allowed to take them along anyway.” Between their treks out in the wild, the teens traveled for long stretches at a time by bus. Without their phones, instead of texting to friends far away, they were better able to get to know the kids around them through old-fashioned conversation.
When they weren’t chatting, they read, looked out at the passing landscape or just slept. Now that he is back in civilization, Solomon said he learned a lot about what life can be like away from a screen.
“I realize now that playing video games is not a very productive hobby, and I’m going to try very hard to cut back on that,” Solomon said. “This coming school year, I will try to be more in touch with my friends by getting out, taking a walk and riding bikes. It would also help to be more in touch and on top of my homework.”
TOO MUCH TEXTING?
A few weeks into the trip, the teen tour stopped in St. Louis, Mo. Solomon noticed a group of local teens who texted and stared down at their smart phones screens as they shuffled down the street.
“They looked like a bunch of zombies!” Solomon said. “It made me realize: That is how I look most of the year when I have my phone.”
Indeed, teens prefer texting over talking on the phone or in person. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, half of children aged 12-17 send or receive 60 or more texts a day on average, and researchers at the JFK Medical Center in New York found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts from bed. Does all this texting and the abbreviations that go along with it signal the downfall of the written English language?
Kim Lifton, president of Wow Writing Workshop LLC, says not so. Lifton teaches college-bound students how to be reflective as they approach their college essay and application.
She said with training, teens have no problems creatively expressing their thoughts in their writing. Abbreviations commonly used in texting do not find their way to the essays she edits. However, if you are her student, do not text that essay to Lifton to edit. She embraces texting, but she has her limits.
As far as texting, this GenXer sees it as a communication tool just as her generation used the phone to keep in touch with her United Synagogue Youth pals in various cities across the Midwest when she was in high school.
“I remember my mom scolding me that I would never develop good communication skills because I spent so much time talking on the phone,” Lifton said. “Today, I keep up with these same USY friends on Facebook. It is the evolution of communication, but these tools must be used in moderation.”
What concerns Lifton and other professionals who work with teens is not their grammar but interacting with people in real-time. Some local therapists say that when both teens and adults are overly reliant on texting, they are just venting their feelings and frustrations and are not necessarily having a quality two-way conversation. In seeking immediacy in responses from others, teens are also having difficulty with working things out on their own.
Abby Segal, LCSW, does not always have her cell phone with her. When she sees patients — often teens coming to see her to work through anxieties associated with overuse of technology — her phone is off. According to Segal, the digital age is causing us not only to lose our ability to be present with others without distraction; we are also losing the comfort of solitude. Many of her young clients fear they feel excluded from their friends if they do not immediately answer their texts. Several have been so sleep-deprived from late-night texting or video game sessions that they overslept through their appointments.
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more,” Segal said. “Getting out in the neighborhood on a walk with a friend — that is the kind of communicating kids need the most.”
A NOVEL EXPERIMENT
Jen Lovy of West Bloomfield made national news on Good Morning America this summer when the show learned how in March of 2014 she and her family decided to avoid screens for an entire week. Lovy was “fed up” with the amount of time her three sons, then ages 8, 9, and 11, spent with their technology. So, they kicked the habit for a week. Doing homework, however, on a computer was OK. During the experiment, there was a snow day, plus one of her children caught a late-winter bug that left him home sick for a few days. Still, they
“Young people need to use their imagination and play outside more.” — Social worker Abby Segal
managed by building with Legos, reading and working on some crafts projects.
“One important lesson my kids learned is that they did not die of boredom,” Lovy said. “And we actually got outside to enjoy the snow.”
The unplugged week showed the Lovys just how much they normally used their screens. After the week, the kids went back to plugging in, although Lovy said she tries her best to limit nonhomework screen time to an hour.
Miriam Svidler, LLMSW of Southfi eld, who works as a counselor at the Cruz Clinic in Livonia, said it is no wonder that kids have a hard time being pried away from their games. According to Svidler, games are designed to make the brain feel good, and this is why children and teens display great irritability when they are asked to stop playing. Noting the extremely addicting nature of computer games and the constant updates on one’s social media newsfeed, Svidler advises no more than two hours a day of screen time if that screen is used for things other than homework.
“Game programmers know exactly how to design a game to make our brains feel good when we use them and bad when we are abruptly torn away from them,” Svidler said. “You need to tell the child that restricting screen time is not a punishment but a motivation to find other pursuits or to spend time with other people face to face.” Svidler advises that sometimes getting that last text from a friend can be reassuring before bedtime. But teens should not rely on texting as a main form of communication with friends.
“It is always best for a teen to have open communication with their parents,” Svidler said. “But if that one text from a good friend can help them get through the night before bedtime, that is OK, too.”
Like many Jews who have become observant, Svidler knows that Shabbat, a 25-hour rest, can be the best weekly break from technology. “For 25 hours, I am able to be present and in the moment, which I have learned is hardest thing for teenagers to do,” said Svidler, who gradually became Shabbat observant through her adulthood. “Before Shabbat, if I want to be with my friends, we make a plan, pick a place, and they just have to trust that I am going to be there.”
When it comes to teaching and learning prayer, Melissa Ser, director of education at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, said there are a multitude of apps and technology to help students young and old. But trying to fi nd that meaningful moment during religious services, she added, becomes increasingly more challenging. Too much screen time is only partly the reason.
“We do not know how to slow down,” said Ser, who takes full advantage of the time Shabbat gives her and husband, Sam, to enjoy a day of unplugged time with their three children. “The world has picked up pace so much in the last few decades, and one no longer has to search and research to fi nd answers. The art of prayer asks a person to dig down into various layers of thinking, and this is something we are not accustomed to doing anymore.”
“It is very nice that you and your other American friends care about protecting the Arctic Circle and the polar bears against global warming. And I understand you want social justice and equal rights and the right to choose for a woman. Yes, all these things are very nice and good and important. But here in Israel, the first thing we need more than anything is security for us and our children. We just want to live. We want to go to sleep at night and not worry that Iran is building a nuclear bomb to shoot at us.”
I sat in my host family’s living room. On my 2008 educator mission to Israel I stayed with Keren, a teacher, her husband, Omer, a systems manager (or something like that), and their two young daughters. It was in the evening and Keren was upstairs putting the girls to bed in their two-level condo in Modi’in Israel.
Next to the girls bedroom, which they shared, was another room that many in Israel had if their home was built after a certain year. In their house, It is an inner room with thick, lined walls and no windows and closes with a thick door that shuts with a crank. one thick door that when shut,
The thing is, in Israel, space is tight. Square footage is expensive. Like, think close to Manhattan expensive. And although Israelis are not supposed to use this room for anything else but a safety shelter, it is often used as a room. For a home office. A playroom filled with colorful toys. An extra space to store like any other American needs, all the extra stuff that comes along with living in a consumerism society.
I was visiting Israel to teach Israeli kids a little bit about what it was like to be a Jew in America. But that evening, I was the one getting a lesson on the mindset of Israelis as I sat on the white couch with a glass of precious water – no ice – my feet resting on the cold tiled floor.
It was the spring of 2008. Israel was in the wake with its military action in Lebanon and Gaza after the kidnapping of three soldiers from 2006. In the United States, elections were heating up and most of America was fed up with the way things were going under the Bush Administration.
The economy was about to tank.
We were five years out of Bush’s “mission accomplished” announcement, where nothing seemed to get accomplished except hundreds of our soldiers getting killed or wounded. Where were the weapons of mass destruction? When would we ever see a troop draw down from Iraq? Afghanistan?
I was the Democratic Party’s dream voter. I stood, and still, stand for every issue on the Democratic ticket. Strict environmental regulations. Stricter gun control. Pro Choice. Fulfilling the legacy of Ted Kennedy’s call for universal health care.
When it came to Israel, I still believed that supporting Israel was a bipartisan issue. But in 2008, there started to be a shift that if you really wanted to support Israel, voting for a Democrat is not the way to go. I had been warned by friends and certain family and now, I was getting a plea from Omer.
Early every morning, Omer gets picked up outside his condo by a company bus to take them to the offices inside the Ben Gurion Airport. Except, that next week, after I headed back to the States, Omer would be heading out for a month of reserve duty, just as most Israeli men do, one month per year, until they are in their 50’s.
But back to the couch.
Omer did not belittle me for my then progressive beliefs, and said in a big country like the U.S., he could understand why people would back these issues. He did not tell me which way to vote, but told me who he hoped would win in no uncertain terms.
“I think Obama is a good man, but here in Israel, we really like McCain. We need a sheriff in the White House.”
Eight years later I have not forgotten Omer’s words. I wonder what he thinks of the United States now. Does he feel betrayal by American Jews, myself included, who vastly voted for Obama, once and even twice?
And now the Iran Nuclear agreement is up for vote in Congress.
Below, if you care to keep on reading, is my article from this week’s Detroit Jewish News covering the Washington Institute’s David Makovsky’s speech before Detroit’s Jewish community. He offered as balanced a perspective as possible on the Iran Deal. Although the Wall Street Journal contributing writer has written strongly against the deal, I learned later that his sponsors here asked him to give a balanced overview and not his own personal opinions.
I wonder why.
I woke to the news that Chuck Schumer (D-NY) made a statement today coming out against the deal.
Somewhere in Israel, I hope that this news has reached Omer, and that he is smiling with just a little bit of hope.
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, mapped out the pros and cons of the Iran nuclear agreement to an audience of nearly 1,000 donors to the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township on July 30.
Stressing the many questions that still remain on how the deal will be enforced should it be enacted, Makovsky spoke of the “atmosphere of anguish” going around Congress as it heads to a vote on the agreement.
He also emphasized the urgent need for cooperation between U.S. and Israeli intelligence and security departments.
Detroit’s Federation is one of only eight in the nation that have come down in the first week squarely against the agreement. Noting the size of the crowd, Federation President Larry Wolfe said this is a time of “deep concern, interest and anxiety within Detroit’s Jewish community.
“The Federation of Detroit needs to take a stand, particularly with their fellow Jews in Israel who feel abandoned and isolated, especially in light that with this deal, terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah funded by Iran will be flush with cash,” Wolfe said.
“What is at stake is nothing less than the future for Jews here in Detroit, Israel and around the world.”
Professor Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies, Wayne State University, served as moderator.
To illustrate the complexities of either being for or against the deal, Makovsky walked the audience through a hypothetical face-to-face meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.
Makovsky outlined Obama’s reasoning why this is the “best possible deal” with Iran. It guarantees that Iran would be nuclear weapon-free for 15 years.
After that period, Iran could enrich uranium to weapons grade level within 12 months. Presently, Iran is three to four months away from this threshold.
The deal would also cut the number of Iran’s working centrifuges. According to Makovsky, Obama would argue that it is the best chance to move Iran into “inte grating itself into the global economy” for the general Iranian population who wants to become more Westernized.
In this imaginary exchange, Netanyahu would argue that the deal has not eliminated Iran’s nuclear threat but only managed it by acknowledging that, in 15 years, Iran will be treated like any other nation and there is nothing to stop Iran from “racing toward the bomb” when the deal expires.
Netanyahu would also ask why the U.S. and other countries involved in negotiations did not clearly outline a set of possible violations and penalties as a way of holding Iran accountable to the agreement.
Also, Netanyahu would ask how reasonable would it be to ask countries like China, Russia or France to “snap back” sanctions once they are entrenched with business dealings with Iran and are “lining their bank coffers with money from oil revenues?” Also troubling are the billions of dol lars of frozen assets that could flow back into Iran’s economy upon the agree ment’s enactment. If Iran’s top banks will have sanctions lifted against them within eight years under the deal, Makovsky said the nations involved need to develop a clear strategy of how to follow the money trail so it does not further fund terrorism in the “volcanic” Middle East.
In spite of the uncertainty, Makovsky offered hope in the fact that fractious Arab nations are moving closer to work with each other, united in their fear of a nuclear Iran. If the Arab nations can do this, so, too, should Israel and the United States, he concluded.
“My one plea is that the security and intelligence relationship between us needs to come together as soon as pos sible,” Makovsky said.
“With Israel now encircled by non state entities as governments around it break down, we cannot afford to wait until the next presidency or even another year to start collaborating. We no longer have the luxury to be angry with one another.”
Easing The Pain
Joe Winter maintains Beth El cemetery
with compassion in every season.
| Stacy Gittleman
| Special to the Jewish News
Winter, especially the record-breaking one Detroit just endured, can be isolating and depressing. It is harder still for those observing an anniversary of a loved one’s death to visit their grave in a snow-covered cemetery.
Fittingly so, a man named Joe Winter, caretaker at Beth El Memorial Park in Livonia, eases the sorrow of the mourner bymaking sure that certain graves and the paths leading to them are cleared of snow.
For almost three decades, Winter, 56, has cared for the cemetery and lived in a house just outside the ground Joe Winter where he and his wife, Claudia, raised their four children.
Trained as a horticulturist, Winter always enjoyed working outside and saw his occupation as a peaceful one. He started out as a groundskeeper at Gethsemane Cemetery in Detroit and then became superintendent of the Beth El Memorial Park in 1985.
Growing up, his children never thought the location of their house was odd.
“They always just considered it as one quiet backyard. I’d let them ride their bikes
on the paths after the gates had closed for the day,” he said.
As superintendent of the cemetery, Winter’s responsibilities include keeping in daily contact with local rabbis and funeral directors to schedule burials. He also is the cemetery’s main record keeper.
The cemetery is open every day from morning until 5 p.m., except Saturday. If a mourner needs to linger a bit after 5 p.m., he says he does not mind keeping the cemetery gates open a bit longer.
As the weather warms, Winter and his staff keep the lawns mowed and the bushes trimmed. He provides a supply of American
flags come Memorial Day weekend and makes sure they stay up on each grave until Flag Day on June 14.
“Of all the mourners, the toughest ones to see when they come here are the parents of
young children,” Winter said. He recalled a woman who lost a young son and visited the
grave nearly every day for eight years.
“Joe Winter deals with human beings during the most vulnerable moments of their
lives,” said Rabbi Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El of Bloomfield Hills. Syme, who has
worked with Winter for 17 years, said overseeing a cemetery is a job that not many can
“He supports all who come to the cemetery at a time when they are looking for
kindness, when their own inner coping resources are not there,” Syme said.
One such person Winter has comforted in his work is Julie Unatin of Huntington
On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2000, Unatin gave birth to a son, Ryan. Five days later,
baby Ryan died. What should have been the happiest of days for her, husband, Brian,
and their two daughters turned out to be the worst.
In March of that same year, Unatin, a teacher consultant for the blind for the
Oakland Intermediate School District, learned that another co-worker, Kate
Salathiel, also had lost a child. The deaths of their children have created a special bond between the two women.
Each winter, they support each other as they visit their children’s gravesites in different
cemeteries — not on the anniversary of their death, but on the day they were born.
Expecting her arrival at Beth El Memorial Park, Winter clears a path to Ryan’s grave
in advance of her visit. Winter also makes sure that any snow is brushed away from the
“Every year I know what I will find,” Unatin said. “A beautiful stone that has been
dusted and cleared; sprinkled with 14 years’ worth of small tokens. Without even being
asked, Joe makes my unbearable Valentine’s Day a bit more bearable.”
A note came home in my son’s backpack to state that today, this Friday, the school would be celebrating “International Heritage Day.” Third through fifth grade in my town is a time when students study the cultures of many countries. My child this year studied the cultures of Egypt, Japan, Australia. In successive years they will study about China and ancient civilizations from Greece to Rome to the Inca and Mayan Indians in social studies.
As a culmination and celebration of all this international study, third graders in my son’s school were asked to wear a hat that represents the culture of their immigrant ancestry.
Like most self-respecting Ashkenazi Jews, my family has roots in Russia and Poland. And, if you want to find some real exotic roots in my family, I believe my paternal grandmother was from Vienna, Austria.
But the Polish and Russians never looked upon my ancestors as their fellow countrymen. We were just: Jews. Yids. Pretty much second class citizens. That’s why Jews from Poland and Russia came over in droves to the United States – for economic if not religious freedom.
In my house, we don’t have any connection to Russian or Polish culture. How we identify, ethnically, is through Jewish culture.
So, what hat to use? The Moroccans have the Fez. The Mexicans, the Sombrero and the French, the beret, the Italians have the Fedora (acually, my older son has taken up wearing the fedora because he is so very dapper).
So, this brings me back to the question: What country do we identify?
I should have just put a Yankee Doodle style hat on my son’s head. We are Americans. But are we something else as well? Is Judaism a people? A religion? A Culture?
With what other country do we identify?
I could have chosen an Israeli Kibbutznik style hat, but that would be so … 1950’s.
So outdated. And, as much love as we have for our spiritual homeland, we are not Israeli.
So of course, to show off our heritage, we selected this one.
A kippah, in the Bukharan style, that we purchased this winter in Jerusalem as we made our way to the Western Wall.
This is the hat of our heritage.
Tonight, my kids will most likely go to bed wearing their pajamas inside out. The youngest will have tucked a spoon underneath his pillow. My daughter told me that at middle school, the bets were already on at school today as to whether tomorrow would be a snow day. After all, that storm that slammed the midwest has now put Rochester in a “persistent band of lake effect snow.” And here in Rochester, we may be getting 1-2 feet of this lake effect snow. All this snow, yet not a single weather report has used the word “storm” or “blizzard.”
When my oldest children were very small, I feared that they would grow up without having a chance to play in the snow. Their first winters in New Jersey passed with hardly a flake. Then, we moved to Rochester.
Moving to the snowiest metropolitan area in the lower 48 meant that we would have plenty of chances for snowball fights and snowman building. We also needed to adjust our perception of what constitutes a significant snowfall.
You see, we started our family in New Jersey, in the land of 2-inch snowfall snow days. One morning, when my daughter attended preschool at the Scotch Plains JCC, I bundled her up, along with her infant brother, to go to preschool. I traversed 2-inch snow-covered roads, only to find the building was closed.
Fast forward to a year later, One morning, after a three-inch overnight snowfall, I actually called my daughter’s preschool – this time at the JCC of Greater Rochester – to see if it was open.
I think I heard the director silence a chuckle as she politely told me that schools here don’t close unless there is at least 18 inches of snow.
For schoolchildren and adults alike, nothing is more exciting than the possibility of a snow day. And when I moved to Rochester, I thought that we would be having a lot of those days that are like gifts from God. Snow days are like God’s way of telling you to slow down, sleep in, stay warm, bake cookies.
Well, the Rochester School District seems to care little about what God wants, because nary a snow day have we had since living up here in the snowbelt.
It’s been 11 years and my husband has yet to have a snow day from work. No, wait. The only “snow day” at his job had been in the summer. Why? It wasn’t because of snow. Contrary to popular belief, it does NOT snow in Rochester in July.
It was a tree that fell on a transformer and blew the power out at his office.
So, on snowy days, my husband braves the snow. He plows himself out of the driveway in the dark of the morning, and then plows to get back in the driveway in the dark of the evening.
Rochesterians are very lucky to have the equipment it takes to fight against Old Man Winter. Brighton tax dollars – more than half a million each year — are hard at work so in the early morning hours, I can hear the sounds of snowplows large and small clearing our roads and sidewalks.
So, before I go to bed tonight, I will check the forecast one more time. And if I hear those blessed three words “Brighton Schools Closed” on the radio tomorrow morning , I know will be too excited to go back to sleep.
But I know school will be on tomorrow.
In spite of the spoons
and the inside-out pajamas.
and the ice cubes placed in the toilet.
Because, in reality, it’s just too early in the season to cancel school tomorrow. After all, technically, it is still Autumn. And this is Rochester.