Changing Tides: Our Tendency to Resist the Unknown

Photo by Malky Weingarten of    @malkys_media    on IG, from her upcoming movie, “Hello Tomorrow”

Photo by Malky Weingarten of @malkys_media on IG, from her upcoming movie, “Hello Tomorrow”

By: Rebecca Shapiro

Change is hard. 

We avoid it at all costs. 

We love to stay in our cozy, familiar bubble for as long as possible. 

Knowing when to evolve and adapt to new societal norms and when to stay insular has always been our challenge within the Jewish community, as the unknown can be terrifying. 

For example, the internet and social media are to today's world as the radio was “back in the day”. Many were reluctant to have radios in their homes, as it would introduce outside influences and progressive ideas. But as soon as radio became normal, TV became the new community battle. Then the internet.

Ironically, when Sarah Schenirer pioneered the “progressive” Bais Yaakov movement, this initiative was considered too modern for her circles, and she had a lot of pushback. The Orthodox world was in an outrage. Girls learning math, science, language, and Torah? What was the world coming to!?! And now, it has become the norm, the gold standard in many Orthodox homes. Today, over 40,000 students are being educated in Bais Yaakov schools. 

But it was an arduous fight to get there. 

Hashem shows us time and time again that we are meant to move forward, to adapt, to build our resilience muscles…and when we don’t, He forces us to. 

After the mabul (flood), Hashem commanded Noach and his children to spread out and populate the earth. The Torah says that everyone at the time spoke “one language”. 

The Or Hachaim says that “one language” means that they were of one mind about all important issues. One mind. That’s good, isn’t it? Well, not really, in this particular case. Hashem commanded that Noach’s descendants spread out and populate the earth, build their own communities, and find their own uniqueness, but they refused to. Instead, they congregated together and stayed insular. They built the Tower of Bavel as a landmark, so that if anyone were to stray, he would see it and come back to the fold (or be forced to do so). This showed a reluctance to comply with Hashem’s commandment to populate the entire earth and diversify. 

Hashem did not want to disturb their freedom of choice, but He had a master plan and needed the world to be populated, even though it was scary and uncomfortable for the community. So what did He do? He confused their languages so they would be forced to branch out and build an assortment of new congregations. He pushed them NOT to be the same as everyone else.

It is just too easy to resist change, and sometimes, that makes us look like we think we “know better” than Hashem. 

Another one of many more examples in the Torah: Hashem wanted us to go to Eretz Yisael, but we got nervous and sent spies against His wishes. We were reluctant to face the unknown, complained, self-sabotaged…you know the drill. That episode cost us another 40 years and an entire generation who were not allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. We got stuck because we were afraid to change and embrace the unknown. We lacked the faith that if Hashem had put us in this new reality, He would certainly give us all the tools we needed to thrive.

Many people fight to preserve the past, even to the detriment of their children’s wellbeing. This fear of the unknown, this unwillingness to branch out and acclimate to new ideas has been a huge challenge to the emotional welfare of many generations of Jews.

But is the fight really necessary? Maybe our goal should be to understand each new reality and figure out ways to adapt and push boundaries within the parameters of Torah values. 

I didn’t always think this way.

When my 14-year-old son’s yeshiva presented its new “no-smartphone” policy, I was pretty excited about it. Teens waste so much time on those ridiculous things. Yay! And besides, all the “good yeshivas” are doing it, so it must be right.

That is, until my son felt as though he was cut-off from the world. Most of his peers had a smart-phone which they snuck, and then a dumb-phone which they used in public. My son was the weirdo rule-follower. So I started to reevaluate my position. 

After much thought, research, and consideration, I composed an email to the staff at the yeshiva about reaching out to The Digital Citizenship Project, founded by Dr. Eli Shapiro (not related to me). He teaches about digital responsibility in the age of technology, has a realistic approach to the dangers we are facing, and offers ways to inoculate our children against online harm. 

I explained my fear that if my son had the choice to uphold rules or have friends, he would, like most teens, choose friends. This could easily create a cognitive dissonance—a choice between being adaptive and being deceptive. What teen would choose to be a lonely outcast!?! 

Completely banning the use of smartphones creates bigger problems, as we are not dealing with the root of the issue. 

I witnessed similar scenarios when I was in high school. In my Bais Yaakov days, there were rules that were not easy to follow for average teens. I wasn’t such a rule-follower myself, but I had a great relationship with the principal, who, thankfully, had tremendous patience with me. Other students were not so lucky. They were doing things that were against “the rules”—but were these students really “bad”, considering normal teen development? Was it necessary for them to be shamed? Many did not feel like they could talk to anyone, so they began to do these things in silence. As some grew older, they had serious existential issues which they needed to confront. The long-term negative outcome of the girls who were duplicitous, snuck around, and were not able to be open with mentors was devastating. And it wasn’t their fault.

Education is about teaching our children how to swim when the tides are coming in fast and furious—NOT banning them from the beach. 

I am relieved to say, the yeshiva revised their smartphone policies. They engaged in dialogue with the students about the dangers they may face when using their phones. They had rabbis, therapists, psychiatrists, organizations, and educators talk to parents and students about related topics.  They encouraged parents to keep the conversation going with their children, so they would always have a safe place to turn. They decided, in the end, to teach their students how to swim.

I am so grateful.

Am I nervous that I might have advocated for the wrong thing? That my kids will not be protected from the dangers of the outside world? 

Absolutely. 

Am I happy that my kids sometimes waste time playing video games and watching things that are beneath them?

Absolutely not. 

But…

I AM happy that my kids talk to me about what they are doing and watching. 

I AM happy that they will not be shell-shocked when they are exposed to the outside world. 

I AM happy that they are learning to set boundaries with technology. 

I AM happy they know they can come to me with any questions, and I will respond without judgment. 

I AM happy that my kids witnessed my support, courage, and respectful advocacy on their behalf (even when it put me in a vulnerable position).

So, if technology is among today’s struggles, how can we make the most of it? How can we grow from it?

Much of the community which I have grown to love, and that enhances my life in so many ways, is actually on Instagram. Many of the writers in this magazine are a huge part of my new growth-oriented, online community. The connections are real, and many of the inspiring people I have met have become real-life friends and mentors, all grappling with the implications of a similar mindset. If my community connections feel so strong in this virtual environment, then how can I not empathize with and support my son who felt cut-off from the world and his friends without the use of a smartphone?

Before each Rosh Hashanah, we read Parshat Ki Tavo, about the blessings and curses to be given on Har Grizim and Har Eival. Moshe addresses the nation and tells them that half the shevatim will stand on Har Grizim to receive the blessings, and the other half will stand on Har Eival to receive the curses. The parsha then continues to list all of the curses, but does not list the blessings. Why leave out the blessings? That is the best part!

The Maharal explains (in a much longer way than I am about to) that there was no need for the Torah to list the brachot, because we can always assume that with every potential curse, there is equal potential for blessing. There is always good within the bad.

This morning, I was talking to fellow writer, Rina Deutsch, about this. She added that if Hashem created something in this world, it means that the essence must be rooted in goodness. We have to train ourselves to “find the blessing within the curse”. We need to find purpose and meaning in even the scariest places, like the internet. Sure, we can get caught up with dangers and negativity, but there are so many more options... Instead, we can choose to build connections in a holy way. We can be inspired by articles, comment on and share posts which help break stigmas, watch shiurim, make connections with outstanding religious leaders, and follow hundreds of powerful Jewish wellness professionals and inspirational accounts. 

This is our choice. This is our challenge. 

As much as we want to preserve old, familiar, comfy challenges, we need to try and embrace new challenges. Hashem has shown us time and time again that we need to trust Him, move forward, and embrace new realities.

*Note: While there is a place for insular thinking within the homes of the righteous few, the general population and their children are exposed to outside ideas on a daily basis, and therefore, we need to find the best ways to work within this system.

 

So, to summarize:

  1. Change is hard. We hate it. We avoid it. But we need to learn as a community to adapt if we want to keep our children inspired and connected.

  2. What is considered common today took tremendous effort in order to evolve over time. (For example, hitting children used to be common in schools, and today it’s unacceptable.)

  3. We must stop holding on to rules that were there to protect the challenges of yesteryear, and start addressing current challenges.

  4. If we want to stay in-the-know about what challenges our children are facing, we must read the books they are reading, watch the movies they are watching, get to know their friends, and explore the social media platforms they are using. If your house has strict rules about all of the above, and you think your kids are not a part of these things, I hope you are right. But in case you are wrong, make sure your children are not afraid to talk to you. If they are not connecting with you, they will find someone else or something else to connect to…which may not be the safest connection.

  5. Research! There are so many talented professionals out there. Make sure you are speaking to someone who is an expert in the subject matter.

  6. Remember, we are learning to “swim” alongside our children. We don’t have all the answers. Recognizing that we are digital immigrants, and our children are born citizens, can help us understand our limitations, so we know to become more informed.

  7. Everything in this world has the potential for holiness. We gotta learn to channel it.

 
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Rebecca Shapiro

is a communications and marketing consultant with a strong background in education, curriculum development, graphic design, illustration, writing, and content creation. She is co-founder of Project Proactive at www.jproactive.com, working to break mental health stigmas in the Jewish community.