Shabbat Unplugged: An interview with Dr. Ruth Kabbesa-Abramzon

Shearim, focused on the Israeli Jewish experience from an educational perspective, works on making the Jewish experience accessible to all.

Shabbat dinner with an educational twist  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shabbat dinner with an educational twist
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Amid the current turmoil the world is facing these days, we found the time to sit with Dr. Ruth Kabbesa-Abramzon, founder of Shabbat UNPLUGGED and CEO of nonprofit organization Shearim, to stop the world for a moment. Breathe. And focus on a topic that touches us all – Shabbat. 
Shearim, focused on the Israeli Jewish experience from an educational perspective, works on making the Jewish experience accessible to all. It does so by creating special initiatives that reach the various communities within Israel and Diaspora Jewry, religious as secular. Among the organizations extremely active these days is Shabbat UNPLUGGED, which sends out a strong and clear voice, calling for unity, self-reflection and rest. Kabbesa-Abramzon received her doctorate from the Sorbonne on the connection between a common ethos and governability in Israel, headed the Center for Public Leadership and Management at the JDC Israel Institute for Leadership and Governance and became a visiting researcher at UCLA. A graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership, she focused on developing the concept of Jewish values in Israeli public policy, and ran, among other social programs, the Hatzor HaGlilit community center. 
With this rich experience in policy making and community-based education and development, Kabbesa-Abramzon sets out to highlight the Shabbat, which she sees as a central anchor in Jewish life and a means to connecting – and not dividing – the very different factions within the global Jewish community. 
What is the reality that the Shabbat UNPLUGGED initiative is out to modify?
The Shabbat, the foundation stone of Judaism, as [Hayim Nahman] Bialik put it, has become in many ways a political punching bag and a matter of dispute – where Judaism and Zionism, religion and state all meet. Our Shabbat UNPLUGGED initiative, with support from the Avi Chai Foundation, sees Saturday as an opportunity – and not a challenge – for individuals and the Israeli society at large. We encourage people from various backgrounds and beliefs to just put differences, and screens, aside (at least) once a week, to have an informed and aware understanding of the values of the Shabbat – and invest that time in connecting with family, friends and environment. 
The initiative appeals to all traditional, religious and secular families, setting out from the true belief that we can all work on our ‘unplugging’ during Shabbat and our connection to the people and the things that are important to us. It is a challenge that no sector has any monopoly on.
On a national level, as a people – we believe that we should be looking at the Shabbat not as a dividing topic, but rather the very solution, the social glue that unites us all and keeps us stronger, together.
That’s the Shabbat part – what does “unplugging” mean for you? 
We believe that the Shabbat is the opportunity given to us in order to maximize the high human dimension inherent in us, the UNPLUGGED being the means to connect to “cease from work and rest” – va’yinafash. It’s not just disconnecting ourselves from screens – it is disconnecting ourselves from the hustle and bustle that characterizes our week, an aware choice of dedicating one day a week to being who we really want to be. Escape the routine rat race. 
The modern problem of addiction to screens is a very painful problem that has acute manifestations both mentally and physically. There’s already research claiming that the level of intelligence in the world is declining. We are connected to an information highway that does not allow us to stop and reflect - who are we, what we do here, how do we want our future to look like. It’s hard for us to be alone and we depend on external stimulus. In the younger generation the problem is even more acute. High occupancy of psychiatric departments for teens, new sleep problems, new health problems, social problems. There’s study that examined the amount of words mothers use when talking to their children – while using their smartphone or disconnected from it, and you see all those “wait,” ”not now,” “nu, come on” surface. Apparently, the number of words a mother speaks to her children in the afternoon when she is connected to the small screen is four times less the number of words she uses when she is disconnected from it. Of course this causes a dramatic increase in the child’s cognitive development.
A busy mother of four, I know the difficulty of unplugging, but I keep pushing myself and others to understand that we have a built-in solution for that in our culture - and it is the Shabbat. It helps us remember that we are in control, not the device. We do not urge people to disconnect for 25 hours, we do urge them to find the right balance - and that precious family and personal time.
Interestingly, during the more intense coronavirus days, the Shabbat seemed irrelevant at first. We are immersed in Zoom chats, which is becoming the main way of communicating with the world. We all overtimed in front of the screen. But in the midst of all this rush, the Shabbat suddenly emerged as an island of sanity, of disengagement from our anxieties and the wish for better days. 
We adapted our activities and called on people in Israel and abroad to a joint Kabbalat Shabbat over Zoom and on their balconies, sharing a prayer, lighting Shabbat candles and singing along Shabbat songs together with prominent Israeli artists, including David d’Or, Kobi Aflalo, Einat Sarouf and Narkis. Shabbat deals with the here and now, and we saw how everyone connected to this message. 
Now that we are more or less back to normal, many of us feel that there is also something important we’ve learned during the corona era, that we do not really want to ‘get back to normal’ without implementing these important lessons we learned during that time. The Shabbat is a quality time capsule we should be embracing, even after the virus will have been gone.
 
That’s a very sublime cause – how do you put it to practice? 
Indeed we celebrate the practical – the day-to-day educational challenge and opportunity to tie these sublime concepts to the challenges of modern life. The initiative works on both individual and national level, enabling individuals and families to benefit from quality time on Shabbat, as well as developing national and municipal infrastructure to implement this important mental change. 
In recent years, we have established 34 new programs with partnering organizations in dozens of cities across the country, providing tens of thousands of Israelis from various backgrounds, religious and secular alike, with quality content about Shabbat. We have embarked on special projects, in order to raise awareness to the Shabbat and the abundant opportunities it holds.  
This year we started working with 11 local authorities on the topic of the Shabbat as an opportunity for the community. This is the first time that there has been a continuous and deep process of training senior officials on the local public level on Jewish topics in a way that is connected to their own work. This is not a detached beit midrash – I get to learn how these ideas actually serve me tomorrow morning when I’m back at the office. As part of the program, we also set up leadership circles within each community, which tailor the local community’s unique Shabbat project, according to each community’s needs and requirements.
Do you think that secular audiences see value in the initiative? 
We work very closely with secular and religious organizations, atheists and believers, urban and rural, adults and students, philanthropists and beneficiaries - the full Jewish spectrum. We believe that everyone should take part in the discussion about the Shabbat, the Shabbat values, and the way it impacts our lives. We learn together about the Shabbat as a symbol of the real Genesis and a reminder of the Exodus. It’s amazing to see how we are all one, and how with a little mutual respect and listening we come to a new reality that is far beyond controversy. The organizations that work with us also cooperate with one another, and in turn, 40% of them report that thanks to their membership in our network, they are more successful in the Shabbat programs they lead. That’s the beauty: 12 tribes and one Shabbat that we are all connected to.
What would you recommend secular audiences who wish to “unplug” on Shabbat, but just don’t know how? 
That’s a very good question. We regularly perform behavior researches, to understand trends, opportunities – but also the challenges people from various backgrounds face. The results are fascinating from an anthropological point of view, and also very much point to specific activities that enable people to disconnect from the everyday stress and look within for inner peace and personal achievement. We found in our studies that although people greatly relate to this concept and really want to break away on Shabbat, it’s very difficult for them in practice. This prompted us to conceive and produce our own educational games, to help people, families, spend quality time together on weekends. One of the products our organization produces is a special table runner for every Saturday of the year, highlighting the weekly parasha, and the major holidays. It is an elegant dressing for the Shabbat and holiday table, suits all audiences and age groups, and includes songs lyrics, comics, quotes and other content for reflection and family entertainment. We have also developed a ‘truth or dare’ game with what we call a “disengagement box” for a stress-free and screen-free quality time. What will we not do to gather family members on holidays and Shabbat dinners! And of course, bring value and a topic for joint discussion. 
Is there any benefit to the religious public, who is not exposed to screens on weekends because of the Shabbat observance?
The ability not to use screens for 24 hours greatly mitigates the addiction. At the same time, it should be remembered that shutting off the phone is only the beginning of what we called “UNPLUGGED V’yinafash.” Reading Shabbat leaflets and engaging with friends who talk about politics and money is not necessarily a disengagement from the everyday noise. So the real question is, what does Shabbat mean for us, what does it “give” us – and what kind of return are we willing to sell it for. 
Tell us a little about yourself, and your personal relationship with the Shabbat - what does your Shabbat look like?

Shabbat for me is an island of sanity and nourishment. I work hard, and without the Shabbat I potentially have every reason to work (also) on the Shabbat.  I start with preparations for the Shabbat. I have found that the more you prepare in advance, the more you enjoy it. The Shabbat begins by candle lighting – all the girls in the house light candles together, including my two-year-old. We say thanks, sing along and remind ourselves that in my grandmother’s generation, and certainly earlier, they couldn’t always light candles openly and without fear. This is the first moment of the week I really get to see my kids’ eyes. We sing and dance a lot. Dedicate a song to every child. Eat more indulgent food than during the week. Usually my husband Shmuel takes the children for a walk, and for me personally - the Shabbat is me at home, in my pajamas – unplugging for the Shabbat. n
For further information on Shabbat UNPLUGGED, welcome to visit the initiative’s website https://shabbatunplugged.org.il/