Shavuot, perhaps more than any of our other holidays, is a State of the Union Address for the Jewish people. It is the anniversary of our receiving the Ten Commandments, and when we took our first breaths and steps as a fledgling nation at Mount Sinai. When the Torah was given, we became one community, unified and solidified, and rallied around it as our constitution and lawbook for life, bound forever as one with our divine leader.
The theme of community continued, when years later the holiday became synonymous with the grain harvest – one of the three pilgrimage festivals – when the Jewish people would gather together to celebrate. This holiday celebrates our anniversary as the Jewish people and is a time to reflect on how we are doing together, as one community.
I believe that there are two different issues we are facing that are critical to improving our communal lives. These issues are the ravages of social media amongst our youth and how we incorporate singles into our communities.
Social media are designed to show one’s best self, often a skewed image that is physically altered, verbally enhanced or, quite frankly, a snapshot of five minutes in a day of 1,440 of them. This makes the onlooker often feel bad about themselves, thinking that their real life doesn’t compare to someone else’s, when in reality, it’s a fake representation.
As adults, we understand social media images don’t represent the full picture, but youth and teens don’t fully understand that. There are many efforts underway to help educate them and teach them how to navigate the various platforms so that they don’t put so much of their self-esteem and worth into comparisons between themselves and others – that aren’t even real.
Growing research shows that the increase in mental illness among teens in the past decade or so is, at least in part, connected to the rise in social media use. More specifically, the more time spent on social media, the more likely a teen will experience anxiety, isolation and hopelessness. Dr. Anne Marie Albano of Columbia University explains some of the reasons for this, such as cyberbullying, reduction in face-to-face contact (which reduces a person’s experience in interfacing with the world in a healthy way), isolation and the culture of comparison we noted above, which relies on the number of likes, friends and followers.
As a rabbi, I have noticed an increase in parents reaching out asking for help as their children suffer from thinking that they need to change because of what they see on social media. It is heart-breaking to hear a parent cry, worrying about the impact social media have had on their children and the mental illnesses that it has caused.
Looking from the vantage point of Mount Sinai, one of the beautiful solutions that the Torah has offered us to this modern-day problem of social media taking over our children’s focus and lives is the pause button offered by the Sabbath. By removing these detrimental distractions one day a week and refocusing on the human interactions in front of us, we can reconnect to everything nonelectronic in our lives.
In the words of writer Anne Lamott, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it... including you.” But this alone is not enough. We must create a task force of mental health professionals, educators, rabbis and parents, and together we must find a solution. We should involve teens in developing these solutions, as they have direct experience.
Singles in the community
WITH EVERY challenge, there is an opportunity, and there is no better example of this than how we incorporate singles into our communities. As a rabbi, I have heard from singles who feel they are not on the radar of people’s Shabbat meal invite lists and how it is very awkward to invite themselves over to people’s homes. In general, our community is so family-oriented that being single makes people feel that they stand out, but we must not let them feel that they are being marginalized.
Many feel that the only place for them to live during this chapter of their lives is in singles communities, such as the Upper West Side, Washington Heights and burgeoning singles communities in Los Angeles and Miami; however, they shouldn’t feel that the only way to be part of a community is living with other singles. Singles should feel just as comfortable in our communities as married couples and families.
During COVID, semigration became all the buzz, as people moved from one part of the country to another when they no longer needed to be within commuting distance of their offices because they worked remotely, and many still do. It’s no secret that the cost of living in the suburbs tends to be more affordable and while many families decided to make the move during the pandemic, Jewish singles didn’t. When asked why, they reiterate this concern about not feeling incorporated into communal life when they move outside of these singles communities that happen to be in the large metro cities.
We must do better. We need to make sure that they matter to us just as much as a new couple or family moving in. We should invite them for Shabbat meals, Sunday BBQs and so on. The same is true of divorcees. We need to have them on our invite lists more and not make them feel they are on the fringe for being single-parent homes. Lastly, for both of these groups it is a great mitzvah to help bring couples together, so if you know of a suggestion for a single that you think would fit don’t be shy or lazy to try to make the match.
There is a beautiful statement that when the Jewish people received the Torah, they became like one man with one heart at that moment. This Shavuot, may we unplug and uplift those in our community who feel isolated and connect as one people with one heart.
The writer is rabbi of the BACH Jewish Center located in Long Beach, New York. For more information, visit: https://www.bachlongbeach.com