The largest Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck has begun the new year a little quieter, with a little less noise intrusion from the outside world. Congregation B’nai Yeshurun’s mara d’atra Rabbi Steven Pruzansky has banned the physical presence or use of cell phones during minyan times in shul.
“So addicted are we to devices, that some have found it impossible to break away,” Rabbi Pruzansky told The Jewish Link, explaining that phones should not be brought into holy places because of our kavod (honor), our yirat shamayim (reverence of heaven) and our wish to daven to Hashem with kavana (focus). “I think this can really revolutionize our tefillah,” he added.
“It is no secret that we all struggle with kavana in davening,” he wrote in a letter to his congregation, noting that cell phones intrude on davening with a persistence that is both mystifying and vexing. "The last thing we need is a tool that is designed to distract us [from being] present and active during davening, time during which we are supposed to focus on our relationship with God. Yet, too often, the mere presence of the phone has enticed holders to check their emails, respond to texts, read the paper or even (I was once told) play Scrabble during P’sukei D’Zimra, Chazarat Hashatz and other times during davening. It is as much a desecration of the shul as it is a squandering of the precious time we have to stand before God in prayer.”
“Effective immediately in the new year, the entry of cell phones into shul is banned,” Rabbi Pruzansky wrote. “Signs will be posted advising people of this change and boxes will be placed outside each davening location allowing each bearer to place their turned-off phone inside before entering the shul to daven.”
“If use of such phones can be banned or deemed culturally unacceptable in courtrooms or movie theaters, it stands to reason they have absolutely no place in shul,” Rabbi Pruzansky wrote. “But the addictive qualities of these devices has led many people to genuinely feel that they cannot part with them even for the 30 minutes that the morning and afternoon davening requires, or even the eight minutes for a Mincha or Maariv davened separately. Using these devices as siddurim exacerbates the problem, and we are blessed with enough siddurim in a variety of versions that no one needs to use a phone as a siddur.”
So far, the feedback has been extraordinarily positive, Rabbi Pruzansky reported. He said one of the most common statements about the ban is how “long overdue” it is. “I have heard from many other rabbis who are thinking of doing this, but are thinking of how to implement it in the right way for their community.” Even other local rabbis are considering how to eliminate cell phones from interfering with shul in their own congregations, he added.
Rabbi Pruzansky added that he has no wish for the ban on cell phones to make shul inhospitable for attendees. “This should not be perceived as a harsh edict that is intolerable, but rather as a way to enhance our ability to daven, all of us. If it makes us all a little more serious in davening, and we are also able to attract even more serious daveners to our shul, those are both welcome blessings,” Rabbi Pruzansky wrote.
Exceptions to the rule will, of course, be granted in specific situations and emergencies.
By Elizabeth Kratz