The column | Checking my cellphone at the door on Shabbat, anxiety setting in

Checking your phone at the door didn’t exactly strike me as the start to an exciting Friday evening. But to my surprise, when I showed up to Unplug San Francisco, the local event for Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging last month, the line of people waiting to ditch their phones, tablets and other electronic devices stretched around the block.

As we waited to get in, people were glued to their phones, updating statuses and texting until the very last second, when they handed over what has become our modern ball and chain.  

Inside the club were three large rooms of analog entertainment — from live music to a Polaroid-like photo booth to art projects. The event was well over capacity with 750 guests.

I consider my reliance on my cellphone to be “moderate” on the technology spectrum, but it takes being out of range for me to actually power it off. If I have zero bars of service or I’m spending Shabbat with observant friends, I don’t have any qualms about putting it away, and I actually don’t miss it.

But the voluntary handover is a different story. I felt anxiety set in as I waited in line to turn in my tethered appendage and driver’s license in exchange for a coat check tag.

In addition to no technology, there was to be no networking, and guests were to assume an alias or a nickname for the evening (which you wrote on your adhesive nametag).

The event was co-sponsored by Camp Grounded, which hosts summer camps for adults near Mendocino. From its website: “Trade in your computer, cellphone, Instagrams, clocks, schedules and work-jargon for an off-the-grid weekend of pure unadulterated fun.”

“[The] idea of Shabbat is really important,” Levi Felix, co-founder of Camp Grounded told me. “We miss it in today’s 14-hour screen day. When do you have time to slow down?”

The second annual Unplug San Francisco event — which required an online RSVP, wink, wink — was sponsored in part by Keshet, Reboot and the Jim Joseph Foundation. Keshet and Reboot are national Jewish organizations with San Francisco offices, and the Jim Joseph Foundation is devoted to funding and supporting Jewish education for youth and young adults.

The event was publicized all over social media and drew a big crowd, primarily from the under-40 demographic.

And while many participants reached instinctually for their phones to Instagram the event, people were actually looking at each other, and talking.

(The line at the bar may be some indication that booze helped ease the social anxiety of those without their mobile devices.)

I don’t know the last time I waited in line to paint rocks, but arts and crafts tables were crowded and there was a long queue to type letters on typewriters (although many had no idea how to feed paper into the machine).

After turning in my phone, it was liberating not to be tethered to it. When it’s available, I find it nearly impossible to bar myself from constantly checking email and browsing social media. 

As a cultural Jew, I don’t unplug on the Sabbath, but I can easily get on board with the idea of spending the day with family, friends and community, and stepping away from technology in order to do that.

I recently saw posted on a friend’s refrigerator the Sabbath Manifesto — a list of 10 principles, or a “provisional guide” to help people slow down for a day of rest in an increasingly hectic world. Among them: avoid technology, give back and connect with loved ones.

Some might argue that apps like Skype and social media like Twitter actually do help keep us connected. Is that true? Or do they pull individuals into seclusion?

Felix says that in our world of constantly editing and tweeting, people are losing a sense of spontaneity. Thus, events like digital detoxes are a good way to celebrate being present.

While I probably need a good reminder of my own cellphone use, we could all use a little break from excessive tech reliance once in a while. And while I am far from being able to put away my mobile phone for long periods of time, I am trying to be cognizant of what’s going on around me — and not get sucked into #CellPhoneOblivion.

Abra Cohen is a reporter and can be reached at


Abra Cohen