by Lauren Biletsky

Cell phones and services: It’s often frowned upon when someone takes out their cell phone during services. Why? Well, let’s go back to the question of “Why?” Why what? Why are cell phones being taken out? Why is it frowned upon? And what are we doing on our cell phones? We’re using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and text messaging, of course! How disrespectful! But… is it? Does it have to be?

Do cell phones, social networks, and applications necessarily need to be frowned upon when in the sanctuary? Many people will immediately say yes. But me? I’m one of those people who occasionally takes out my cell phone during services. I use my cell phone to document things I feel are special during services, things other people should be able to see or to read – and yes, I then typically post it on a social networking site.

As a youth director actively involved in the campaign for Youth Engagement, I am constantly looking for ways to engage our youth. When I think about the word engagement, the word “connection” always comes to mind. As youth professionals, we try to help build connections between teens, connections between professionals and teens, and ultimately connections between teens and their temple.

When my youth group’s board discusses religious and cultural components in programming, they try to find ways to incorporate those components in a “cool” way that is relatable to our members and potential members. While attending the Youth Engagement Conference, I chose the Worship Lab as one of my electives. We were  told we would be writing and executing a thematic service for NFTY Convention participants that we would run with NFTYites on Monday.  How exciting! What a great opportunity! I knew immediately what kind of service I would be writing: This service would incorporate technology into T’fillah, and cell phones, applications, texts, and social networking would be encouraged.

In just one short day, with only a few hours to write and design this program, we had created a service we called “Tweets, Texts, and T’fillah.” My fellow youth professionals and I looked forward to leading this experimental service, but we wondered: Would the teens enjoy our service? How would our fellow youth professionals react to this untraditional service? Would the teens be engaged? Would we be able to maintain an environment suitable for worship?

On Monday morning, more than 90 teens and adults filled our service, eager to begin this worship experience. The service began with our songleaders, Leo Henkin and Danni Sontag , leading us in an uplifting Hine Matov. As we sang, swayed, and held hands, the teens were encouraged to take photographs with their friends that would be shown on the screens in front of the room. Of course, we all know we can never completely rely on technology. Just as we were to begin showing the photos, the Internet connection went down. My group immediately thought the teens would disengage themselves, but the complete opposite had happened: Our songleaders kept on playing, the teens continued singing and swaying, and the service went on!

Eventually, the Internet came back to life, and the service went on as planned. I’d like to think the Internet glitch was a bit of a test for our teens. Were our teens able to maintain an environment suitable for worship? Would they remain engaged even when encouraged to use their cell phones? Well, from my point of view, they could and they did!

yec-badge The service ended with a feedback session in which the teens and adults alike had great ideas and provided excellent feedback. Many will be bringing the ideas back to their home congregations.

As we continue on this long journey of youth engagement, I encourage you all to think outside the box. Be untraditional! Experiment and continuously tweak… and tweet!

Lauren Biletsky is the youth director at Congregation Kol Tikvah in Parkland, FL.