Category Archives: Technology

Go Jew Go

Rosh HaShanah Morning 5771

Scott A. Gurdin, Rabbi

Temple Sinai

Newport News, Virginia

Thur. Morning, September 9, 2010

“Go Jew Go”

Vuvuzelas & Shofarot:  There Are Apps for Those


I have entitled this part of our Rosh HaShanah sermon:  “There is an App for that.”

“There is an App for that” is a trademarked advertising tag-line first used in Apple’s iPhone commercials.  Although one would need to have been living on the Planet Zorcon in order to have not heard this expression before, I quite understand that some of you may not really know what it actually means. Particularly, if you don’t use a so-called “smart phone” or an iPod Touch.

“App” is a contraction for the phrase Application Software.  Application software is a computer program that helps a user to perform specific tasks.   In practical terms, an application on a smart phone will enable a person to play a game, do something clever, or venture onto the World Wide Web in a particular way.

I want to begin this sermon, by playing an audio app.  So, I am playing this app on my own iPod Touch.

[Play Vuvuzela App]

Do you recognize that sound?  If you watched any part of the hugely popular World Cup soccer tournament this past summer, you could not escape it.  Yes, it was one of those blasted horns.

The horns are called vuvuzelas.  And there is an App for that.

In preparation for this particular moment, I actually did some exhaustive research to learn more about the vuvuzela.

Some highlights of what I discovered:

A vuvuzela is a plastic blowing horn, just over 2 feet in length.  It produces a loud, distinctive monotone note.

The origins of the vuvuzela are South African.  Traditionally made and inspired from a kudu horn, the vuvuzela was used to summon distant villagers to attend community gatherings.

Nowadays, the vuvuzela is used almost exclusively at soccer matches.  The plastic versions of the vuvuzela go back, at most, to the 1970’s, but really the ones most folks are familiar with have been popularized just in the last few years.

The blowing of vuvuzelas at soccer matches began as a way for fans to demonstrate their excitement and spirit.  In many corners, though, vuvuzelas are viewed as annoying distractions that might very well lead to hearing loss if one is overexposed to their …melodies.

Vuvuzelas have actually already been banned in some places:

For instance:

Yankee Stadium [Commentator and comedian, Peter Sagal has remarked that: [Yes there is]  something [that is] too obnoxious even for Yankees fans.]

(I checked – Vuvuzelas have not been officially banned yet at Fenway Park.)

But they have been banned at:


Ultimate Fighting Championships

Throughout the United Arab Emirates

Most settings where Pope Benedict is appearing

I don’t know if this is a “first,” but I have here, on this Rosh Hashanah – a real vuvuzela.  (Borrowed, incidentally from my wife.)  Yes, this is the genuine article.  Now, I have resolved not to blow the vuvuzela here today.  But, let me say this – if I look out in the congregation during these High Holy Days, and I observe perchance that one from amongst our flock has, say… entered a different realm of consciousness…. Well, please consider this as your notice.

“There is an App for that.”  When I played that vuvuzela sound a few minutes ago, maybe – just maybe – you mistakenly thought – “Hey, that’s a Shofar App.”  By the way, I checked – There are several Apps for that.

But that vuvuzela App – that one really made me think. Not long ago, I performed an experiment. I tested the vuvuzela sound on a number of unsuspecting Jews – and without prompting, most of them mistook the vuvuzela sound for a Shofar.

Granted, the experiment had some built-in biases.  A rabbi was playing a horn-sounding App.  If the App had been played in an athletic context, perhaps the experiment would have turned out differently.  But those were the results of my most unscientific experiment.

Two horns that, in some real respects, sound very much alike.  Each is generally heard in particular circumstances, and usually in the midst of crowds.  Each is quite capable of, say, attracting one’s attention.

But we should not confuse the two horns.  For in truth, they could not be more different!

The vuvuzela is cute and clever.  But, for what?  To announce that the blower is an avid fan of a certain athletic event or team? To annoy the dickens out of anyone who happens to be situated near to blast of the horn?

The intent behind the Shofar blasts, is likewise designed to attract our attention.  But for entirely different reasons.  A Shofar is neither cute nor clever.

Ultimately, the message behind the vuvuzela is, rather trivial.  It says:  “Go Team Go!”

The message associated with the Shofar  — that message is powerfully meaningful.  Soul piercing, in fact.  The message that comes from the call of the Shofar is this:  “Go Jew Go!”

“Go Jew Go!”  Wake up to the heritage you that has been lovingly passed to you.  For our traditions go back, not 40 years, like the vuvuzela – but rather 5,000 years, all the way to Abraham.   Take pride in that long, rich heritage.  Whether you were born as a Jew, or whether you came to Judaism of your own choosing – you now own that legacy.  And frankly, you have a responsibility to take pride in it, and to do it proud.   “Go Jew Go!”  Get moving and take seriously the obligations you have.  In our world, there is far too much injustice, hunger, poverty, gratuitous violence and untreated illness.  “Go Jew Go” – You have a responsibility to start fixing those problems.

“Go Jew Go!”  Hear the call of the Shofar.  Its message is as far from trivial as it could possibly be!

“Go Jew Go!”  The call of the Shofar is also very much an inward command.  It is an inspirational command.  A command to keep clinging to hope, no matter what.

Hear, for a moment, this teaching that comes from Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, a very talented teacher in Princeton, New Jersey:

According to a traditional interpretation, the fact that the sounds [of the shofar calls] are made in different lengths indicates a powerful message…

We start with a full, uninterrupted blast – TEKIAH!  It’s as if the Shofar is saying: “I’m whole!”

Next, we have a three-part blast – SHVARIM – the word literally means “broken.”  The Shofar says to us:  “I was whole, but now I’m broken.”

The third set of blasts is called “TERUAH – a staccato series of short blasts – even more broken than the previous set.  Its message is:  I was broken, and now I’m smashed to pieces.”

The main lesson, however, is that the final blast in each series is a TEKIAH – again.  Another, solid, uninterrupted blast.  You see, the promise of wholeness is there, even though there has been brokenness and destruction.

There are customarily 100 separate blasts that are blown from a Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.  Some are long.  Some are short.  Some seem whole.  Others broken.  And that last blast – that TEKIAH GEDOLAH – that is the longest, most un-interrupted blast of them all.

One hundred times the Shofar brings this message to us:  You were whole once; then you were broken; you may even have been smashed and ground to pieces.  But soon you shall be whole once more.

Now, “Go Jew Go!”

That message is directed at us – It says:  Use this day, and every day, to fix the world.  It also communicates a truth about our internal spiritual lives.  For we seem to exist in a continual loop that transitions from wholeness to brokenness, and then, we pray, back to wholeness.

“Go Jew Go!”

I would like to finish this morning’s message by sharing with you a story.  I’m not sure whether the story is true.  That almost doesn’t matter.  There are several versions of the story.  The version I am going to tell you, I have adapted from Rabbi Stephen Pearce, a brilliant, creative, trailblazing rabbi at Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco.

Just a little over five hundred years ago, the Spanish Inquisition was raging, Torquemada, the grand inquisitor, was rounding up hundreds of Jews and burning their bodies in order to save their souls.  Many Jews continued their Jewish practices in secret, in closed rooms, and in damp cellars.  Though they longed to be in the synagogue to hear the somber blasts of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah… they knew that it would be impossible because the agents of the hated Torquemada were everywhere, and any display of Jewish custom or ritual could betray family and friends.  The Jews of 1492 Spain knew that they could not fulfill the sacred commandment to hear the Shofar.

But then a rumor began to spread in the street:  “Shhh, keep it to yourself.”  It was in the city of Barcelona that word began to spread of a special concert to be given to Spanish royalty and church officials.  Jews bristled at the thought of spending Rosh Hashanah eve, one of the most sacred days of the year, in the Royal Concert Hall, but it was also an opportunity to pretend to their tormentors that no ties remained to the despised religion, Judaism.

And undercurrent, a whisper went around, “Just go, you won’t be sorry.”  The hall was filled to capacity and there were huge crowds outside.  Spanish royalty believed that the full house was due to the prominence of the composer, Don Fernando Aguilar.  Don Fernando, himself a secret Jew, had announced that on Rosh Hashanah eve he would present a concert featuring instrumental music of various peoples.  The compositions were many and the instruments unusual.

Interesting.  At the crescendo of one very moving piece – it was unmistakable, if only to the secret Jews who were present.  But there they were.  Shofar sounds, embedded into the melody of Don Fernando Aguilar’s symphony.  Shofar sounds – Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah – as clear as day, to those who understood, on Rosh Hashanah in Barcelona in 1492.

None of the dignitaries was aware of the significance of what they were hearing.   All the royalty and the leading figures of the inquisition were present – they all heard, and saw, but they understood nothing.  They could not sense the hidden emotion that electrified the air all around them.  Do you wonder why these Jews imperiled their lives to hear this call that we can listen to in this land of freedom?

There have been other times in Jewish history when Jews risked death to hear the sound of the Shofar.  Among the many things that it has come to signify, it is a reminder of the indomitable spirit that struggles to survive all attempts at subjugation and repression.  But there is more to the call of the s\Shofar than just a reminder of the will to survive in a hostile world.

If we listen carefully, the Shofar will speak to us, just as it has spoken to Jews across the span of time, and the bridge of years.  In its voice, you will hear the voice of childhood, the dialogue of youth, the wisdom of adulthood, the judgment and discernment of advanced age.

The Shofar is a call to life.  It is a loud announcement of hope.

“Go Jew Go!”

There is no need to have an App for that!  For, in truth, we are blessed with the real thing.

L’shanah tovah u’metukah teekateivu – May you and those you love be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year.

Our New Technological World



            (Rabbi takes out his cell phone and sounds the Shofar with an App)

The world is changing my friends! It always has and it always will. Rosh Hashanah is known as the birthday of the world and indeed we are coming to realize technologically that we are entering a whole new world, some of us more slowly than others. Though, “new” is often scary, while “old” is comfortable, “new” can also be beneficial. So, the question I raise this Rosh Hashanah morning is how are we to embrace the new technologies of our time and do so as Jews? What values of our tradition can guide us as we navigate this newest of worlds?

We already have a related ritual expression that has evolved in recent years. Prior to services, weddings and funerals we remind everyone to turn off or minimally silence phones. (Yes, you can check now if you forgot earlier.) Yet even with the announcement, there is always one that undoubtedly rings at the most inopportune moment, invariably during the silent prayer. Please note that I do understand when accidents happen. On one occasion I was conducting the Bedecken ceremony prior to a wedding, when my phone rang. I thought it was off, but I had obviously not held the button down long enough … oops! Another time, I had definitely turned my phone onto silent mode, while conducting a worship service at the New Orleans Jewish Day School. What I did not realize was that while it silenced incoming calls, it did not silence the daily morning alarm I had set.

These being the Days of Awe, I can honestly say that I am in awe of the advances from which we all can benefit. Just when I start to feel comfortable with computers, along come these absolutely amazing hand held devices. For many of us, what we remember as science fiction is now reality. During my time away this summer: if I wanted to know the weather- check my phone; Need directions-GPS; Someone seeks me- they just call or e-mail (except when I am in a dead zone); looking for a local restaurant on the highway, that is not fast food- use the I-pad; E-mail Communication with the office, friends or family- check my phone; when bored- there are games to play either by myself or with someone far away; want to share our whale watching moment? …click a picture and send. Truly we are all blessed by the constantly amazing and evolving opportunities available to us through technology. Reb Nachman taught that the world is a very narrow bridge, but the essence of life is not to be afraid. So to those who are hesitant to make the leap into the world of the 21st century, “Lo l’fached- do not be afraid.”

Let us embrace the world, but do so wisely. Last year there were reports around the country during the High Holy Days that Jews in the pews were texting. Can you imagine? Certainly not at Gates of Prayer! Let me paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to text and a time to refrain from texting.” While we pride ourselves in the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, we sometimes do ourselves a disservice. For prayer to be meaningful, we teach the idea of Kavanah, directing oneself, being focused on the task at hand.

Prayer is challenging enough without the distraction of messages from your friend in the back row, or checking the score or simply the usual chit chat from someone who does not realize that you are engaged in sacred time.

When teaching college students at Loyola, it is frustrating, even insulting when I see the phone out or notice that the computer is on, but not for taking notes during my lectures. I know of some instructors who do not allow computers to be used for taking notes as a result. This sort of behavior is rude to the instructor or any presenter in a variety of situations, but you are also doing yourself a disservice.

Many consider multi-tasking to be a great skill, but often it can be detrimental and may in fact be impossible. Edward Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, is quoted as saying, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself… Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone at the same time. Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time.” What we do, neuroscientists tell us, is shift our focus from one thing to another and back again – to be sure, with remarkable speed – but shifting nonetheless, and losing both time and focus in the process.”

The term that describes what we are actually doing is “Continuous Partial Attention” (coined by Linda Stone in 1998). It works when one of our tasks is fairly mindless (e.g. folding laundry), but not when both activities require thoughtful attention or the same brain function.

Trying to perform more than one task is certainly not new. How many of us have said, “I can watch TV, listen to my music or the radio and still… (Fill in the blank).. do my homework, write letters, balance the checkbook, prepare my brief or report.” I can remember being one of those teens, when life was low-tech. On one occasion my 9th grade English teacher returned my paper on Shakespeare with two words circled in red: “Reingold Beer” I had been listening to the Mets baseball game while writing and guess who was their sponsor?

Warning: technological multi-tasking can be a matter of Pikuach nefesh, preservation of life, both yours and others. I watch men and women driving, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other actively engaged on the phone in conversation, children in the back seat, making wide left turns in busy intersections.

What can they be thinking? Even with hands free devices, we are easily distracted. Driving is not a mindless activity.

This past semester I had a student who missed class for a week. With a degree of embarrassment she shared that she had suffered a concussion by walking on campus and talking on her phone, as she collided with a tree. Walking is also not a mindless activity. We all need to use better judgment as to when we use our technology and when we refrain.

Warning: technological multi-tasking may be a danger to “shalom mishpacha-family harmony.” A typical family scene from the 1970s might include everyone sitting in the family room. Television is on. Dad is reading the paper. Mom has a book. One child is engrossed in whatever is on the screen, while the other is listening to a walk-man.

A typical scene from today has the television still on, just that now it is bigger and flatter.

One family member is plugged into an I-pod, another is reading from a Kindle and another has the computer open monitoring the mundane details in the lives of hundreds of people. We call this “quality time,” when it is of course far from it. Today we simply have more choices of how we can isolate ourselves from one another.

I am not calling upon us to shun technology, far from it, just use it more judiciously. One congregant experimented with Shabbat as a day to break away from electronics, not out of the traditional sense, but for the sake of relationships. She was delighted with the result. I’m not advocating for even that radical a concept. Rather, I want to raise the awareness that we have the ultimate control.

Many will argue, “What I do is up to me.” And Judaism agrees, “If I’m not for myself who will be?” But then our teaching continues to remind us that we are not in this world alone- “If I am only for myself, what am I?” What we do touches others. Come Yom Kippur, we will confess our sins in the plural, because we are all linked. Using your device in the synagogue, movies, theater, restaurant or other venues may diminish your experience. That is your choice, but it also impacts those around you. (My wife is self-deputized as part of the cell phone police at Elmwood and Clearview Theaters. Watch out!) Within Judaism, there is a concept of Kibud hatsibur, honoring the public, recognizing their rights. No one wants your light in their eyes in a darkened theater or hear your personal conversations. Many of you will recall the story of the man who adamantly defends his prerogative to drill a hole in the boat under his seat. We are all in this same boat together and must respect the rights of others.

As Jews we have a deep respect for words. With e-mail, blogs and all the social media Facebook, Twitter, and whatever comes next, we increase the venues to interact with others. Friends from long ago are reunited. Distant family members are now connected. Potential business assets are linked. We are able to respond caringly when someone is hurting or celebrating. These are new wonderful tools for our modern age, but let us use them wisely. Our words heal and help, but they can also wound and inflict pain. Simply because something is in our heads does not require that it be replicated on our screens. Reflect before making a comment or responding.

All of us are familiar with people who find themselves in either interpersonal or even legal trouble because of messages they send, sites they visit, choices they made.

From this past year’s headlines we can recall a Congressman, who we shall call a Hebrew National, who did not answer to a higher authority. Just because we can write it does not mean we should send it. Whereas once we spoke of life and death being in the power of the tongue, now we must include the idea that it is at our fingertips.

There are those who use new technology as a shield, a way to avoid more direct, potentially uncomfortable communications. Sending an e-mail, a tweet or a message on Facebook might be the coward’s way to express a difficult message: “you’re fired!” “I don’t want to see you anymore.”- a 21st century ‘Dear John’ letter, “I’m sorry for X, Y or Z.…  However, before you do so, ask yourself the simple question, based upon Rabbi Hillel’s teaching, “that which is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Would you want to receive this kind of message electronically or would the more decent communication be face to face, or at least verbal? Let us use our new tools wisely, with discretion and compassion.

We Jews cherish knowledge and learning. Our potential awareness of the world and world events has also now expanded exponentially. It is difficult to accept the idea that books may be a thing of the past. College students can go four years without entering a library, since information is digitized. There is so much good material out there, but we have to be discerning of sources. We are discovering more and more how messages are manipulated, with such items as unbiased product reviews being anything but. I regularly call upon Rabbi Google with questions, but carefully screen the sites to which I am sent. The internet provides a wealth of information on all topics, by which we can learn and grow, but we need to be cautious.

And technology is impacting world events, hopefully for the good. All agree that the so-called Arab Spring was fueled by the ability of young people to communicate. Regimes cannot hide their oppression, since we instantly learn of their deeds from eye witnesses and view their acts on You Tube. Even local news is influenced. Everyone is a potential reporter with camera in hand. Our world, how we learn about it, how we interact with it, is now very different.

And what of our Jewish world? One of my colleagues recently looked into his crystal ball and envisioned worship services not from books, but from i-prays; We might all be sitting together or in our homes, but with individual earphones. We can pre-select which melodies we want to hear, the sermon topic we want addressed and of course how long we want to be sitting. Learning opportunities can expand with holographic re-creations of the past where you can go on rounds with Maimonides, eat a meal in Abraham and Sarah’s tent or study with Rashi.

Here at Gates of Prayer we are doing our best to keep up. Our old style bulletin is still printed, but most receive it on line, along with the weekly e-newsletter. You can also find us on twitter and Facebook. (You should know I’m not great on that venue yet.)

Still more and more are using it for learning about us and responding to invitations. We have conducted a number of virtual services without siddurim, but projecting the words. Our web page has been updated and is much more informative and user friendly. We are also experimenting with “live-streaming” our services including at this very moment, not to give you an excuse to stay home, but for those unable to be here. Soon we will be exploring new forms of interactive learning.

Technology presents us with opportunities and challenges, blessing and curse in religious language. In a moment we will hear the shofar, for real. An i-phone app may be fun, but does not fulfill the mitzvah. Later, we will wish each other l’shanah tovah tikotevu, may it be a good year and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.

We have always taught that what we do, write and say goes on this metaphorical record. Now we can add, what we send, tweet and post. May we lead our lives in this new world according to our highest Jewish values.



I am appreciative of the insights of Rabbis Richard Levy and Ed Goldberg, who assisted me in the creation of this sermon, also the insights of Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, gained from my rabbinic listserve and Rabbi Avi Schulman in his article on the Future of Jewish Life 2111 in the Spring 2011 Journal of Reform Judaism.