Are Cell Phones Ever Cool in Shul?

A few weeks ago, I was at a funeral at Mount Sinai in Glendale when, at one of the most emotional moments, a cell phone rang loudly for several minutes, humming a Broadway tune. Attendees fumbled into their handbags and pockets to check if they were the culprit. The cell phone offender was one of the children of the deceased who was receiving a long-distance call from his family. The rabbi paused for a few seconds, looking irritated, and then continued his sermon. The call had interfered with a solemn moment during which silence is essential.

I started to wonder if cell phones had become as common during Jewish rituals as they are at movies and at manicurists.

Cell phone etiquette, particularly in public locations (movie theatres and synagogues among others), is an educational task that has been undertaken by the very companies that produce cell phones. Sprint and Verizon are two of the companies that have hallmarked "cell phone education months" and partnered with movie chains and other outlets to remind people to be cell-polite. What ever happened to common sense? I guess it was too early for Emily Post to have a chapter on cell phones.

Should rabbis run a "no-cell" commercial (sponsored by Manischevitz) like in movies and post big "verboten cell" black/red signs around the synagogue? What will rabbis do during the upcoming Jewish High Holidays to ensure that people can pray in silence and reach non-buzzed introspection.

An Orthodox friend of mine who davens at Chabad in Hancock Park tells me that cell phone interruption is a problem during daily minyans but that the use of cell phones during holidays is strictly prohibited. During daily minyans, he said that the interruptions are frequent. Just this morning, two phones rang on the bimah. But, he is adamant that "those things" don’t happen during Shabbat and the holidays in Orthodox shuls.

"People won’t even call from the bathroom?" I ask.

My Conservative and Reform friends were considerably more liberal in their cell phone plans for the High Holidays. They all agreed that at no time, should a cell be answered or used in services. But, they all admitted that at the various synagogues, people "do forget" and "it happens." There has to be quite a few "exceptions" if this happened at more than 10 shuls in the city. My Reform friends were much more comfortable about calling from the bathroom than my Conservative friends.

"The bathroom? We are not disturbing anyone who is praying. We phone on Shabbat so why shouldn’t we call on the holidays? We need to check on the kids and tell Rosa that we are on our way home to lunch."

They all agreed that vibrate mode was OK and that they would be reluctant to leave their phones in the car. And that cell phones should not be confiscated during the security check. What if there is an emergency?

And, as you think of emergency, your mind drifts toward Jewish doctors. I mean could there be an emergency when so many of them are in the sanctuary at once. Beyond doctors, everyone else should turn off their cell phones before entering the sanctuary. A Conservative usher believes that even vibrate can be disturbing as some vibes are louder than others. A doctor can place his cell on vibrate. However, most doctors carry a pager (again on vibrate) and the pager is only used to contact them in case of an emergency. They usually can go out to the street to return the call. However, most Jewish doctors are not on call during the High Holidays and, therefore, are only contacted in extreme emergencies.

Rabbis agree that the biggest cell phone culprits in synagogue are teens and children who are either bored or unaware of customs. Many L.A. bambini seem to have their own cell phones and do not seem to know the difference between a regular day and a High Holiday. It is important for parents to discuss the decorum of the holiday and being in a public place and the use of the cell phone.

All the rabbis I spoke to did say that they felt that it was essential to have a clear posted sign on cell phone use and to remind people from the pulpit several times during the day to turn off their cells.

So I keep my fingers crossed that this year, as I attempt to go into deep prayer there will not be a Broadway tune or "Hava Nagila" chanting in the background. The High Holidays are a time of reflection. Being quite liberal, I will not be critical if in the bathroom, I do hear someone talking about what is for lunch.

So unless, you are waiting for a direct call from God, there should be no phones in the synagogue.