Smartphone apps can help with everything from putting on tefillin correctly to finding a minyan to locating a kosher restaurant. Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

These 7 smartphone apps make life easier for religious Jews


These days there are smartphone applications for pretty much anything, from ordering food to finding a date to reporting anti-Semitic incidents.

But what about tools for living a religious Jewish life? Well, there are apps for that, too.

Whereas in the time before smartphones, observant Jews may have had to ask their rabbis certain questions or — gasp! — read a book, now there are apps available that can help with everything from putting on tefillin correctly to finding the nearest kosher eatery.

Here are seven useful downloads for those who lead — or wish to lead — a more observant Jewish life.

Tefillin Mirror: The rules regarding how to put on tefillin can be confusing — for example, the head phylactery has to line up in the middle of the wearer’s forehead and it also has to stay above the hairline. This app functions as a mirror with three vertical lines that help the user properly align the tefillin.

Minyan Now: Time to pray but can’t find a synagogue? This app alerts Jews that someone nearby is looking for a minyan (the quorum of 10 people required to say certain prayers). Users can chat to coordinate a meeting place as they wait for 10 people — men in this case, as the app follows Orthodox customs — to respond.

Shabbat & Holiday Times: Need to know when to light the Shabbat or holiday candles? This app shows the start and end times of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Users can enter any location in the world or allow the app to access their phone’s location for accurate times.

Kosher Near Me: This app is perfect for travelers or anyone looking to explore new kosher options closer to home. Users can peruse kosher food selections — restaurants, grocery stores and takeout — around the world, including in the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, France, Ecuador, Gibraltar and South Korea. Listings also include reviews written by users.

Smart Siddur: The days of schlepping around prayer books are long gone thanks to this app. This high-tech siddur features the three daily prayers and services for various Jewish holidays in a clean, easy-to-read interface. It syncs with the Jewish calendar, displaying holiday-specific prayers on the appropriate days so users need not worry about forgetting any special liturgy.

Sefaria: Now it’s easy to study Jewish texts on the go. Sefaria, which was created by the website of the same name, offers a library of works, including the Torah, Talmud and Midrash, as well as Kabbalah, philosophy and a multitude of commentaries. Texts are available in Hebrew and English, and users can search the entire library for specific words or phrases.

@TheKotel: Jews from around the world visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem to pray. With this app, users can leave a prayer at the holy site without having to leave their homes. Electronically sent prayers are printed out and placed in crevices at the holy site, as is the custom.

Apple’s Siri technology to be offered in Hebrew


Apple’s voice-activated assistant technology, which is offered in 18 languages, will be offered in Hebrew.

Siri, which stands for Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface, will be able to speak Hebrew next month in the next version of Apple’s mobile operating system, Ynet reported Tuesday.

The beta version of the Hebrew Siri will not allow for searching of restaurants, movie theaters and other local destinations, the Times of Israel reported.

Siri is only currently available in various dialects of English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, Turkish, Thai and Portuguese.

The technology, which responds to a variety of vocal requests, is available only on Apple devices.

How to take better photos with your smartphone


Here’s a question for you: At a gathering with friends when you want to take a photograph, do you reach for a digital camera or your phone? According to David Hume Kennerly, author of “On the iPhone: Secrets and Tips From a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographer,” “The best camera is the one you have with you.” And that camera is more than likely the one on your smartphone. 

With more than 1.8 billion photos uploaded every day on social media sites, most of them taken on smartphones, we’re a generation that obviously loves to take pictures. But as you’ve probably noticed from your Facebook newsfeed, most of these photos could use some improvement. Here, then, are some simple tips for taking better photos on your smartphone, or even your tablet. Best of all, they won’t require you to use any fancy apps or add-on lenses. You already have everything you need in the palm of your hand.

Use the “rule of thirds”

Using the “rule of thirds,” this photo, taken with an iPhone, is composed with the foreground on the bottom third, and my dog Gershwin’s face at the intersection of a horizontal and vertical line. iPhone photo by Jonathan Fong

When composing a shot, resist the tendency to position your subject smack dab in the middle. Photographers and other visual artists use the “rule of thirds,” in which the subject is off center to provide more balance and visual interest. To apply this guideline, imagine the photo divided into thirds horizontally and vertically, so that the two vertical lines intersect the two horizontal lines. Then, place the subject of the photo along one of these lines, or at the intersection of the lines. To more easily apply this rule, turn on the grid function of your smartphone’s camera, and those lines will appear on your viewfinder. Just go to your camera’s settings to enable the grid.

Get closer

One of Kennerly’s tips is to get closer to your subjects. A big advantage of a smartphone is that its size makes it easier to shoot at close range without being intrusive. If you’re photographing children or pets, kneel down to their level. I often do this when taking photos of my dogs. The shots look so much more compelling when they’re taken at eye level.

Turn off the flash

The flash is not your friend. A smartphone camera’s built-in flash gives people washed-out, yellow skin tones and red eyes, like they’re extras in “Children of the Corn.” Disable the flash and rely on available light. When you look for light, you’ll be surprised how many interesting sources you’ll find. As Kennerly notes, “It can be fireworks over the Washington Monument or a shard of light funneling through a hole in the wall onto the face of a sleeping child. The possibilities remain endless.”

Use AE/AF lock

The AE/AF lock can be helpful in difficult lighting situations. iPhone photo by Sara Budisantoso

If you’ve ever taken a photograph where there is high contrast in lighting (e.g., part of the shot is in the shadows, and part of it is in bright sunlight), you know it’s a challenge to get the right exposure and focus. Frequently, your subject will be completely in the dark while the rest of the photo is washed out. The AE/AF lock solves this problem. Just place your finger on the screen where the lighting is good, hold it there until the AE/AF indicator goes on, and then move the camera to your desired subject. The photo maintains the good lighting conditions that you locked in. 

Use HDR

HDR improves the range of exposure in high-contrast situations for more even lighting. iPhone photo by Lynn Pelkey

Another smartphone function to improve uneven lighting conditions is HDR. You may have noticed the letters “HDR” on the camera screen but weren’t sure what they meant. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. When you turn on HDR, your camera takes three photos at different exposures, and then highlights the best of each photo, combining the three into one HDR photo. HDR works really well for landscape shots in which the sky is much brighter than the land, or for portrait shots in bright sunlight, which can cause harsh shadows on the face. HDR evens out the lighting so everything looks better.

Be square

There’s just something about the square format that makes your photos look more vibrant. For one, it forces you to leave out extraneous elements that don’t fit in the frame. Without these distractions, the eye is immediately drawn to the subject. Black-and-white photos look particularly striking in the square format. And another benefit: Square photos on Facebook are displayed larger than vertical or horizontal ones.

Take candids

Most photos that you take of people will be posed — that’s inevitable. But the more interesting photographs are the ones taken when people are not looking at the camera. Having an unobtrusive smartphone makes this possible. Kennerly advocates, “Photograph your family when they aren’t paying attention to you.” These unguarded moments create a naturalistic honesty in the photographs that can’t be replicated with a posed smile. If you’re in a situation, such as a wedding, at which you and several other photographers are aiming cameras at the same subject, take your photos when the subject is looking at the other photographers instead of at you. You and your smartphone might just capture a more fascinating image than the professional photographer. 

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

Hands-free Sesame smartphone opening worlds for physically disabled


Giora Livne just wanted to buy flowers for his wife.

But for the 65-year-old quadriplegic, who lost all but the smallest movements in his neck in an accident nine years ago, that small act of spousal romance was out of reach.

He was determined to change that.

Livne is the co-founder of Sesame Enable, an Israeli company building what is believed to be the first completely hands-free smartphone. The Sesame Phone is designed for people with spinal cord injuries, ALS, cerebral palsy or other disabilities that hamper the use of hands and arms — a population that has been on the outside looking in at the smartphone revolution.

Three years in the works, the Sesame is a Google Nexus 5 Android smartphone that comes equipped with proprietary head-tracking technology. An advanced computer vision algorithm and the phone’s front-facing camera track user’s head movements and allow them to control a cursor on screen. The cursor is essentially a virtual finger, letting users do what others can with a regular smartphone.

Sesame recently won a Verizon Powerful Answers Award, which came with $1 million in prize money. The company previously received a grant from Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist, which was matched by a private angel investor.

Meanwhile, the company is using the $38,000 it raised from a recent crowdfunding campaign — the Indiegogo video showed Livne using the phone to order flowers for his wife — to donate Sesame phones to people in its target market. At approximately $1,000 per phone, Livne plans to give away about 30 phones to people with disabilities nominated by their peers. The five recipients so far include a former Israeli soldier who was injured in the Entebbe raid of 1976 and a little boy in the United Kingdom with muscular dystrophy.

Prior to the phone’s development, Livne said he was “completely dependent” on people around him. Simple things like making a phone call — no less a private one — were no longer possible, as someone needed to dial, hold the phone and hang up for him.

“My life quality jumped from the Stone Age to the smartphone age,” he said.

Now Livne regularly texts and sends WhatsApp messages to his friends and three children, and the phone has helped ease some of the social isolation experienced by many disabled people, especially the young.

“Disabled people are the largest and loneliest population in the world,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which advocates on behalf of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.

A smartphone is not just a window into the social world; it’s necessary for many lines of work. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that only 17.6 percent of persons  with a disability are employed.

“We live in an age where you have to use technology to compete and function in the workforce, and if that technology isn’t built in a way that allows you to participate, you are essentially frozen out of the workplace,” Ruderman said. “This isn’t just for one individual; we are talking about millions of people around the globe in the same situation.”

Livne came up with the idea for Sesame after seeing a TV demonstration for a game controlled with head movements. With a background in electrical engineering, he immediately recognized the technology’s potential to help him.

“Being [an] engineer, and especially an electrical engineer, I had so much envy for the people who could use the new gadgets, and my engineering mind helped me come up with the idea,” he said.  “When I saw them playing the game with head gestures, it just clicked to me.”

He called up the TV station, which put him in touch with the game’s designer, Oded Ben Dov. Turns out Ben Dov and Livne lived just three blocks from each other.

After meeting with Livne, Ben Dov closed his software house and began working on Sesame.

“Once I met with Giora, my focus switch was pretty immediate, said Ben Dov, who has a background in mobile development and computer vision. “I realized there was a real need.

“With games, you can make 1,000 of them,” he said, shrugging. “But here there was a real use for this technology.”

Ben Dov said the first phones that were ordered via Indiegogo will be shipped in March, and a larger tablet version will be released later this year.

Sesame is just one of many Israeli technology start-ups in a country hailed as the Start-Up Nation. And Ruderman said there is a growing emphasis on creating technology solutions for people with disabilities. Notably, the Israeli company Voiceitt recently developed an application called Talkitt that enables those with motor, speech and language disorders to communicate using their own voice.

Where Sesame differs from Talkitt and the ultra-popular Israeli tech products like Viber and Waze is that it is not an application. Because Sesame’s software controls the whole phone, the company needed to gain something called root access so it could preinstall the technology in its labs and sell the phone touch-free out of the box.

The step is necessary, although one that keeps Sesame’s operational costs high.

“Since our users couldn’t operate a phone before, it’s not really a question of them just downloading an app because they didn’t have a phone to begin with,” Ben Dov said. “The first phone they buy will be the touch-free Sesame Phone.”

It’s an exciting prospect for some like Jacob Williams, a seventh-grader who was in a car accident when he was six weeks old and has been a quadriplegic and on a ventilator ever since.

Michael Dadey, the assistant vice principal at Jacob’s Pennsylvania school, stumbled upon Sesame when researching hands-free devices for Jacob.

“All Jacob has ever talked about to people is being able to use a phone,” Dadey said in an email interview. “Most teens can’t wait to get a driver’s license — Jacob knows that will probably never happen for him — so the next big moment for him in his life is to have his own smartphone.”

For Ben Dov, the prospect of helping change lives has been transformative.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding,” he said. “I have learned so much. … These devices are literally a window into the entire world. We called it Sesame because it indicates our desire to open up worlds for people.”

In fact, the phone turns on with two simple words: Open Sesame.