Mia Szarvas
A Jewish American living in Germany

Shabbat as a way to cope with the pandemic

Many of us are living our lives online to stay connected to others; Shabbat provides the opportunity to take a digital break and reconnect with ourselves
A shabbat table with Challah

Growing up in an interfaith American household with a secular Israeli father, Shabbat was something that came once in a while, not every week. Now and then, my parents and I would cram into my mother’s dusty, green, early 2000s Prius that she’d won in a radio drive, and make the small trip to our family friend’s house. We’d gather with our small Jewish group — a cobble of liberal American Jews, converts, ethnically Jewish Atheists, a few defected Sabras and their offspring. We’d light the Shabbat candles, sing our prayers together, break bread, and feast. Shabbat was something joyful and special, but it was rare and only lasted an evening. Shabbat was an event for me, not a routine. 

I remember getting lost in those meals. I felt safe, surrounded by a group who had become my adopted family since we had moved so far away from my real family. My mother’s family on the other side of the continent, my father’s family even further — on the other side of the Atlantic. I got lost in the song, the candlelight, the tradition. The full feeling in my stomach and my heart felt like an escape from the world. It was a break from life — from the politics of the school, from the pressures of growing up. For one evening, every few months, my world stood still, and I was allowed to just be. Somewhere I belonged. And that was all. 

As I grew up, the internet was growing up around me. As a millennial born in the early 90s, I truly came of age alongside our current technological reality. In middle school I received my first flip phone — message limits and charms intact. I graduated from Myspace (middle school), to Facebook (high school). I slowly spent more of my time “on-line”, tethered to a world that was not directly in front of me. When in college I purchased a smartphone, I didn’t yet know that carrying the internet in my pocket would sometimes feel so heavy; that it might often prevent me from finding a peaceful moment for myself.

As the internet was coming of age and finding its identity in the predominance of social media, I was also having a coming of age experience. My smartphone accompanied me to many an event at Hillel — the Jewish Student Center. There I discovered a deep and enduring connection to my Jewish heritage and my own Jewish identity. My Jewish community expanded out from a few friends to an entire village. At a large college like the one I attended, it could be easy to feel lost, isolated, and disconnected — but my Jewish community made me feel safe and like I belonged. Eventually, I began the tradition of attending Hillel’s Shabbat dinner every week, and I was glad that this feeling of safety and joy now came every week. I took Saturday mornings off from the constant grind of academic achievement. Through Shabbat, I carved out a time to be with my friends, my surroundings, and myself.

While my connection to Jewish identity and community grew, the world’s connectedness via online communication and interaction was growing rapidly as well. It had become not only a tool, but often a necessity to fully function as a college student, and at some points, an addiction, at others, a chore. 

I am not a detractor of our virtual lives. I see the bountiful opportunities the internet in our pockets brings. After college, I met my husband while traveling. We maintained an online, long-distance relationship for years until I moved to Germany to be with him. Now I use the internet to maintain my relationships with my family and friends back home. I have worked remotely for years. I am a software engineer. Much of my continued connection to the Jewish community has been through access to events, services, and friends online in a country and city where Jewish life is exceedingly rare and inaccessible. “On-line” life is why I am lucky enough to have a  job — a safe one, which I can do from home. During the COVID crisis, it is thanks to this ever-connected, online world, that I am still connected to others in any way. 

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Yet this feeling of connectedness, the beauty of never being alone, can sometimes become exhausting. We are connected, but we are also tethered. We are expected to be always reachable. Inner peace is always one notification away from disruption. Deep thoughts can always be pushed away by the distraction of a refreshing news feed. Creativity can be stifled by obligations perceived in social media feeds, requests from friends, endless surfing.

In a time when I am especially grateful to have the internet at my fingertips, to be able to call my far-off loved ones, to work from home… I have found that I need Shabbat now, more than ever. A time to unplug, to reset. A time to tend to my inner life. One day a week is for me, only me, and myself. A day where I turn off my phone. I cannot Zoom, “catch up” on emails, make plans or do anyone a favor. I don’t write, I do not “produce”. I cut my tether and unplug from the virtual world. I wake up on Saturday mornings and I know I can do anything I want. I can stay in bed. I can go on a walk. Cook my favorite meal, read a book. Or do nothing. There is no obligation from today. Today, I don’t work, I rest. Today is Shabbat.

Having one day off a week, where I am truly disconnected from “the world”, makes me feel so much more connected to the physical world around me and to myself. When I light the Shabbat candles Friday night, even in isolation, I am close to the loved ones who have lit candles with me throughout the many Shabbats of my life. Shabbat brings a peace I first felt all those years ago, and not felt since I lost the tradition after moving to Germany years ago.

Reconnecting with Shabbat, in my own way, has been one of the best tools I have found for coping with this global pandemic. This pandemic in which, ironically, while we are completely alone physically, we are never allowed to be alone with our thoughts — work has moved into our living rooms, kids never leave the house for school, and friends exist at our fingertips. Moving Shabbat from an event to a tradition in my life has allowed me to bring the joy of mental rest into my home, like a mini-vacation in a time where we cannot travel, every single week.

Learning to take a technological break is yet another manifestation of the simultaneous maturation of the internet and me. Now, more than ever, when my entire life is lived online, I need one day each week to reset, to breathe, to remember that my life is not only lived in my head and for others, but is also lived in this world, and for me. 

About the Author
Mia Szarvas was born in Vermont, USA to an Israeli father and Italian-American mother, raised in California, and currently lives in Bremen, Germany. Her grandmother escaped from Poland in August of 1939 with her parents and sister, with whom she set up a new life in Palestine, while the family they left behind perished in the Holocaust. Mia has a degree in Political Ecology from the University of California, Berkeley, holds an M.B.A., and works in tech as a software engineer to create empowerment in unexpected places. She is curious about multiculturalism, languages, feminism, and how our intertwined histories inform the present.
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