Can you go screen-free for 30 minutes?  That’s the challenge many Jews around the world are taking on this Hanukkah.  

With so many families making an effort to come together during the eight nights of Hanukkah, lighting the menorah is a great time to encourage everyone to ditch their electronics and focus on each other instead. Hanukkah is a particularly appropriate time to go screen-free: Hanukkah candles are meant to burn for a minimum of 30 minutes and during that time we are meant to enjoy their beauty, not using their light for any mundane tasks.  

It’s also customary for Jewish women to even take this a step further, enjoying the half hour that candles burn as a time of relaxation and fun, and refraining from working while the Hanukkah lights cast their special glow.  Traditionally, Jews have regarded the period that Hanukkah lights are burning as a very special time. Turning off our electronics can make it even more noteworthy.

The 30 Minute Screen Free Hanukkah Challenge began in Chicago in 2016.  Rabbi Eric Goldman came up with the idea as a way to capitalize on the fact that families and friends often light Hanukkah lights together. “If we can focus on these 30 minutes, when families are coming together to light the candles, then we can use it as a springboard to figuring out ways to spend more time together and not on our devices,” Rabbi Goldman explains.

Recent research backs this up.  People who spend the most time online using social media seem to be the most unhappy and isolated.  One 2017 University of Pittsburgh study found that young adults who spend more than two hours a day online said they felt isolated and lonely fully twice as much as those who spend a half hour or less on social media.  A 2016 study in Britain found that 20% of people report feeling depressed after socializing with friends via social media instead of face to face.

Engaging with other people without the distractions of electronics can result in closer feelings and greater levels of well-being and happiness. Studies find that the happiest teenagers seem to be those who spend time on a range of non-electronic activities, including sports, attending religious services, and non-electronic hobbies and even homework.

In 2017, Jewish organizations across the U.S. and beyond picked up on the 30 Minute Screen-Free Hanukkah Challenge and started spreading the word. This year communities in the United States and Mexico have pledged to go screen free and 2018 promises to be the biggest year of the Challenge yet.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” explains Rabbi Nechemia Gottlieb who has promoted the idea.  Families can use these 30 minutes for any purpose: from playing family games to talking to studying Jewish texts. .

This Hanukkah, I am pledging to go screen-free for 30 minutes each night as our Hanukkah candles burn. We’re going to talk and connect, enjoy latkes and doughnuts and a game of dreidel without the distractions of phones or other electronics.

Join me – and let me know about your experiences in the comments section below!